Defining Safe: Defining Queer Space

Max Lubbers and Ilana Arougheti

Nearly 25 percent of Northwestern’s campus self-identified as queer in ASG’s last survey, but the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center only holds 10 people. And that’s one of the only institutional spaces on campus for queer students. There are proposals in the works to expand it, but for many students, campus-sponsored spaces aren’t the best ways to be in community with other queer students — or aren’t even spaces that feel like theirs. New from Defining Safe: How do queer students at Northwestern navigate formal and informal spaces around campus?

MAX LUBBERS: On the third floor of Norris, there’s two cramped rooms. The walls are lined with bookshelves and bins, and rainbow trinkets fight for shelf space on the window ledge, which gives a clear view in from the hallway. At almost any time of day, at least, before the pandemic, you could find students doing homework or chilling out inside — but you wouldn’t see this space hosting big events or protecting students inside from the eyes of passersby. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: It’s called the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, more commonly known as the GSRC, and it’s one of the only institutional spaces on campus for queer students. Nearly 25 percent of Northwestern’s campus self-identified as queer in ASG’s analytics report, but this space only holds 10 people. And not all queer students, or even most queer students on campus, find it central among the spaces they visit every day.

REY TANG: I started realizing, ‘Oh, like that’s nice,’ but there are heavy limitations to what the University has done. And that the spaces that we have feel almost as if they were like an asterisk, like an afterthought, rather than having intentional space. Like I think the Gender (and) Sexuality (Resource Center) is a very tiny room in Norris. Like, it’s not very big. At first I thought, like, ‘Oh, this is really cool.’ And then I slowly grew a little more disillusioned and realized, ‘Oh, like there’s definitely more work to be done.’

ILANA AROUGHETI: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ilana Arougheti.

MAX LUBBERS: And I’m Max Lubbers. This is Defining Safe, a podcast looking at the intersection of identity and student life at Northwestern. This week, we’re thinking about some of the ways queer students find space on campus, from formal places provided by the University to communities they create on their own. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: We just heard from Communication senior Rey Tang. From Norris to Annie May Swift, Rey has spent a lot of time thinking about which buildings on campus make her feel the most comfortable. When she first realized she was trans, she didn’t feel safe going into women’s bathrooms yet — and not every Northwestern building had a gender neutral bathroom.

REY TANG: What politicizing the bathroom space does for trans women is that it ends up causing us to feel this immense feeling of fear and imposter syndrome, anxiety while navigating women’s bathrooms. I remember when I just started out going full time, going into the women’s bathroom was, like, a thing. I had to count to five, I had to walk into the door. I was looking around, like, ‘Are people noticing me?’ I think the biggest fear that the Republicans use is that we’re sexual predators trying to use the bathroom. So I literally have to, like, look around. I’m like, ‘Do people think I’m a sexual predator?’ I think what people don’t realize is that trans women using bathrooms are oftentimes scared of that. 

MAX LUBBERS: Everyone needs to use the bathroom. However, they’re not accessible to everyone everywhere on campus

REY TANG: The story I always tell is that I work at Louis Hall. And I had to literally tell my colleague, I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m trans. I don’t feel comfortable going to the women’s bathroom yet. Because you know, I’m just starting out. I have to walk all the way to Kresge. I’ll be back in like 10 minutes.’ But it’s just moments like that, where it’s clear that while they’re trying to create those spaces, it’s not intentional enough that it doesn’t extend everywhere on campus. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: So, the University isn’t doing enough to build spaces inclusive of trans students. Rey says she hasn’t encountered that many explicitly anti-trans spaces, but many spaces neglect to consider the needs of trans students. And those are still exclusionary. 

REY TANG: In my larger experience as a whole, that seems to be mostly the case. Most people are not driven by like, active hate towards trans people, but driven more so by ignorance. And I mean, at some point, at some level, that’s equally dangerous because it leads to the same effect of excluding trans people from your spaces. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Most formal spaces on campus aren’t designed with queer students in mind. Remember that space from the start of this episode, the GSRC that fits just 10 people? Rainbow Alliance External President Jo Scaletty is working to expand that. 

