Reprieve for the Repressed
Hannah Jhanylle C. Po
Embracing diversity, inclusivity, and humanity one haven at a time
Many fantasize about facing the piercing eyes of a dragon or uncovering long-lost cities, but to people considered “weird” or “wrong,” a different tale exists. What a world it would be to simply live without having judgmental looks turned your way, without having others seek to "fix" you simply because society deems you “unnatural?”
Like other kids from marginalized communities, at 14, Ara*, a now fourth-year Marketing Management student, and, in her own words, “chubby” bisexual, quickly realized that despite many celebrating diversities, in practice, acceptance is a hard-earned treasure.
“Hoy, sexy.” “Kagwapo tani sa imo galing feeling babayi ka ya.” Such examples of stereotyping, stigma, discrimination, ignorance, or apathy are more likely occurrences on the street, the internet, or any other space, which may constitute a constant mental struggle that should not be thrust upon anyone. Safe spaces, though not a panacea, certainly provide some solace for these tired souls, but what exactly constitutes one?
THE LOCKED HOUSE
A Google search could lead to rabbit holes on how safe spaces propagate the existence of a “snowflake” generation uncomfortable with “politically incorrect” statements and jokes. Other critics touch on the furtherance of groupthink and the limitation of dissenting ideas.
In this clamor, it is easy to forget that a) safe spaces comprise several different meanings and applications, and b) freedom of speech is restricted with respect to the rights and reputations of others, national security, public order, public health, and public morals.
According to the Oxford dictionary, safe spaces refer to environments where people can feel free of the burdens of bigotry, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm. Some examples include the gay and lesbian bars instituted in the mid-1960s that encouraged some semblance of acceptance amid the volatile anti-LGBT period. German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin argued that they can also be reflected in group discussions where employees can air their concerns about working conditions and productivity goals without fearing for their jobs.
In this sense, unlike the free speech dismantlers they are portrayed as; safe spaces lessen stigmatization and propagate respect and basic human decency. “Its primary intention is to provide a place where marginalized individuals and persons of diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC) can freely express themselves, celebrate their identities, and share lived experiences,” stated associate lawyer and part-time University of San Agustin professor, Atty. Jordana Marie Jaco in an interview with The Augustinian. Non-gender conforming partners can show affection freely, women and people of color wear and say things they do not need to explain, even to well-meaning people, and people with other religions can practice their faith without being labeled as “terrorists” – everything can just be.
In a classroom setting, the term “safe spaces” relates to “controversy with civility.” It entails recognizing the existence of different and often conflicting stances, showing a willingness to hear such views, and collaborating to foster creative solutions to problems. Students are encouraged to discuss and argue about moral and health issues in a predominantly Christian country where men tend to dominate conversations like the Philippines.
Jaco further posited that “the first step towards the attainment of a gender-fair society is the acknowledgment that some sectors still experience marginalization and oppression.” Such means stepping out of one’s individualistic mindset and “thinking of the community as a whole,” as University psychologist Lisa Gayoles put it.
TURNING THE KEY
Like other countries, the Philippines has had its fair share of discrimination and sexual harassment issues. A report entitled "Disrupting Harm in the Philippines" by the global network End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, International Criminal Police Organization, and Italy-based United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund Office of Research-Innocenti found that about two million internet-using children aged 12 to 17 encountered grave instances of online sexual exploitation and abuse. It used a scaled representation of the Philippines' population and recorded instances of blackmail as pressure to engage in sexual activities, coercion to commit sexual activities through promises of money or gifts, or people sharing sexual images with minors without permission.
The safety of nonbinary and transgender individuals is not any better, with at least 50 coded individuals having been murdered across the country since 2010. Additionally, a 2017 Human Rights Watch article cited that only 15 percent of Filipinos lived in areas with ordinances that protected them against prejudices on gender identity and sexual orientation.
The passage of Republic Act (RA) No. 7877 of 1995 or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act served as one way of curtailing such numbers as “safe spaces” began including work, educational, and training facilities. Open dialogue among employees and employers, trust, diversity, inclusion, resilience, good leadership, and examples began taking root as essential elements of a safe and healthy workplace rather than subservience to authority stereotypical of the Filipino culture.
