LSU Campaign Retreats to its "Safe Space"

Ashley Thorne

This month is Gay-Lesbian-Bixexual-Transgendered History Month, and tomorrow, October 11 is National Coming Out Day. This seems an appropriate moment to reflect on “safe spaces.”

If you wander the corridors where faculty members have their offices these days, you are likely to come across some offices that have a “safe space” sticker on the door. The device indicates that the faculty member—in Wikipedia’s words—“does not tolerate anti-LGBT violence and harassment and is open and accepting” of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered students. The movement to create “safe spaces” is not limited to college campuses, nor is the term the exclusive property of LGBT identity movement. Shelters for battered women use it, feminists use it, and all sorts of advocacy groups have adopted it. There are safe spaces for teenage Ugandan girls to raise chickens and Mayan girls to develop self-esteem

Some of the initiatives deal with situations in which people are at genuine risk of bodily harm. But the term “safe space” on American campuses almost always refers, as Wikipedia notes, to offering security to LGBT students—or more generally, LGBT individuals. And this gives some pause, since college campuses on the whole are not especially dangerous places for LGBTers. Moreover, faculty members in general are not a conspicuous source of “violence and harassment” towards sexual minorities. 

So we are confronted with a puzzle: Why is there a widespread campus movement to certify some faculty members as provisioners of safe space for LGBT students?   Perhaps it isn’t that much of a puzzle. American higher education has so saturated itself in identity politics that we are thoroughly used to symbolic gestures masquerading as practical or even necessary steps to protect people from imaginary dangers. Presumably what is really going on in the “safe space” movement on campus is an effort to draw a bright line between those faculty members who wholeheartedly endorse the ideological agenda of the gay rights movement and those who profess a more traditional live-and-let-live tolerance.  

The intrusions of ideological agendas into campus life are seldom to the advantage of those who actually seek an education. Those agendas insist on their own importance at the expense of open-mindedness and they lead students into a thicket of anti-intellectual passions. In that sense, the rise of the safe space movement is worrisome. But this is all abstract. Let’s consider a particular case.

As it happens, an Argus volunteer, who had begun to see purple triangle stickers around campus, stumbled upon Louisiana State University’s version of Safe Space. The program, which refers to itself as a “campaign,” is directed by the LSU Office of Multicultural Affairs. LSU’s Safe Space (hereafter just “Safe Space”) describes its goal as to “identify and educate individuals who will affirm and support all persons regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.”

Safe Space invites and takes recommendations for certain faculty, staff, and students to be potential Safe Space hosts. If these potential hosts accept the invitation they must attend a three-hour workshop “in which participants are provided with the goals and structure of the Safe Space Campaign, information about the LGBT movement, given the opportunity to ask questions, and explore possible interactions with visitors as a result of their participation in the program.” When they have completed their three-hour tour: participants are asked to sign a pledge that indicates the required level of commitment for becoming a Safe Space Host. Participants are required to sign this pledge as well as attend the workshop in order to gain the status of Safe Space Host. Participants are expected to be at a certain level of support and acceptance for positive LGBT interactions. Participants not at this level are encouraged to postpone their commitment until they reach a higher level of acceptance.

The “certain level of support and acceptance” needed to enter the charmed triangle isn’t spelled out on the website and is a bit mysterious. I have tried to find out by emailing and calling LSU officials, but so far I have received four refusals, five non-answers, and one request that I submit my questions in writing to the program director, who has not yet answered. (I did, however, obtain a copy of a memo to Safe Space Hosts advising them to stonewall. More on that below.) In any case, the notion that only those who attain a “certain level of support and acceptance” should go forward is akin to a standard of religious conversion. Only the humble and devout should proceed. 

Faculty members and staff who attend the required workshop and sign the pledge are awarded Host status, and student hosts are called Allies. Hosts then are given the purple Safe Space sticker to put on their office or dorm room door, signifying a readiness to “affirm” lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) persons.

It would be helpful to have LSU’s own un-packing of the difference between affirming and tolerating a LGBTQ individual. But apparently only those who have been invited to and actually passed the three-hour initiation can be trusted with the secret. I suppose we can guess, but up here in the realm of reason we’d prefer not to. 

