Beyond Allies: Creating Inclusive Safe Space Programs for Institutions!

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Co-Authored by Deirdre Myers

Identities such as sex, gender, and sexuality are generally understood in terms of binaries such as “straight or gay,” “men or women,” and “transgender or cisgender” by members outside of the LGBTQ and allied communities (Coffee, 2014). In the 1990s, “Safe Space” or “ally development” programs to counter heterosexism, homophobia, and gender binarism began emerging to improve campus climate for LGBTQ persons (Ballard, Bartle, & Masequesmay, 2008). Safe Space training has been a necessary way to help faculty and staff in higher education institutions react to problems facing the LGBT community (Poynter & Tubbs, 2007; Sanlo, Rankin, & Schoenberg, 2002). Many of these programs involved distributing a safe zone sticker as well as a brochure that included information about the LGBTQ community (Ballard et al., 2008). Currently, most Safe Space programs mandate a training to obtain a sticker that symbolizes a safe and judgement free space where students can feel comfortable discussing issues of gender, sex, and sexuality with faculty and staff displaying the sticker. However, these trainings often focus heavily on lesbian and gay experiences while insufficiently covering the identities of bi* and trans* individuals, and frequently do not require participants to gain measurable knowledge or understanding of allyship in order to receive their certification and sticker. In addition, while many of these trainings may feel extensive, much of training focuses only on vocabulary and best practices for helping students in crisis. In fact, the danger that many students face due to lack of general understanding about sexuality and gender extends further and deeper than just one training session can address. Because students can experience sex, gender, and sexual violence in a myriad of ways, institutions must expand their Safe Space programs to include comprehensive trainings that include the intersections of sexuality and gender with identities such as race, class, ability, etc (Poynter & Tubbs, 2007). In addition, trainings must address and combat the impact of ideology that negatively impacts those both within and outside of the LGBTQ community. Namely, such trainings must not only aim to control the damage inflicted by harmful cultural norms, but to actively educate and support those in the university’s community who have been abused by them. As higher education institutions continue making efforts to increase diversity and inclusivity of their campuses in all aspects; LGBTQ individuals continue to come out at earlier ages; and Title IX has thrown the plight of sexual assault victims into sharp relief, the need for “Safe Space” programs on campus has become more important than ever. In order for colleges and universities to meet the changing needs of their students, Safe Space programs must also change to reflect the present and future challenges on their campuses.

Negrete & Purcell (2011, p 83) state, “as individuals across the continuum of sexual orientation and gender identity continue to gain acceptance in society through increased visibility, they face a more covert kind of discrimination.” This discrimination often takes the form of microaggressions that students, faculty, and staff alike may have difficulty naming and therefore addressing. As educators, it is important for our institutions to create comprehensive trainings to better understand how to recognize and combat such covert discrimination, moving beyond rudimentary teachings and toward informed solutions that combat the root of the problem. A study conducted by Ballard et al. (2008) states, 78% of the faculty and staff who participated in a safe zone or ally development training said they would like follow-up or additional training. In addition, over 50% of participants requested advanced training on “effective ways to be an ally or advocate, relevant legal issues, and on topics of gender and sexism, and transgender issues” (p 17). The issues addressed in Safe Space and ally development training are often complex and powerful. Instead of hoping to address the most rudimentary concerns about sex, sexuality, and gender to the largest audience, we propose that such training sessions become more tailored to the participants, based on the knowledge they already have and what they hope to achieve through the training session. Even a system offering separate training for beginners, current allies, and budding activists, would ensure that participants could get the most out of such programs, multiplying each participant’s impact.

Though Safe Space training sessions currently focus mainly on issues concerning identity, it is important to note that sexual violence plays a part in many individuals’ sexual experiences, particularly on college campuses. According to the organization One in Four, “one in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.”  Additionally, according to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN),  “about 3% of American men- or 1 in 33- have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime” (RAINN). Sexual violence, then, is another unfortunate but necessary component worth including in programming that is designed to make participants feel equipped to navigate discussions of sex, gender, and sexuality. Because it is a reality for many students, learning to discuss sexuality with students must also include understanding how to discuss sexual assault with survivors, and how to cultivate an environment that does not condone sexual violence. Kilpatrick, Edmunds, & Seymour (as cited in Ullman & Filipas, 2001) found that “one-third of female rape victims identified in community samples [experienced] PTSD at some time after the assault” (p. 369). It is therefore important that faculty and staff not only understand how to discuss sexual violence with survivors, but to be aware of and actively prevent or warn students about triggering situations, when possible. Particularly as Title IX implications have thrown the demand for universities to support sexual assault survivors into sharp relief, Safe Space training programs can be an additional way that colleges and universities serve survivors on their campuses, and create a campus culture that does not implicitly, if accidentally, condone or tolerate such violence.