“Laws are already in place covering anti-gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The 1987 Constitution recognizes the role of women in nation-building and ensures fundamental equality before the law of women and men. The obstacle usually involves the implementation of the existing laws and the awareness of each citizen that they have rights under the law when it comes to gender-based offenses,” observed Jaco.
It was not until House Bill No. 4982 or SOGIE Equality Bill and later, RA 11313 or the Safe Spaces Act (Bawal Bastos Law) that the archipelago once again began tackling gender-based issues. The latter was signed into law last April 17, 2019, and confronted the gaps in previous laws, especially with how sexual harassment was defined. For one, the term previously only described acts committed by people with influence or moral dominion in work, education, or training.
The “Safe Spaces Act” expanded that explanation to encompass and penalize catcalling, wolf-whistling, misogynistic, transphobic, and homophobic slurs, stalking, and unwanted sexual advances. It also incorporated online sexual harassment, such as uploading or sharing one’s photos without consent, video and audio recordings, cyberstalking, unwanted sexual remarks and comments, threats, and online identity theft. Any action targeted toward another that causes or could lead to mental, emotional, or psychological distress and fear of personal safety was tackled in the provisions.
“The course of achieving gender equality is a tedious process that requires unlearning and re-learning beliefs, norms, practices, and traditions. Since the various agents of gender socialization such as the family, educational system, media, and religion play crucial roles in shaping our views and values, gender mainstreaming entails gender-related legislation and structural changes,” she added.
THROUGH THE OPEN GATES
More than physical protection, though, safe spaces seek to propagate mental wellness and more holistic development. While they do not replace clinical mental health interventions, they do help one deal with unease and sudden changes.
“Growing up, I never had a safe space. My experiences during my teenage years left me [feeling transparent]," shared Ara*. Each day in school was a careful maneuver around rumors and anxieties without a stable support system to lean on. Religion was not any better with it essentially condemning LGBTQIA+ individuals.
“When I got older and dared to be my authentic self, I found people who loved, accepted, and understood me for who I am. Some fears went away with that constant support. Seeing the world slowly learning to accept people like me, my heart is happy, and I am willing to be a safe space for anyone who needs it,” she grinned.
There is a time for debate and to acknowledge someone's pain. Doing one does not immediately devalue the other. One may, in good faith, attribute catcalls as compliments, not understanding how women may feel insulted at the notion of their bodies and comfort being up to discussion. Another may bring up adultery to a homosexual, furthering the gap between the understanding of both parties.
“What is the benefit? If it is to educate the person because sabi ng iba, 'sa bahay nag-umpisa ang pag-catcall,' do we need parenting classes to make sure that these things do not happen when they grow up? What services can we have in place for these people to go through,” remarked Gayoles.
Relative to this, Ara* commented on how some people love giving unsolicited advice that are ultimately damaging. “I believe that if you are directly and negatively affected by someone or something, you have the right to say something about it. If it just bothers you because of your beliefs that it is better to mind your own business, [especially if what you want to say] will not enhance their life,” she opined.
ROAD TO INCLUSION
Women, children, LGBTQIA+ members, interracial families, neurodivergent individuals, immigrants, indigenous people, the poor – no matter what community one may belong in, all people have the right to feel comfortable, secure, and worthy of love and acceptance. Rather than blaming safe spaces and diversities for feelings of hurt, shame, and fear, one should start directing energy towards being more empathetic, compassionate, and humble.
“When you champion safe spaces, you think about whose voices are not heard. You look for alternative and marginalized voices so you can see issues more clearly,” declared University Student Affairs and Welfare Office director Eric Divinagracia. Thus, for educational institutions, advocating for safe spaces involves concerned parties gathering and discussing what issues need priority. Such would then spiral into the implementation of projects and programs, student and teacher activism, and other actions.
Small group orientations, town assemblies, leadership training sessions, student government-issued questionnaires, and social media desks also serve as avenues for students to vent out their ideas and grievances. Concerning disciplinary measures, Gayoles and Divingracia also motioned to restorative justice, which supports the perpetrator and the victim while preventing recidivism.
“There will always be people who condemn me for living how I live, loving whom I love, and being me, but at the end of the day, I will not stop being myself,” voiced Ara*. In the end, what matters is the cooperation, respect, and support between and amongst diverse ideas, individuals, and groups to foster a society willing to co-exist and provide a reprieve for the repressed.
Published: November 15, 2022