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The evolution of Safe Zone

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Since 1999, the Safe Zone program has worked to create a more inclusive environment at Illinois State by educating faculty and staff on issues that face lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students. Over the past 15 years, the program has evolved, mirroring a growing understanding by society.

The idea for Safe Zone started at a candlelight vigil. In 1998, Illinois State students gathered on the Quad in the wake of the brutal torture and murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. His attackers admitted targeting Shepard because he was gay.

“His death impacted campuses across the nation, including ours,” said Associate Dean of Students Jill Benson. “People gathered on the Quad, not only in memory of Matthew, but to support our LGBT students. People looked to the University for a response.”

One of the programs that emerged was Safe Zone, an orientation session for faculty, staff and graduate students. Initially, the program was designed to give information about students coming out. As the years went by, Safe Zone expanded from a method of instruction to include a larger scope of understanding.

“Safe Zone has morphed over time, so now we have more of an emphasis on identity,” said Benson. “We still cover the coming out process, but we also focus on LGBT identity development. We recognize that the development of our student population has changed.”

Students are now coming to college with some basic understanding of LGBT issues, said Diversity Programming Specialist Ashley Taylor, who oversees Safe Zone for Diversity Advocacy in the Dean of Students Office. “Society has changed. Most people have been introduced to LGBT concepts before they come to college,” Taylor said. “For some it is an understanding, but for others it is more basic awareness.”

Taylor helps to coordinate two Safe Zone orientation sessions a semester with facilitators such as Residence Hall Coordinator Tommie Peckenpaugh. “I am out, but when I first started my college career in Oklahoma, I did not have a good experience,” said Peckenpaugh. “I want students to know there is a safe place, and they can have somebody to talk to. I want to be the support that I did not have.”

At the Safe Zone orientation, faculty and staff are encouraged to meet students “where they are” in the coming out process. “Students are all in different places dealing with their sexuality or their gender identity,” said Peckenpaugh. “Everybody has a closet. Everybody has something that they are worried to tell the world. You have to be ready for the consequences of letting that information be known. Coming out is no different.”

Safe Zone Brown Bag discussions came to life shortly after the orientations began. “They started as a follow-up for those involved in the orientation, but have become more of a second-level of information for everyone,” said Benson.

Taylor, who plans the Brown Bags, noted they allow people to “dive a little deeper into issues and topics that are more in depth than your basic level of awareness.” Brown Bags this school year have included topics such as understanding what it means to live in a heteronormative culture, hearing the stories of LGBT students, and meeting with LGBT speaker and performer Justin Utley.

Brown Bag discussions welcome people from all over campus. Taylor said she wants to see the Safe Zone orientations follow suit. “Diversity Advocacy hopes to increase student participation in the future, and we are looking for potential evening times as well,” she said of the traditional lunchtime orientation and Brown Bag sessions.

Not everyone who goes through the Safe Zone orientation decides to become an ally for LGBT students. “It is an educational opportunity. There is a chance at the end to sign the agreement and be an ally, but if you are not ready for that, then that is fine,” said Benson.

Those who do sign the agreement, and display their Safe Zone stickers and button, open up an avenue of support for students. “When underrepresented students arrive on campus, they can have a pretty good idea who their natural lines of support might be, but LGBT is a hidden identity,” said Benson. “When students are on campus, they see the Safe Zone buttons or stickers. That is a visible sign of support for what can be a hidden identity.”

Read more Identity stories.

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