The purple badge of courage declares that here is a faculty member (staff, etc.) who will not just refrain from verbal cruelty and physical abuse, but offer shelter to those who live in peril of such attacks from non-stickered faculty members down the hall: “Persons displaying the Safe Space Campaign symbol are committed to combating hatred and discrimination through assistance and support.” Hosts are required to allow their names and contact information to be made publicly available.

Seeking conversations with those involved in Safe Space, I contacted the Office of Multicultural Affairs, along with eight “host” faculty and staff members at LSU. One person, an LSU alumnus who had been trying to help get me contacts, forwarded an email from “Bruce Parker II,” the Safe Space coordinator, who had already refused my interview request. Mr. Parker II asked “Safe Space Hosts, Allies and Friends” that they refer “all requests for interviews or information to our office.”   

The “Hosts” who received Mr. Parker II’s memo might well have thought he intended to answer me on their behalf. He didn’t. 

He also offered an interesting characterization of the NAS as “anti-diversity in its mission” and as having a “hostile mission.” Who? Us? To be clear, NAS is on the record as opposed to racial preferences in higher education. There is nothing in our mission or our policy statements over the 21 year history of NAS that puts us in opposition to diversity in general or to the active participation in higher education of LGBTQ individuals in particular. We are not “hostile” to people, though we are often skeptical of illiberal ideologies and programs based on such ideologies. 

As skeptics, we are part of the thoroughly mainstream and classical tradition of open-minded inquiry, and we believe that any program that aspires to a legitimate place in higher education must similarly embrace the principles of transparency and candor. Nothing alarms us more about the LSU “Safe Space Campaign” than its willful opacity, including Mr. Parker II’s determination not to answer questions from an organization he deems “hostile.” 

So it seems that Safe Space lived up to its name and withdrew, turtle-like, into its shell.

Nationwide, at least 91 colleges and universities sponsor programs like Safe Space. Supported by the Safe Zone Program, they go by names like “Safe Zone,” “Ally Program,” and “Open Door.”


Conservatives have found ways to show how they feel about Safe Space programs. For instance, the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute created the “Conservative Safe Space” sticker. The webpage advertises:

Tired of seeing the flag trampled or not displayed at all on your campus? Sat through too many history classes where your professor rants against Reagan, the war, or America? Had funding pulled from your conservative club because of your philosophy while every leftist group around goes fully funded? Know other students (or professors) who hide their conservative beliefs because they know the harsh treatment they will receive from their peers if “outed”? Well, we created Conservative Safe Space for you!

The LGBT movement on at least one campus pushed its “safe space” rhetoric too far by convincing the college administration to adopt a safe space training manual that stigmatized Christian and other religious objections to homosexuality. Two students at the Georgia Institute of Technology brought charges against Safe Space. The Alliance Defense Fund, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the students, said the program violated freedom of religion. When, in April 2008, the court ruled that the discriminatory provisions in Safe Space’s training manual were unconstitutional, ADF affirmed: “The university’s ‘Safe Space’ program had no business siding with certain religious beliefs while viciously attacking others.  The program openly ridiculed the faith of many students while declaring that people in other religious groups have the ‘correct’ beliefs.” 

The concept of a “safe space” may be useful in the broader world. In places where the rule of law is weak and systems of social protection break down, people need refuge. To apply this logic of emergency intervention to American college campuses, however, is a kind of vanity.  No one is really in need of protection from imminent threats and, if they were, a purple sticker on an office door wouldn’t be of much help. A call to campus security would be a better bet. 

There is a false bravado in “safe spaces” and an insistence on playing the victim in an age and a place where actual victimization has never been less likely. 


Update (10/14/2008):

Chaunda Allen, the director of LSU's Office of Multicultural Affairs who requested that I send her my questions, replied to me today. She wrote an opaque couple of paragraphs, including the unwieldy,

Because hosts serve as sources of information, all students, including those who identify as straight have the opportunity to know that the faculty and staff who are Safe Space Hosts have the most current and up to date information on campus and community resources that can benefit all students.

I assume she was answering my question, "What do hosts do?" Ms. Allen concluded, "There are over 200 hosts at LSU."

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