MAX LUBBERS: Right now, the GSRC sits tucked away on the third floor of Norris. What Jo envisions is an entire house on Sheridan Road. 

JO SCALETTY: Moving it from a place that can hold only 10 people and is very difficult to hold events and is overall kind of just hard to navigate, into a place that maybe can hold 100 people or more — that will really change the way that we can connect with one another.

And the current GSRC, it’s not big enough, there’s not hardly any space for people to exist and like, have fun and be loud and celebrate. It’s all kind of smushed together. And I think part of what the GSRC is going to provide is space to celebrate being queer.

MAX LUBBERS: The change would mean more than just square footage. Beyond the sheer difference of size, this new space would also be on a street students walk every day. Jo says that is intentional.

JO SCALETTY: At this point, it does to an extent feel like being pushed off to like a part of campus that no one really even knows about, or no one tries to go to unless you’re being very intentional. And so to have a house, hopefully, on Sheridan, is what we’re really pushing for: a visitable, big space for LGBT students to feel seen. And to have resources and to have community I think means that we are able to really feel that we’re important to the University, that we’re important to campus culture, that we’re here and we deserve a voice and we deserve space to grow and to be together.

MAX LUBBERS: Jo successfully advocated for this in ASG’s Senate, but is still seeking Board of Trustees approval and raising funds for the house. This advocacy isn’t new. It actually comes from a long line of activists — back in the early 2000s, students asked for a house on Sheridan, too. Instead, they had to compromise for the current space. Almost two decades later, Jo isn’t satisfied. 

JO SCALETTY: It shouldn’t be up to us to advocate for everything that we need. I am tired of the University ignoring queer students, I’m tired of the University ignoring marginalized students broadly. I’m tired of the University not listening to us the first time. It’s taken years to get from “we can’t give you a space” to “let’s try to get you into a house.” And I’m grateful for that last step. And I’m very grateful for the people who have come before me. But there has to come a point when they listen the first time. There has to come a point when they are willing to say, “We didn’t realize that this was something that you needed, but now that we’re aware, we’re going to get that done.” Because we need to be that important, and at this point, I don’t know that we entirely are. And that’s really frustrating, because I do care about this university. But I need this university to care about me, too.

ILANA AROUGHETI: To Weinberg freshman Emilio Cabral, the fact a house like this doesn’t already exist exposes the University’s priorities. He said one of the most uncomfortable places for him on campus is the Greek quads — and they dominate a lot of space. By giving Greek life dozens of houses on campus while allotting a cramped room for the GSRC, he feels like the University is sending a clear message to the student body.

EMILIO CABRAL: Walking through the fraternity quad, it’s just this sense of, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” I guess. And so it’s like, I think one time I was wearing like, my pink sweater tied around my waist. And I was wearing these overalls. And it’s just like, you know, should I put the sweater back on? And it’s just like this idea that maybe it’s not the norm on North Campus. So it kind of feels like I’m back home in, like, a suburb and I have to, you know, censor myself. Why are these really nice buildings only for just the fraternities and sororities? I think it talks a lot about priorities. So if we’re having all this money, and all these nice things for these groups that have gotten away with racism or sexism and causing harm, deliberate harm. It’s like, why (haven’t) the queer spaces already been institutionalized?

MAX LUBBERS: At the same time, a safe space looks different to everyone. So formalizing spaces, or expanding the formal spaces that do exist, isn’t a universal goal. Many queer students on campus, including Emiilo, don’t necessarily want their identity to be linked directly to the University at all.

EMILIO CABRAL: I don’t want my queerness to be connected to the institution that is Northwestern University. But I really think that it’s amazing for the people that want to go and for it to be an option. It’s just a step forward in the right direction, I think.

ILANA AROUGHETI: But existing queer spaces can also be exclusionary of students’ intersecting identities. Bienen freshman Olivia Pierce said that queer spaces, like the GSRC, don’t always feel meant for her. 

