“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.”
Bernard M. Baruch
Here in Victoria we have a coffee group that meets weekly. When I was starting work with POZitively Connected, I was really clear that wherever possible, groups should happen out in the world rather than in an office. The group is primarily social - a way for gay guys living with HIV to connect with each, form friendships and just talk about whatever they choose.
But the world isn't a safe space. We're told that every day. We're constantly reminded that stigma is everywhere, lurking in the shadows waiting to kick our poz asses. Anti-stigma campaigns are everywhere and come in every shape and size. People hate us. We're terrible and should go away.
We need safety. Many organizations hold groups within the walls of their offices and I completely understand the need for that. Sometimes we have very personal issues we want to discuss and creating an environment that allows that is essential. But I think that it also potentially reinforces that we're "different" than the rest of the population - that we don't belong.
When the coffee group (Espresso Yourself) first met, we all talked in hushed tones. HIV was whispered and we avoided anything more than surface conversation about books and music. We didn't want to risk the admonishing looks and glares from the other patrons in the coffee shop.
But then something happened. Something wonderful. We started to become increasingly comfortable talking openly about sex - something gay men do well. We learned to laugh and while a lot of the banter was innuendo, it freed us up to be ourselves, without the concern of being a concern.
Now with the group, we talk openly about our medications, specialists, sex lives (or lack of), blood work and more. There are no more hushed tones.
We created a safe space, by being who we are.
I think that's the key about safe spaces. We can't rely on others to "make" safety for us - we must find safety both internally and in the company of others. If we continue to worry what others think we won't ever find safe spaces, because we've shut the closet door and locked it from inside. And like I say "closets are for clothes".
I think if we, as people living with HIV, really want to reduce stigma, it means that we have to bust out of the closet and simply "be" in the world. We all live here and while there are people who are completely ignorant and hateful (and always will be), there are also people who are loving and kind and open to learning what HIV really is all about.
And the best part is the freedom we can experience in sharing openly with other poz folk and with our communities.
We can breathe...