Today’s Guest Post is from Dena Roth about NECSS 2013 and the importance of safe spaces for underrepresented groups within the skeptic/secular community. It’s important to have empathy for another’s experience, especially when you don’t regularly experience being the “other” in the room (with regards to age, gender, color, etc.) and equally important to give them the space so that they feel like their needs are being addressed.
NECSS 2013 (The 5th annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism) was a fantastical whirlwind of a weekend. The attendees were amazing, the lectures were mind-blowing (thank you Simon Singh), the scientific opera songs were incredible (thank you Hai-Ting Chinn), and the debates were fierce (thank you Massimo Pigliucci). I’m not going to spend the next several paragraphs raving about how much I love NECSS (though I easily could). However, as much as I loved the conference, I have just one problem with NECSS, and that is that it’s much like the rest of world in one very stark way: among the attendees are a lot of entitled gentlemen, or Generic Old White Dudes™ (GOWDs) who forget that not everyone is a straight white male over 40. Don’t get me wrong—there are a ton of awesome straight old white dudes out in the world and at NECSS and some of them are my closest friends and I hate that they often get caught in the crossfire when it comes to conversations about straight or male or white or age privilege. This isn’t a commentary on straight white men that are over 40, but rather the space that they take up in the skeptic/secular communities, usually without realizing it. It’s hard to recognize the disconnect in the skeptical movement when most of the prominent figures look just like you. Lately, their privileged space in the science/skeptic community in New York City has just barely been called into question and they’ve got some things to say about it. Luckily for them, I’m really good at listening to their opinions and I’m hoping they have the same patience for mine.
I’m younger, queerer, and much less male (in both gender identity and presentation) than the average member of this community. I’m aware of these differences and have no intention to hide them, but this trifecta had left me feeling mostly unwelcome and underappreciated in the community until recently, when very pointed groups and safe spaces began popping up throughout the city within local scientific/skeptic organizations. These safe spaces are designated social or support groups unique to a certain demographic that allows those marginalized people (like me) the freedom to be who they are in a space that is accepting and supportive. I think this is a huge win for the skeptical community; we’re finally calling attention to the fact that the skeptic/scientific/secular demographic is much wider than often seen at conferences and this is allowing more people to feel like they can actually be a part of the community as a whole. The marginalized members of the skeptic community (such as LGBTQ folks, people of color, women and nonbinary people, people born after 1975) have felt far more comfortable and welcome in groups in NYC lately, now that we have the space to move freely and project our own voices in our safe spaces. It’s small and it’s slow, but it’s a step towards being able to move freely through all spaces. Unfortunately, this feels threatening for a lot of people that don’t see a need for safe space, and as an organizer of many of these specific community groups, I see the pushback and receive the criticism, and I heard it loud and clear at NECSS. The message is that young queer females and people of color are monopolizing social groups, pushing out the older straight white men, and taking their space away.
Over the past several months (and most recently at NECSS), I’ve been told by a number of people that they find our safe spaces (to use their words) irritating, unfair, a nuisance, petty, discriminatory, ageist, sexist, and oppressive. Our presence is so irritating that these people have cancelled memberships, withdrawn donations, and asked that leadership members step down for simply allowing these spaces to exist.
Yes, there are some social groups that are exclusive to certain demographics, but that is to allow them safe spaces to be comfortable as they are without continuing to feel marginalized. There are still plenty of groups—most events, actually—that are open to the public. And as a young, queer, female-bodied person, I’m so grateful that these groups exist because I feel like marginalized people finally have a voice. It’s frustrating and disheartening to walk into events and constantly be the only non-cisgender male, the youngest person by 25 years, or the only person of color, especially when people call attention to our otherness (as I have experienced when I have the audacity to show up somewhere). I feel under-represented and that my voice is often not heard, so I love being welcomed into spaces where I can freely express my contribution to this community and I’m glad there are groups that can finally provide that to people.