OLIVIA PIERCE: It’s open for everybody. But like, I think you have to really be intentional about the spaces you’re creating, if you want to make it actually open to everybody, because the Black queer experience is very different from the White queer experience. I feel like I would go to the Black House first. I’m a queer Black person, but, people don’t see me and go, ‘Oh, that’s a member of the LGBT community,’ because I’m Black first in terms of how people perceive me. It’s way more important for me to have like Black spaces where I can really express how I feel, especially because a lot of the queerness on campus, in terms of how people create community, is kind of connected to Whiteness. And so I don’t feel 100 percent like I can really express how I feel in spaces that are queer and White.


REY TANG: I think queer spaces tend to be White. I’m not quite sure why that is. I know for like, being Chinese American, the amount of stigma attached to queerness is just unbelievably high. Like, it’s just such a difficult hurdle. And that was something that I struggled with at the start of my experience. 

MAX LUBBERS: Emilio says it’s frustrating when White queer students treat racism like it’s a theoretical discussion, or act like they have insight into other forms of oppression just because of their queerness. 

EMILIO CABRAL: Us being queer is not equal to the oppression we face because of our skin color, etc. I think that sometimes it’s hard to exist in these majority White spaces, because we can’t rely on our queer identity to look through lenses. It’s intersectional. And so sometimes it feels as if, you know, our White peers think that because they’re queer, they can speak on certain things, but they can’t necessarily do that. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Emilio said he mostly relies on informal spaces that he can build with other Northwestern students — he would rather start from scratch than work around and within the limitations of what the University already has. 

MAX LUBBERS: He’s a freshman, and was off-campus this past fall. But he stayed connected through the Queer 2024 GroupMe, created by and for queer freshmen last year. Currently, there’s almost 200 people in the group chat. 

EMILIO CABRAL: In the queer GroupMe, we spent the bulk of the pandemic together. We all have a unique experience that we share.

MAX LUBBERS: Even when freshman returned to campus, Emilio felt like the GroupMe is still a place that queer students could connect, including himself. He found long-lasting friendship through the online space.

EMILIO CABRAL: I met my best friend through the queer GroupMe. We’re both queer students of color. And we play piano all the time at Hobart (House) and we played at Willard (Residential College) and we played guitar outside Shepard (Hall) and I think, just through music, we’ve been able to connect like that.

ILANA AROUGHETI: That friend is Olivia, who we heard from earlier. 

EMILIO CABRAL: We just started talking, and we kept talking, we haven’t stopped talking. And so that queer friendship has been really cool because, you know, before that, I wasn’t really surrounded by a lot of queer people. So Olivia and I’s relationship, you know, was really, really new to me. I can say whatever I want when Olivia’s around, and we’ll laugh. And we’ll walk down South Campus, and people look at us, and it’s like, it doesn’t matter, because the only person we’re talking to is each other. And so I think that’s been really special. Just being able to exist with her has been really comforting.

MAX LUBBERS: In Emilio’s phone, her name is saved as “Olivia The Love of my Life.” Olivia said that she feels the same. 

OLIVIA PIERCE: One time, me and Emilio were walking, as we do, arm-in-arm, whatever. And we were talking about, like, where we feel most comfortable on campus. And he basically was like — he’s gonna hate this because I’m like the sappy one in the friendship — but he was like, “Olivia, I feel like I don’t need, like, identity-based spaces, because you are my community.” And I was like, wow, I didn’t know that individual people could be your community and your space. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Olivia also found community in spaces like her a cappella group, Soul4Real. She says the group, which describes itself as Northwestern’s premier Black a cappella group, isn’t an expressly queer club, but she has connected with a lot of queer members.

OLIVIA PIERCE: It’s been really fun. And they’re not just focused on a cappella, they’re really focused on building community, which I love. Not to be, like, cliche, but it feels like a little family, which is really nice.

MAX LUBBERS: Rey has had a similar experience on her Ultimate Frisbee team, which she says has been one of her most important homes on campus. 

