Learning Objectives–At the end of this module, you will be able to:

  1. explain why we need to make our spaces welcoming for LGBTQ2S youth
  2. explain and implement the concept of safe enough spaces

Almost all LGBTQ people going into shelters have a fear of them, because it isn’t a matter of if it’s dangerous, but just how dangerous it will be. It is horrible to live in that fear everyday (Teal, 23 years old, Digital Storytelling project as cited in Abramovich,2014: 119).

The need to belong and to have a sense of community is critical (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for more information). The concept of social exclusion is one of the twelve Social Determinants of Health in Canada (Raphael, 2009). Youth experiencing homelessness often endure social exclusion and for LGBTQ2S youth experiencing homeless their social exclusion is even greater due to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. In many communities young people do not feel “safe” to be out as LGBTQ2S and that they don’t feel welcome in many spaces (if any). This Toolkit has been designed to assist staff and organizations work through the processes of becoming welcoming spaces for LGBTQ2S young people experiencing homelessness.

One goal of many, if not all, youth serving organizations is to create spaces that are welcoming and inclusive for everyone who enters our doors. An interesting exercise is to ask folks what the word “welcoming” means to them. Most likely the following words will be repeated numerous times:

  • safe
  • friendly
  • belonging
  • inclusive
  • non-judgemental

Here is a word cloud based on this exercise. The more times a word was listed the larger it appears in this word cloud.

Word cloud. Warm, safe, friendlty, supportive, non-judgement, open, inclusive, inviting, belonging are most prominent.

Photo Credit: National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness

As you can see from this random sample; “welcoming” most commonly elicited the following:

  • friendly
  • safe
  • belonging
  • inclusive
  • non-judgemental
  • open
  • inviting
  • warm
  • accessible

Take a few moments and ask your colleagues, youth, friends, family or even random strangers what words come to mind when they hear the word “welcoming”. How does your list compare to the one shared here? Please feel free to share your list in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

It is also important to ask what does welcoming look like to you. For some it means being greeted when they enter and explore the space, bright cheerful colours and displays, with lots of activities and spaces for hanging out. For the introverts among us, it is a quieter space, being given space to explore and interacting with others when they are ready, calming colours and soothing lighting. This is quite the dichotomy. It is possible to find a balance between the needs of the diverse groups.

As you read this module, it is important to remember the challenges faced by LGBTQ2S youth to find places where they are accepted. Later in the Toolkit we have an exercise called the Impact of Silence. You may want to skip ahead to this exercise if need support in understanding the need for welcoming spaces by LGBTQ2S youth.

Issues With Claiming Safe Spaces

A Safe Space is a welcoming, supportive and safe environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students (GLSEN, 2013: 2).

The intent of this module is to get us thinking about the language we use and how there may be a disconnect between what we say as service providers and how young people interpret the meaning of our words, especially when we use the term “safe space”. There are many organizations that use the term “safe space” and they have done the work required to make these spaces as safe as possible. The discussion we are having here is to make us aware that it is not always safe for youth who identify as LGBTQ2S to be out and for LGBTQ2S allies to be out. And in these situations we need to be respectful of the decision not to be out. We also need have processes in place to prove to LGBTQ2S that they can trust us and be their authentic selves in our spaces knowing we support and respect them.

Safe space is a term for an area or forum where either a marginalised group are not supposed to face standard mainstream stereotypes and marginalisation, or in which a shared political or social viewpoint is required to participate in the space (Geek Feminism Wiki).

The concept of safe space is derived from good intentions. We want to create spaces where people can feel free of stereotypes and in which privilege is minimized if not completely eradicated. We want these spaces so that as participants in the space we can be our authentic selves. These spaces are where we are suppose to be able to share personal information without judgement, and where we can discuss complicated issues rooted in oppression.

There are a few issues with the term safe space (Smith, 2013). The first is the problem of intersectionality. An example of this often occurs in women only spaces. Far too often the word women is used to mean cisgender women and by excluding trans women promotes transphobia which is opposition to an anti-oppression framework.

Another issue with the term safe space is how do we as the conveners of the space ensure the safety of our guests? If we are calling our site a safe space, what activities have we completed and what activities do we do on an ongoing basis to make the space safe? Do we have policy and procedures outlining how we define safe space, discrimination, harassment, bullying etc? Do we train our staff to respond to incidents that challenge the safety of our space? Do we educate people who enter our space about what is expected of them as members of our space and what the consequences are for violating the safe space agreement? Are staff and heterosexual and cisgender youth trained to be allies for anyone who  encounters unsafe actions, words, etc.? How can staff and management ensure that there will not be violence in our spaces?

Spaces (such as, schools, families, sports, etc.) that should be safe for LGBTQ2S youth are often not, as exemplified in the following quote: “Recent studies also find that compared to their heterosexual peers, LGBTQ youth experience significantly higher levels of violence, aggression and bullying from their peers and families” (West-Olatunji, C.,2014, March 3). If spaces that should be safe for LGBTQ2S youth are not, how can we expect these young people to believe our word that our spaces are safe for them? Until our organizations have the tools and resources to ensure our spaces are actually safe for youth, staff, volunteers and our extended community, we need another term to describe our spaces. We need to set realistic expectations for what our spaces can provide.


Vikki Reynolds, from Vancouver, promotes the notion of safe enough spaces. This concept is rooted in therapy and has significant application to our work and our spaces in the youth homelessness sector. “We can measure risks, but safety is not a commodity which can be easily quantified. But we can work towards safe-r and safe-enough ways of being” (Reynolds, 2010a: 71). The idea is “that ‘safety’ is perpetually being constituted and never completed (hence, the active verb ‘structuring’) and that safety is not a binary proposition of ‘safe/unsafe’ (hence ‘safe enough’)” (Tilsen, 2010: 89). This means that the group is always negotiating the safety of the space. Safe enough means that groups can discuss serious issues that may be triggers for some members. Group members are there to support one another.

