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Safe Zone

Last week the LGBTQ Center at Carolina provided Safe Zone training for a diverse group of faculty and staff at the School who participated in the four-hour program.  The training was organized by the School’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, which is co-chaired by Chris McLaughlin and Audrey Williams.

The session was facilitated by Danny DePuy, the LGBTQ Center’s Assistant Director, who created a comfortable environment for talking about a range of challenging issues.  Safe Zone suggests that there are only certain places on campus where people will feel safe if they identify in ways other than heterosexual.  Sadly that is the case today, and so the Safe Zone training seeks to create “a network of allies for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and allied (LGBTQIA) students.”  The ultimate goal is “to make the University community a safer and more supportive place for people of all sexual orientations.”

The training included some powerful moments.  There was a video of Carolina students talking about their experiences in coming out about their homosexuality.  One young man described how his mother pulled a knife on him when he told her that he was gay, and how she hasn’t spoken to him since concluding that he was not going to be heterosexual.  It was heartbreaking and I couldn’t help feeling that somehow their separation should have been avoidable—but it was not.

We talked about the process of coming out, which only makes sense once you understand that heterosexuality is considered the norm.  For example, no one would think to ask someone when they came out as a heterosexual.  I had tended to think about the process of coming out as a one-time event, but that isn’t necessarily the case.  A person might come out differently based on the surrounding environment and do it over time.

It was challenging to understand the many different ways that people identify themselves—and how in some cases they don’t identify at all in terms of gender or sexual orientation.  Language can be confusing too.  Many gay and lesbian people intensely dislike the term “queer” because they see it as a derogatory term, but young people who want to be more fluid see it as a more open term that doesn’t necessarily pin down their gender.  The word also has an activist connection.

I hope the training has made me and others more sensitive to issues around gender and sex differences (which are not necessarily the same thing).  We need to be mindful of these differences with our MPA students, but also with our clients and with each other.  The School must be a safe place for everyone.

I don’t know how many people want gender and sexual identity to play a self-consciously central role in their lives.  If you identify in ways other than heterosexual, however, our society doesn’t give you much of a choice.  We intentionally and inadvertently do things and say things that regularly communicate to some of our colleagues, clients, and students that they are different, and therefore that something is wrong with them.  I know these are hard issues, especially for many people who were raised to think that any identification other than heterosexuality is wrong—and possibly sinful.  This training was a helpful step in encouraging everyone to be more open and respectful of difference, and to be cautious in making any judgments about people based on their gender and sexual identity.  We can and must do better for one another.

One disappointment was that we ran out of time before discussing a number of different scenarios.  Those would have been important to our understanding of the issues and it would have provided much-needed practice about how to address them in the workplace.  I believe that Chris is going to explore the possibility of arranging for a facilitated brown-bag lunch to talk about some real-life scenarios.  Thanks again to our Committee on Diversity and Inclusion for organizing this important training.

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