I think that there are two reasons to have a Safe Zone program on a college or university campus: (1) LGBT students need to know who on campus is safe and supportive, and (2) Allies need a way of showing others that they are safe and supportive.
Being a LGBT or queer student, or someone who is questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, can be a scary and isolating prospect. When I was a first year student, newly out and new to campus, I didn’t know where to go to for information or support. The school didn’t have a LGBT Center then and the student group wasn’t very active.
It wasn’t until much later that I found out that there were lots of allies around me. My RA was a lesbian, but wasn’t out to her residents. The Resident Director for the building was the most amazing ally I could ever hope for. My writing teacher was very supportive of his gay son and was a member of PFLAG.
When we began the Safe Zone Project at the University of Southern Maine, the Resident Director and the English faculty member were among the first people to sign up for the Safe Zone Project training. They were looking for a way to show the campus community that they understood how hard it was for LGBT students to come out and find support and that they were “safe” people to talk to.
One of my best friends, also an alumna of USM says, of the Safe Zone Project:
“I wish the Safe Zone Project had been established at the University back then, simply the visibility of the logo grants validation, acceptance, support, and a sense of safety that would have let me know I wasn’t alone. Safe Zones create and become sources of strength and courage that allow connection to a safe and supportive community in a time of isolation.” (K. Stuart, USM, class of 1996)
Justification for a Required Training
A required training should be an integral part of a comprehensive Safe Space Ally Program. Assuming that all interested participants will be able to function and communicate, when in contact with LGBT people, does not take into consideration the impediments to this contact. A barrier to contact with LGBT people and issues can be anticipated discomfort about future interactions with LGBT people (Mohr & Sedlacek, 2000). The fear of unintentionally exhibiting homophobic or prejudiced behavior has also shown to be an impediment for future contact with LGBT people (Devine, Evett, & Vasques-Suson, 1996; Mohr & Sedlacek, 2000). Additionally, first-year students are likely to believe that their peers hold negative attitudes about LGBT people resulting in adjustment of behavior to emulate this misperception (Bowen & Bourgeois 2001). Providing educational interventions, such as a required training in a LGBT Safe Space Ally program, that create interpersonal contact and provide skills building activities can help reduce discomfort and fear. The public identification of allies through a Safe Space Ally Program will help to alleviate previously held misperceptions and encourage others to participate.
Making a Difference
Evidence shows that these programs do make a difference. Assessment results from two different institutions (Iowa State University and Duke University) show that their individual programs increased visibility, improved the environment, increased conversations, and increased the comfort level of the participants in the program (Evans, 2002; Poynter & Lewis, 2003). Many participants may report that they do not have many interactions with people on campus as a result of participating in the program (Evans, 2002; Poynter & Lewis, 2003). However, conversations do increase for some and as a result awareness around LGBT issues is created. Other tangible benefits occur, despite a lack of conversations, such as indirect interactions (LGBT people feeling an increased comfort level) and changing a perceived negative campus image (Evans, 2002).
At Duke University participation in a training is required before joining the program. When conversations are broken down by demographics “fifty percent of the men and thirty six percent of the women reported having more conversations (around LGBT issues) with employees” after participating in the required training and joining the program (Poynter & Lewis, 2003). It is interesting to note that a higher percentage of heterosexual members than LGBT members reported an increase in conversations. However when asked about their level of comfort in having conversations “thirty-nine percent of the men and sixty-one percent of the women reported feeling more comfortable with any kind of LGBT issue” (Poynter & Lewis, 2003). Even if members did not report an increase in conversations, there was a increase reported in their comfort level. At worst, members reported that the program had not increased conversations or comfort due to already high comfort levels that existed prior to the program.
Bowen, A. M., & Bourgeois, M. J. (2001) Attitudes toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students: The contributions of pluralistic ignorance, dynamic social impact, and contact theories. (Electronic Version) Journal of American College Health, 50, p. 91.
Devine, P. G., Evett, S. R., & Vasquez-Suson, K.A. (1996). Exploring the interpersonal dynamics of intergroup contact. In R. M. Sorrentine & E. T.
Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition: vol 3. The interpersonal context (pp. 423-464). New York: Guilford Press.
Evans, N. (2002) The impact of an LGBT safe zone project on campus climate. Journal of College Student Development, 43, 522-539.
Mohr, J. & Sedlacek, W. (2000) Perceived barriers to friendship with lesbians and gay men among university students. Journal of College Student Development, 41, 70-80.
Poynter, K. & Lewis, E. (2003) SAFE on campus assessment report. Durham, NC: Duke University, Center for LGBT Life.
Source: Campus Pride, 2006.