The concept of safe-enough acknowledges that our work with young people experiencing homelessness are risky, as we as staff occupy positions of power. “The possibility of doing harm by replicating some kind of oppression is one potential risk. I am also aware of the limitations of accountability. Social justice is better served by creating contexts in which the transgression is less likely to occur” (Reynolds, 2010a: 19). This is one of the many reasons we have included modules on anti-oppression practice and privilege in the training section.

Structuring Safety creates practices that invite safety into our work, informs us to act as allies where we are privileged, and to honour collaboration (Reynolds, 2010a: ii).

I use the term Structuring Safety to describe the practices of negotiating or co-constructing conditions, structures and agreements that will make space for a safe-enough experience for all participants in community work. I believe Structuring Safety is a necessary condition for community work. Of course safety is not a thing that can be delivered by one person, as safety is co-created in relationships. Dialogues that are experienced as safe are not capricious, natural, or random. They require intentional practices and ways of being that set the space for safe-enough dialogues (Reynolds, 2010a: 95).

Structuring Safety is a counselling concept that is outside of our purposes in this Toolkit. What we need to focus on what Structuring Safety enables us to do. Safe-enough gives us a process by which we can create spaces for youth to feel comfortable, supported, and respected when they are in our facilities.

Challenges of Creating Safe Enough Space

“…one of the big sayings in social work is, ‘Lean into the discomfort of the work’” (Brown, 2010). Creating and maintaining spaces can be challenging as safe-enough spaces are always a work in progress. Being  safe-enough requires accountability from everyone who accesses the space and especially from the leadership group. This means staff and managers need to be willing and able to hear and see feedback from others and take action to create behavioural and structural changes to ensure our spaces are safe-enough.

It also means being prepared to create room for anger and frustration. Folks who experience oppression need to have room to share their anger and frustrations. Allies need to work with marginalized individuals and groups to ensure they feel safe enough to share their experiences and feelings, which can be discomforting, but is critical work.

How to Create Safe Enough Spaces

Creating safe enough spaces begins with conversations. The first conversation can start with asking the group “what does safe mean” to them. The discussion can then shift towards introducing the idea of safe enough spaces. Talking points can include the following:

  • Discussion of “safe spaces”
  • Definition of safe-enough spaces
    • We can measure risks, but safety is not a commodity which can be easily quantified. Need more than a binary of safe and unsafe
    • Need to negotiate this space for this workshop to be safe-enough for all of us
    • What do we as a group need to feel safe enough?
    • What do you need from me as the facilitator to feel safe enough during this session?
    • What do you need from staff to feel safe-enough in this program?
  • Group ground rules
    • If this is an established group, they will most likely already have some existing ground rules, but it is important because of the topic and what some youth may share that we reaffirm group ground rules.
  • Ask group if we are safe enough to proceed

Many facilitators begin workshops creating group rules. These rules guide how we interact with each other in the workshop. It enables the group to self-regulate itself. Group rules tend to resemble these images:

Class rules written out on a large sheet of paper.

Photo Credit: Eva’s Initiatives

Ground rules written on a large sheet of paper

Photo Credit: Eva’s Initiatives

There are generally references to be respectful of each other, not judging others, share positive feedback, what happens in the room stays in the room. After created the list is posted in a prominent location in the room.  In addition to group rules, we need to discuss consequences for when someone violates an agreed upon rule. Just as the rules are agreed upon by the group, so too should be the consequences of breaking a rule. This will maximize buy-in. Also sometimes the punishment we give ourselves is more severe than what others would impose on us.

Apology, verbal warning,, apology letter/essay written on a large sheet of paper.

Photo Credit: Eva’s Initiatives

Once we have this framework in place, we need to ensure that our group rules and consequences as living documents that are adjusted as necessary. This requires checking in periodically. During a one-time workshop this should occur at least once midway through the workshop or just before a sensitive topic. In ongoing groups, check ins should occur regularly. This technique also reminds the group of the agreed upon rules and reinforces the rules.

As staff we need to be prepared for some messiness and discomfort. As staff we are the authority figure and there may be frustration/anger directed at us. It is important that we are able to separate ourselves personally from this work, as challenging as this can be. We need to “lean into the discomfort of the work’” (Brown, 2010). We need to remember that this is not about us. As professionals and more importantly as allies of the young people we work with, we need to take a step back and give the floor to youth.


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Canadian Institute of Health Research. (2002). Charting the course: A Pan-Canadian consultation on population and public health priorities. Ottawa: Canadian Institutes for Health Information.
McLeod, S. (2007, September 17). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved February 7, 2015, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
Raphael, D. (2009). Social determinants of health: Canadian perspectives (2nd ed.). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
Reynolds, V. (2002). Weaving Threads of Belonging: Cultural Witnesses Groups. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 15 (3), 89-105.
Reynolds, V. (2010a). Doing justice as a path to sustainability in community work. S.l.: S.n.].
Reynolds, V. (2010b, October 1). Fluid and imperfect ally positioning: Some gifts of queer theory. Context, 13-17.
Smith, A. (2013, August 14). The Problem with “Privilege” Retrieved February 4, 2015, from https://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/
Tilsen, J. (2010). Resisting homonormativity: Therapeutic conversations with queer youth. S.l.: S.n.].
West-Olatunji, C. (2014, March 3). Creating Safe and Welcoming Spaces for LGBTQ Youth. Retrieved February 4, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cirecie-a-westolatunji/creating-safe-and-lgbtq-youth_b_4876812.html