REY TANG: I remember day one, like, the women’s coach was like, “Hey, I know you didn’t hit your one year hormonal requirement yet but like, if you want to practice with us, that’s super fine. If you don’t and you’re not ready, that’s also fine. Just take your time.” And now I’m captaining the Women’s Ultimate Team. And I think that kind of speaks to the level of acceptance in the programs and how much I love the sport.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Beyond student organizations, some living spaces on campus are said to be more queer than others. Last month, Emilio tweeted this: 

EMILIO CABRAL: “If I wrote for The Daily I would simply write an investigative piece on the percentage of South Campus that’s actually gay.” 

MAX LUBBERS: Now, we couldn’t find out the exact number of queer students on South Campus, for a lot of reasons. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: But if you know the vibes, you know the vibes.

EMILIO CABRAL: I can walk into Allison Dining Hall, and I’m like, I know you, I know you. It’s a joke, because it’s funny, but then it’s just true. 

MAX LUBBERS: But just because queer students can sometimes recognize each other on campus doesn’t mean that everyone is in community with one another. The result of this isn’t so much a tightknit queer group on campus as a loose network. 

REY TANG: From my experience, I think the queer community at Northwestern is largely scattered. I don’t think it’s a very strong community in that we’re not that united. Queerness is weird at Northwestern because it’s like sometimes, initially, I wanted to feel like, ‘Oh, I can do all these things, like I normally do, and be queer, and that’s not a big deal,’ which I think is cool. But then, at some point for me, I also realized, ‘Crap, I need a community to lean on. I need people who like, understand what I’m going through.’ And that’s also definitely important. And I think that is something we are missing as a student body at Northwestern.

MAX LUBBERS: Instead, people are finding their own spaces — a living room, a group chat, a table in Norris. And these spaces are all over, whether the University decided they could be or not.  

JO SCALETTY: I have many friends who are LGBT, and we don’t go to the GSRC when we want to hang out. You know, like, they’re my friends and I, you know, I see them walking down the sidewalk, and maybe we go to MOD and get some pizza. Informal spaces are important, because that’s how you build a lot of connections outside of the formal spaces. I think that they can exist and that they should exist together, and in harmony. 

ILANA AROUGHETI: Queer students are defining their own spaces on campus every day. So we asked: what makes a space safe to you?

OLIVIA PIERCE: If you feel safe with a person, and it’s like, you feel like you can talk about anything, then yeah, that is a safe space. And so that’s been really cool that there’s formal spaces where you can go and meet people and you share an identity. But then there’s also just people who you really connect with and are really close with, and that also counts as a safe space.

EMILIO CABRAL: Queer space, you know, that just means to me, I don’t have to think about what it means to be queer, or if I’m presenting my queerness in the right way, I can just talk with other queer people, and we can exist. And then safe space, I just want to be able to exist in spaces where I don’t need to put on a persona in order to be accepted or be liked. So I don’t want to have to go through hours of small talk with someone just for us to feel like we’re friends. I want to be able to get back what I put in. So I don’t want to exist in any space where I feel like it’s hard for me to exist because I’m having to put in energy just to be myself.

JO SCALETTY: For me, a safe space is really just a space where you can be free in your own skin and in your own self. I think a lot of people not just, you know, queer people, wear masks to protect themselves from, you know, different things that exist and other people. I think a safe space is just a place where you can come in exactly as you are, and ask for exactly what you need. And you’re going to be held and supported.

REY TANG: I think a safe space has to have the principles of equity cooked into its foundation. Like I think it’s extremely hard to create a space and then have to amend it for like, ‘Oh, like, we want Asian Americans to feel safe in this.’ ‘Oh, We want our Black students to feel safe’ Like, it’s just, it’s nearly like, I don’t want to say impossible, it’s just extremely difficult to change in an already established institution-slash-space. Whereas if that inclusion, if that, like, intentionality for intersectionality exists already in the foundations and how the space is built, I think that makes a world of difference. When I’m in a space that feels like it’s meant for me, I feel like I wouldn’t be thinking about all this stuff all that much. Or I would only feel safe in a space when I’m not like constantly self-conscious about my transness, my queerness, my everything. When I kind of just feel like I’m just a human.

MAx LUBBERS: This episode was reported and produced by me, Max Lubbers and Ilana Arougheti. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey.

Email: [email protected] and [email protected] 

Twitter: @maxlubbers


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