My first semester at Bowdoin was rife with new experiences. I learned how to write a college-level paper, how to best manage my time and how to live in temperatures below 40 degrees. But built into the routine I constructed for myself was another new commitment, one that occupied my Tuesday afternoons and Thursday evenings, introduced me to a circle of friends that I would never have found otherwise and opened up a new opportunity for me to carve out a role for myself on this campus. And it all centered around the little house at 24 College Street.

I have never before been a part of a queer community like the one at Bowdoin. In just a few months, I have been able to spend time with others who share what has become an integral aspect of my identity. I don’t know why, but I have always been drawn to other queer people and, even on a subconscious level, have found it much easier to get close to others who aren’t straight. Maybe it’s the “gaydar.” Or maybe it’s just human nature to want common ground, to seek out groups of people in which one can feel like they belong. I don’t know why my sexuality and gender identity have such a habit of influencing whom I connect with, but they do.

Lately, many people have pushed back against the liberal collegiate phenomenon of “safe spaces.” Claims that “political correctness culture” has created a generation of young adults that are fragile, easily offended and unprepared for the so-called “real world” have been touted by everyone from journalists and authors to college administrators, such as the University of Chicago’s administration in their letter to incoming freshmen this past fall. 

While I recognize the concerns that lie at the heart of these criticisms, I personally believe that in some ways, they are missing the point. Yes, healthy debate and exposure to opposing opinions and viewpoints is crucial to the personal growth and development that a college education is designed to promote, but homophobia and transphobia aren’t opinions.  Homophobia and transphobia are not harmless beliefs that just so happen to be “controversial” or “unpopular” on college campuses. Homophobia and transphobia are hate, and it’s wrong to blame queer students for refusing to cater to those who propagate this hate. 

My own, albeit limited, experience has led me to believe that critics of “safe spaces” often exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding of what exactly this phrase means. In order to explore its actual meaning, I will refer to our safe space for the LGBT community on Bowdoin’s campus: the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at 24 College Street. During the time I have spent in that house, for club meetings, Thursday night “quinners” (queer dinners) or simply visiting with friends and peers, I have not, in fact, been coddled or blinded to the harsh realities of the outside world. That was never the intention of the Center. Instead, I have found a group of people that I can trust, that I can relate to, and with that I feel comfortable sharing parts of myself that I would be scared to share with others. I have found people who share my passions, my interests, my dreams and hopes for myself and for the world. I have found my queer community.

This is what a safe space is meant to be. By spending time at 24 College Street, I am not cutting myself off from others or isolating myself from opposing viewpoints. I have straight friends, too, and I love that I can associate with people who have different perspectives from my own, but who still possess a fundamental respect for me and my identity. Therefore, 24 College Street functions instead as a safe place away from those who do not respect my identity. 

There’s no rule that dictates that queer students must subject themselves to homophobia, transphobia and abuse. There’s no principle that states that queer students have to agree with their oppressors in order to be “well-adjusted.” We know we can’t always avoid people who hate us. But we can find places and people that will help us step away, at least for a little while. We can create communities and spaces for ourselves, and we can help each other heal, grow stronger, strategize and work towards a better world without hate. Not a world without opposing viewpoints, or a world where no one is allowed to express their opinions, but rather a world where bigotry is not shrugged off as a personal belief, where prejudice is not mislabeled as harmless ideology and where hatred is allowed to be challenged as freely as it can be expressed.

Ari Mehrberg is a member of the Class of 2020.