A kōrero with Shannon Novak, founder and director of the Safe Space Alliance (and University of Auckland Elam alumni), who discusses the importance of safe physical and online/digital spaces for the LGBTQI+* community and the global growth of the Aotearoa-born initiative.
The Safe Space Alliance, which began as an artwork at The Suter Art Gallery in Nelson, is a LGBTQI+ led non-profit organisation that aims to help people in the identification, navigation and creation of safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community. The Alliance website lists an extensive directory of safe spaces, allowing users to search for a service or business they may want to access and enter with a further sense of security. Director Shannon Novak explains the process of creating and identifying these safe spaces for the project.
Starting with the basics, how does the Safe Space Alliance classify and define a safe space?
A safe space is a space where the LGBTQI+ community can freely express themselves without fear. It is a space that does not tolerate violence, bullying, or hate speech towards the LGBTQI+ community. It’s common sense and basic human rights, but sometimes we forget or drop the ball. I get a lot of queries where people/businesses consider themselves to be a safe space already, as they live by that definition, which is fantastic. This initiative adds a visual element to that which is often missed. For example, if I walk into a store on Queen Street with my partner, and I want to hold his hand but I don’t know the tolerance/acceptance levels of the space, having something visual that indicates the space is a safe space takes uncertainty out of the equation. This might be a sticker, poster, and/or online statement. I may still have reservations about being myself in that space but at least I know if something were to happen, someone onsite would have my back.
Do you feel as if that definition has shifted or changed at all throughout the last few years?
Yes and this has often been in parallel with the ever evolving LGBTQI+ community and ever changing landscape in regards to LGBTQI+ rights worldwide. What we consider a safe space today, is different to what we consider a safe space five years ago. There are also regional differences where what is considered a safe space in one country, is different to what is considered a safe space in another.
What did the beginning of this initiative look like and how did it begin to spread globally?
I found that a lot of people I knew in the LGBTQI+ community were experiencing and struggling with anxiety, depression, and unfortunately, suicide. I thought, “what can I do to make a positive difference here?” I thought a good start would be to strengthen support and acceptance for the LGBTQI+ community by identifying and creating safe spaces. This idea was supported by local research as found in the Youth2000 survey series (The University of Auckland), the Human Rights Commission PRISM report, and Counting Ourselves, which highlighted and supported the growing need for safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community in New Zealand.
Personally, I’m an artist and activist, so it started as a community driven artwork, which was picked up by the local council in Nelson. It spread to other businesses in the area, then other parts of the country, then to Australia and beyond. The growth has been quite organic, with many people wanting to support the project which is wonderful. I see the project as an artwork, a growing artwork that drives positive social change for the LGBTQI+ community worldwide. In some respect, this project is a continuation of the work I did at ELAM, and is now part of museums and galleries worldwide like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
In New Zealand, there seems to be a perception that issues of discrimination against LGBTQI+ communities are a thing of the past. What would you say to people who don’t see the need for safe spaces?
It’s a huge misconception that issues surrounding discrimination and the LGBTQI+ community are resolved. In the context of New Zealand, having rights does not necessarily equate to acceptance. Acceptance is something that will take time. The LGBTQI+ community can have all the rights others have, but whether that’s accepted by those outside the LGBTQI+ community is another question. We’ve seen there are still people in New Zealand opposed to LGBTQI+ marriage, despite it being legal. The change we want to see in terms of acceptance may take several more generations, so until that point we need to look at how to grow acceptance and creating safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community is one way to do that.
There’s also a fear of what I call ‘legislative flux,’ where rights can be taken away like we have seen in the United States. The backpedalling of LGBTQI+ rights is always a threat on the horizon and strengthens the need for clearly identifiable safe spaces.
I don’t think we should be complacent as New Zealanders and think ‘everything is okay.’ Conversion therapy is still legal in New Zealand, which is unacceptable. There is also a lot of work to do in regards to human rights and gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics which has been identified by the Human Rights Commission.
The Safe Space Alliance also highlights many digital safe spaces, can you talk about the necessity of that? Did the restrictions of COVID encourage this at all?
COVID spurred us on in part to include online/digital spaces as safe spaces, but it’s primarily been because we work internationally. We started in Nelson, spread around the country, then across to Australia and beyond. The conversation around digital spaces triggered where we encountered challenges around listing physical safe spaces in countries where being part of the LGBTQI+ community is still illegal. In these cases, digital space may be the only safe spaces available. We also looked at social media channels and safety concerns there. Social media space can be a difficult space to make safe, but it’s possible. I always say you can never guarantee the safety of a space 100% whether physical or digital, but you can be clear about what you do/do not tolerate in a given space so that if something were to happen you could have processes in place to work through it. Ultimately it’s good to know someone has your back.
With social media being so accessible and open to so many, how do you navigate the obstacles of creating safe spaces online?
It helps to have a public statement and/or policy, which goes for physical spaces as well. The large majority of spaces that have said to us they are safe already don’t have any supporting statement around it. It could be a simple sentence or paragraph that sets expectations of the space upfront. This makes it easier when something comes up, as you can refer back to the terms of the space. If it’s an open community or group online, like a Facebook group, safety can be difficult to manage. You can delete and censor, but that process is often admin-heavy and time-consuming. At this stage it seems most effective to close groups and chats. Unfortunately, that can send the message that the space is exclusive but it’s important to realise groups often close, not because they want to, but because they need to in order to maintain the safety of the space.
As we start to reopen our physical spaces in Auckland, what do you think students at UoA could do to encourage and foster safe spaces?
Whether you’re inside or outside the LGBTQI+ community, you can always help to identify and create safes spaces. You could leave a suggestion at your local café or tag the Safe Space Alliance (@safe_space_alliance) to an organisation or business directly. Anyone with a genuine interest in creating safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community is welcome to join us at no charge. It can be almost any type of space. It could be a physical space like a café, office, non-profit organisation, or library. It could be an online/digital space like an app, website, or software. The ideal, at the end of the day, is for them not to exist and not be needed. But until that point I’ll be hanging around and pushing us towards that.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the Safe Space Alliance, want to list a safe space or want to find your local safe spaces head to https://safespacealliance.com/
*Note: This is the term that the Safe Space Alliance uses, with a view to being as inclusive as possible, but acknowledge this may not work for everyone. There are other terms for the community including rainbow, queer, and variations on the acronym like LGBT and LGBTQIA2, all of which have a place and may be used.