The brightly colored rainbow stickers labeled “Safe Zone: I am an Ally” on office doors across University of North Georgia’s five campuses are more than just decoration.
Safe Zones are spaces where students in the LGBTQ+ community can talk to faculty or staff members who are trained on LGBTQ+ issues about personal or academic problems and concerns.
“It’s an idea that a student who walks into the room will be understood,” said Tara Overzat, assistant director for Multicultural Student Affairs in Dahlonega.
The stickers are an important point of distinction for these trained professors and are considered a “signal” point. They are placed on the doors to let students know the professor is “actively and publicly an ally,” said Lindsay Bailey, director of Student Involvement in Oconee.
Although Safe Zones are part of a national program, becoming a trained member is completely voluntary and no university is required to have these spaces.
Before UNG consolidated, Bailey helped found Safe Zones at Gainesville State College in 2011.
“When I first started, I learned there was no safe zone program,” Bailey said.
Safe Zones are different from safe spaces, which are general areas for all students to express views freely without fear of discrimination.
There are many reasons students visit these zones.
Particularly on campuses that do not provide housing, students might come to these safe zones because they have been kicked out of their home after coming out as LGBTQ+. Safe Zone-trained staff can provide resources for temporary housing, Overzat said.
Tutorial of training
Training to be an ally varies from basic to advanced, depending on how familiar members are with LGBTQ+ issues.
Basic training consists of a one-hour course in which participants learn about fundamental aspects of the LGBTQ+ community, such as terminology, available resources, what the community is and how it’s defined.
Advanced training consists of two-hour courses and is geared toward people who are familiar with the LGBTQ+ community, but want to update their knowledge.
Training proved to be a positive and accepting atmosphere by providing an open environment where individuals could ask any questions they had without judgment, said Katie Hemphill, a career specialist for Career Services in Dahlonega.
Although it isn’t required, many allies attend multiple trainings to stay informed on new resources and information.
Restructuring training courses
This semester, there has been a focus on “rebranding and renewing” the training sessions, Bailey said.
Spearheading the revamp of the curriculum is Jacqueline Adams, coordinator of Student Leadership and Safe Zone training in Oconee.
“I created the new curriculum for the training based on my previous position with the LGBTQ Resource Center at Bowling Green State University, and based on my own personal experiences as a pansexual cisgender woman in a lesbian relationship,” Adams said.
The reason for the restructuring stems from concerns the current training isn’t thorough enough.
Adams said it takes more than an hour to “really understand definitions, terms or the oppressive systems.”
The revamped sessions will look at the LGBTQ+ population at UNG specifically, with a focus on terminology and Georgia policy.
The goal moving forward is to offer more basic and advanced training on all five campuses every semester.
“It is my hope that we will have three basic trainings and two advanced trainings [each semester],” Adams said.
This semester, Multicultural Student Affairs will hold three basic training sessions, with Adams leading all workshops, and each of which will be videoconferenced to all five campuses:
- April 4 from noon to 1 p.m. in the Hoag ABC Rooms in Dahlonega
- April 9 from noon to 1 p.m. in Gainesville Nesbitt 3110 A (Cleveland Ballroom)
- April 13 from noon to 1 p.m. in Oconee Student Center Room 522.
Although this is a start, Adams said “it’s certainly not enough.”
Any student organization, in addition to individual students and faculty/staff members, is welcome to be trained, although it is preferred that the training group consists of eight people or more, Adams said.
Safe Zones as a personal mission
Many professors who are Safe Zone allies have close connections to or feel a certain compassion toward the LGBTQ+ community.
Dr. Maria Calatayud, associate professor of Spanish in Dahlonega, said her passion goes beyond just an interest in the LGBTQ+ community.
“Education is more than just teaching a subject,” said Calatayud, who encourages all students in her classes to attend a Safe Zone training. “It’s my role as an educator to make sure [students] are aware.”
Personal experience with discrimination is also a factor in why some faculty members have trained to become allies.
“I identify as queer, I am bisexual,” Overzat said. “Sometimes it’s been more accepted than not.”
Some faculty members do not identify as LGBTQ+ themselves, but are close to people who are.
“Many individuals close to me in my life are LGBTQ+, and I’ve witnessed through their experiences that it can be difficult meeting new people and not knowing if they can truly open up to them free from judgement,” Hemphill said.
Although the Safe Zones advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, it is understood that every individual has a unique situation.
“I can’t speak for all queer people,” Adams said. “I will do my best to accommodate.”
Through Safe Zones, Adams hopes to serve as many people as possible and encourage students to think more critically about queer issues.
“My hope is that Safe Zones put a tiny dent in what is a large culture of oppression,” Adams said.
Want to know more?
To sign up for a Safe Zone training, visit UNG Connect and fill out the request form.