At the beginning of the summer, I went to my middle school for a Girl Scouts reunion. The school remained exactly as I remembered it (including the stench of hormone-fueled hysteria clinging to the walls), except there were new stickers on the door of many classrooms. Those rooms were designated as “safe spaces” for LGBTQ individuals — meaning that, as a school, these classrooms have a zero-tolerance policy for homophobic and transphobic aggression toward students who identify as LGBTQ. As a queer girl who was called a dyke too often in that very building, I held back a scornful laugh.
In middle school, I learned everything was fair game for merciless gossip, from who you ate lunch with to the length of your pants. There was never a right answer. And worse, I could not exempt myself from critique like I had in the past by keeping things to myself. Criticism came to me without so much as an invitation. You would be pretty if you, like, straightened your hair and wore makeup!
And then I started getting called a dyke by lanky, acne-ridden 13-year-olds wearing malicious smirks. Unbeknown to them, I had already begun to question what was “wrong” with me. To be sure, gossiping about cute boys in my class was a favorite pastime of mine since first grade, but there was more happening beneath the surface. I remember finally bringing my mom’s attention to the gorgeous models in shampoo commercials I fawned over in third grade, and by fifth grade the hot, heavy sensation that would stir within me when I saw bombshell musicians like Christina Aguilera perform in provocative costumes. I thought everyone did.
My devoutly Catholic and Latina mom always shut off the TV or shielded my eyes during the movies when a straight couple would kiss on screen. She would also remind me of how I was going to grow up to marry a good man and have beautiful children like God intended. At 13, I felt like I was going to have to choose between this confusing future and turning into an angry, buzz-cut-sporting lesbian like the ones I saw on TV. I didn’t know what to make of myself, and these stereotypes didn’t help.
I was very hurt by God for giving me a surely damned, defective brain that couldn’t pray away my lust for women on the one hand, while having crushes on boys in class just like “other girls” on the other. I was mortified that people thought I was a lesbian in spite of sharing which boys I had crushes on. My attempt to keep my feelings for girls to myself failed without having said a word.
In middle school, I developed adjustment disorder, or situational depression, which is a short-term disorder that arises when you can’t handle major changes in your life. I felt numb to my core and stayed in bed for entire weekends due to emotional exhaustion, and I never considered letting my parents know about what was happening at school because I felt they would be angry at me deep down, too.
On the last day of seventh grade my favorite teacher pulled me aside into her empty classroom. She hugged me and, out of the blue, said I was strong and courageous. She didn’t say why, but I knew. She was acknowledging the bullying I endured. I thanked her out of respect, but I felt a cold apathy. Her words felt as cheap as the paper these new “safe space” stickers were printed on. She had revealed that she knew I was being bullied but did nothing to stop it. She was expressing her sympathy after being a bystander over something that tore me up inside.
If these new “safe space” stickers had been posted throughout my school six years ago, would she have done something then? Times have certainly changed.
Once I got to the University of Michigan, I immediately sought help. I am very thankful for the University’s Spectrum Center — a designated safe space on campus — where I was guided with nothing less than compassion and self-affirmation. Professionals there moved me to tears with supportive smiles and explained to me the facts of bisexuality. In the Spectrum Center’s first-year student initiative program, I met other queer freshmen who showed me I was not alone on this journey to self-discovery. I saw I could thrive on campus in the LGBTQ community. Through the center’s mentorship program, I was mentored by another bisexual girl who was in the School of Social Work. She let me confide in her, like a cousin who had already been in my shoes. As a fellow Catholic, she convinced me I would meet someone who would make me happy regardless of the inner conflict I currently feel, helping me stop my self-loathing and live my truth. I learned who I was in safe spaces.
Heated columns criticize “safe spaces” at universities, claiming they baby college students by isolating minorities and infringing on free speech. Critics argue that these havens shelter marginalized communities from the hardships of the real world. To be sure, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. But for many in the LGBTQ community, college provides the first time one can openly explore and embrace their true identities. It gave me the courage prove to myself that all of me is real and worthy of love, no matter how much those close to me would rather I pretend this part doesn’t exist. And there is nothing coddling about that.