Though current Safe Space programs aim to translate the experiences of LGBTQ students, they often do so through the dominant identity lens, such as that of a white, upper-class, able-bodied, straight, male, or otherwise privileged persons. Purdie-Vaugns and Eibach (2008) explain that “because people with multiple subordinate group identities (e.g. ethnic minority women) do not fit the prototypes of their respective identity groups (e.g. ethnic minorities, women), they will experience what we have termed ‘intersectional invisibility’” (p. 377). In similar ways, queer people of color, queer students with disabilities, and students who are otherwise marginalized in addition to their sexual orientation and gender identity are often made invisible by current education practices, but face compounded forms of oppression that must also be addressed. McCann and Kim (as cited in Abes, Jones, and McEwen, 2007), note, an intersectional approach to different personal identities “[recognize] how socially constructed identities are experienced simultaneously, not hierarchically” (p. 3). Particularly as the demographics and visibility of students’ identities are growing and changing, it is our responsibility as educators to address the identities of our students simultaneously and with equal measures of respect, instead of treating them as separable entities that can be examined and solved in singular, isolated training sessions. In order to adhere to our students’ individual needs, we must recognize that their identities and struggles will also be unique, and structure our programs accordingly.

Finally, student affairs professionals continue to allow the burden “of oppression [to fall] on the oppressed” (Edwards as cited in Jordan, 2012, p. 68) by continuing to solely focus on the development and support of LGBT students at their institutions instead of supplementing their focus with the comprehensive development of allies. Current practices focus primarily on reactionary allyship, where ally training hinges on addressing the harm done to LGBTQ students. Comprehensive ally development, however, focuses additionally on proactive allyship, where allies actively combat homophobia, transphobia, and victim blaming in university policies, and in individual practice. This type of training encourages allies to become activists, where they address the cause of discrimination, instead of simply mediating the effects. Worthington, Savoy, Dillon, and Vernaglia (as cited in Jordan, 2012) state, heterosexual students start conceptualizing their attitudes and beliefs toward the LGB population as they begin to develop their own sexual identity. Student affairs professionals must capitalize on this development by conducting trainings that are founded in comprehensive heterosexual ally development theories (i.e., Worthington et al., Broido, and Edwards); however, caution should be used when generalizing populations from these theories due to the need for further research. Moreover, universities need to re-evaluate their Safe Space programs to ensure that those who attend trainings are committed to serving as a social justice ally, and not solely a resource during a crisis. Broido (as cited in Jordan, 2012) defines social justice allies as “members of dominant social groups who are working to end the system of oppression that gives them greater privilege and power based on their social-group membership.” A distinction must be made between LGBTQ informational sessions (which is often the unintended outcome of safe zone programs) and ally development trainings that encourage activism.

Furthermore, institutions must begin (or continue) to share information through avenues such as conferences, sister institution outreach, and online venues (i.e., LGBTQ Architect) to develop a comprehensive safe space training that fully depicts the range and depth of identities, experiences, and issues related to gender and sexuality among college students. 

Is your institution ahead of the curve? Are they providing inclusive safe zone/ally development trainings? Jamie Piperato, LLC provides consultation services that can help your institution revamp their current safe zone program! Please call today at 803-708-8133 or email to let us know what we can do for you! 

Co-Author Biography:

Deirdre Myers is a current student in Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Higher Education Administration and Policy Program, where she works as an intern in the Diversity and Inclusion Office. She has previously served as an undergraduate Educational Coordinator for James Madison University’s LGBTQ organization Madison Equality, where she performed multiple duties including training panelists, and overseeing and facilitating Safe Zone training sessions.

Deirdre’s Contact Information:




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