• Zachary Blair

"Safe Place" Programs: Neoliberalism and Violence Against LGBT People


Six months after the Pulse shooting, Orlando launched a "Safe Places" program in an effort to help victims of LGBT violence through "symbolic safety."

"It is a voluntary program which allows businesses and other establishments to designate themselves as places that will report anti-LGBT incidents and allow victims to come inside and call police... Participating establishments are placing a rainbow-colored decal in their windows. In large letters, the stickers read ‘Report anti-LGBTQ crimes’; in small letters, the stickers let people know they can call 911 and wait for the police to come at that particular location."

You can read more about this program and the 500 stickers the City of Orlando has printed out here.

To put this program into context, it was launched about a month after a similar program was launched in Seattle that turned 97 Starbucks into safe spaces.Spearheaded by a gay cop, the program was primarily aimed at Capitol Hill – Seattle's gay neighborhood that has seen a supposed increase in LGBT hate crimes during the past decade attributed to gentrification. It's ironic that Starbucks has become an instrument for combatting anti-LGBT violence, purportedly caused by the very urban process upon which the Starbucks business model depends (read here, here, and here).

The development of this program as a direct response to the Pulse massacre has created an interesting bridge between my dissertation research and my more recent writing on the Pulse massacre. Previously, I wrote about some of the ways in which the Starbucks initiative was problematic within the context of my ethnography on Boystown. In particular, I discussed how these programs might fail to help LGBTQ+ people of color who are alienated from the marketplace through practices like racial profiling. For a recent example of how people of color are discriminated against in spaces of consumption, check out this video that went viral the same week that Orlando's "Safe Places" program launched. With this reality, the extent to which businesses can be "safe spaces" is limited to those who are welcome in spaces of consumption; that is, consumers.

Furthermore, symbolic "safe spaces" are nothing new and neither is their relationship to corporations. During my fieldwork, I took note of a "Safe Space" sign sponsored by Allstate insurance company hanging inside of the Center on Halsted. Serving as both a marker of safe space and an advertisement for the company, it also signaled a certain type of marketized privatization brought about by neoliberalism. This is where the problem lies. LGBT well-being should not depend on corporations, businesses, or the economy. In fact, the very existence of the Center on Halsted depends upon corporate sponsorship, particularly Whole Foods – the high end grocery store that, like Starbucks, is also tied to gentrification.

While the relationships between businesses and LGBT safety, security, and equality are praised, it is important to recognize how these programs are problematic. Outlined below are a few thoughts on these efforts to turn businesses into symbolic shelters:

1. It's important to recognize what these initiatives do and what they do not do. These "Safe Place" programs are first and foremost symbolic gestures of an alliance with LGBT people. While there is nothing inherently wrong with developing cultural symbols that promote LGBT safety and condemn anti-LGBT violence, the value of doing so negated through its ties to capitalism which limit the benefactors of such programs to primarily white consumers.

2. The "Safe Places" program is not only a signal of the convergence between corporations, local businesses, politicians, and the Carceral State, but also of LGBT cooperation with a system that currently and historically depends upon discrimination against people of color, the gender nonconforming, and the poor. You don't have to look that far back into Orlando's recent history for a concrete example of this. In 2006, Orlando banned feeding homeless people due to safety and sanitation issues for local businesses. While this ban was struck down in in 2008, it was later reinstated resulting in a number of arrests. Feeding the homeless outside of public parks is also criminalized, restricted, and regulated by the City of Orlando by through loitering laws. The criminalization of the homeless is part of a larger social, political, and economic prioritization of economic development and tourism. Considering the rates of homelessness for LGBT youth, the disproportionate number of people of color who are affected by anti-LGBT violence, and the criminalization of LGBT people, turning businesses into symbolic safe spaces for victims to call the police are not real solutions for anti-LGBT violence.

3. There is an uneasiness and discomfort that is experienced by LGBT people when businesses abruptly adopt a pro-LGBT stance following the witnessing of LGBT tragedy. After the Pulse shooting, numerous local businesses posted "Orlando Strong" signs in their windows and designed rainbow/love-themed window displays. While some felt and appreciated the support of these businesses, others pondered their motives since they never before took a visible stance for LGBT equality or against LGBT violence. The relationship between identity politics and profits comes into question in a capitalist system where businesses' symbolic solidarity contradicts social-political action (or the lack thereof), particularly when it is done in lieu of economic gain. Capitalism has created an environment where a business's symbolic solidarity is seen as meaningful social action.

Using Orlando's "Safe Places" program, I broadly argue that increased visibility, increased policing, and privatized interests are not the solutions for LGBT safety. Considering those who were victims of the Pulse massacre, I also argue that the "safe places" program is not the most appropriate way to commemorate the 6-month "anniversary" of the Pulse massacre due to the limited benefit it will have for LGBT people of color. SaveSaveSave

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© 2016 by Zachary Blair