I’m going to try to explain appropriation of terms by explaining safe spaces through a metaphor.
There are certain words or terms that are important to certain groups of people. For example, two-spirit and third-gender are terms used by some indigenous groups to describe certain transgender or non-binary people. A problem that often arises is non-indigenous people co-opting those terms and using them without understanding the significance or having respect for the unique circumstances in which those descriptors are used. Some people (mostly non-natives) see that as positive because they feel it breaks down barriers between natives and non-natives and makes everyone the same.
The problem is that non-native appropriation of those terms doesn’t equalize anything, it only invades indigenous safe spaces and takes parts of their culture while forcing non-native values on the natives.
Think of it like this: there are areas marked off as sanctuaries, wildlife preserves, state parks, etc. Those places exist to protect certain species and ecosystems. They’re safe spaces for the environment. In some of those areas you aren’t allowed to drive a vehicle or maybe even enter. You’re certainly not allowed to bring in foreign plants or animals or remove native ones. Introducing non-native species can entirely destroy the local environment, even drive species to extinction. Taking species out hurts the ecosystem, too. It’s totally, 100% okay to admire the beauty, respect it, even be awed by. It’s completely wrong to exploit it, damage it, or disregard the boundaries set for its protection. Sometimes you can get permits to go into restricted areas or to hunt a certain amount, and that’s okay, too.
Areas like that exist for people, too. It’s completely okay to be amazed by native cultures and to want to learn about them. It’s even okay to participate IF you have permission. If you’re invited, realize that it’s a privilege and be mindful of limitations. It’s okay to think two-spirit and third-gender people are awesome, to learn about their roles in their tribes. It’s not okay to take those roles out of the tribes and try to transplant them into your own world. It’s also not okay to try to force your beliefs or traditions onto those spaces.
Many marginalized groups are protective of their spaces. They’re small sanctuaries for members of those groups. There are specific words and behaviors that are accepted within those circles and by people who are parts of it, but are off-limits for non-members. It’s not unfair or oppressive. It’s not harmful. It’s a matter of preservation and keeping areas safe from invasive, dominant social norms and expectations. So if you wouldn’t drive your car through a forest where vehicles aren’t allowed, don’t force yourself into spaces too aren’t a part of. Learn, listen, admire, respect, but don’t try to take over like kudzu in the Everglades. Don’t litter the space with your presumed superiority. Don’t take clippings of what you like and ignore that it’s part of a much more complex system. What seems harmless can be devastating.
How can you know what words you shouldn’t use, or where you shouldn’t barge in? Nature preserves have signs. Safe spaces have them, too, if you pay attention and listen. Tread lightly and carefully, practice respect, and you’ll probably be okay.
Note: this is not only about native trans or non-binary identities. This is applicable to most safe spaces and concerns of appropriation.