I’m not here to vilify any specific Generic Old White Dude™ or to single anyone out. However, a particularly unpleasant conversation I had at NECSS shed new light on recent complaints we’ve received about the culture of our NYC skeptical community: allegedly, we’re giving too much space to minorities and it’s not fair because we’re taking it away from the people that are used to having it.
These complaints come from people who are a product of their privilege (and who likely don’t realize it), so I can’t necessarily blame them. They are used to having privilege and haven’t realized that it’s there yet. If they did recognize their privileged status, maybe they would be less hostile towards these community safe spaces. I’ve seen privileged people in our community who have questioned their privilege, realized the space they’re taking, and graciously step aside to give others the opportunity to be heard. When it happens, it’s beautiful, and I love those people and am grateful for them for extending their critical thinking lenses to observe and adjust their own behaviors.
When we keep straight people out of LGBTQ groups, it doesn’t mean that we don’t care about them. We are asking them to give us our own space in the community because we don’t have any other place to go yet. For example, growing up Muslim and rejecting that faith is dangerous and can be a life-threatening decision, so it is reasonable that ex-Muslims should want their own support group exclusive of non-ex-Muslims. It’s not because the ex-Muslims hate people of other religions, it’s because non-Muslim people don’t understand what that life is like. (And for the record, it’s not because they don’t want you to understand—that’s what open-forum lectures and intellectual debates and discussions are for, not support groups.)
When you’re in a place of privilege, you are used to being safe, represented, and appreciated everywhere without ever needing to question your place in the world. So, I can see how it might feel threatening to be asked to step back from a few select spaces. But as someone who doesn’t feel safe, represented, appreciated, or even welcome in most places in the skeptic community, these groups are necessary for people like me. It’s not the minority’s responsibility to customize our safe spaces to please the privileged majority. All we’re asking for is some breathing room in this community. We want to stick around and stick together sometimes.
I know these hostile sentiments are not necessarily the norm when marginalized people carve out spaces for themselves in the skeptic community. I remarked my frustrations to plenty of people at NECSS, and every single one of them offered support and empowerment to me and others. More recently, I don’t often feel that my youth, queerness, or woman-ness make me an “other” in this community, not only because of the safe spaces that are finally available to me but also because of the support I see in the community. More people are recognizing the space that their privilege takes up and they are willing to put that aside and give the space back to those of us who need it.
I would also like to point out that Michael Feldman and the NECSS organizers were amazing to everyone. If I had ever felt harassed or threatened at the conference, I knew they would have supported me and been diligent in ensuring that NECSS remained a safe space for everybody. They were incredibly warm and welcoming to all of us, and the diversity of speakers made me and so many others feel more supported at NECSS than any other conference I’ve been to.
I don’t intend for the few people who have a problem with my membership in the community to imply that any organizers share their views. In fact, the most support I’ve seen for marginalized people has come from executive directors, conference organizers, event hosts, and leadership teams across plenty of organizations based in New York City. This is empowering and encouraging because I know that the minority groups are appreciated, loved, and supported here and that we have allies all over the place who are willing to give us our space, listen to us, support us, and stand in solidarity with us when we ask for it without silencing us.
This is simply a call to action for the rest of the people—the ones who feel like they can’t be members of this community as long as previously-mentioned marginalized groups are demanding equal footing. We’re asking you to recognize that our safe spaces are necessary because they are the only places we get to have a voice that isn’t overpowered by your privilege.
Dena is an artist and activist living in New York City. They began volunteering for Center For Inquiry in 2012, and is involved in local secular and skeptic communities. Dena is an activist and advocate for better public education and promoting critical thinking and reason among students and children. They co-organize CFI-NYC’s LGBTQ Humanists, and Beyond Faith: An Ex-Christian Student Support Group. Dena likes Carl Sagan’s turtlenecks and eating ice cream with a fork. Seriously, try it. You can find Dena on Twitter at @OhItsDena.