Over the academic years of 2009 and 2010 there were several news reports of students being harassed about their sexuality. Sadly, some of those students chose to take their own lives. As the news articles piled up with headlines like “Fifth Gay Youth to Take Life in Three Weeks,” parents and teachers, myself included, worried if similar events would happen close to home. Unfortunately, they did. Georgetown University, where I attended graduate school, reported anti-gay attacks, but Georgetown took a stand. The university administration and the student body held vigils and voiced their collective opposition to hate-based crimes.
If anti-gay attacks could happen at Georgetown, near my home, could similar attacks happen at Montgomery College, where I work? I certainly hoped not, but I knew that as a responsible member of my community, I had to do something to prevent similar attacks from happening. I spoke with the Humanities associate dean about creating a program that would answer questions like, who should students call if they feel unsafe, and how does the College deal with sexual orientation-based slurs and assaults?
As a parenthetical, I must share that I have experienced not knowing how to address insensitivity at the workplace. I once called campus security about a voice message in which a male caller left me offensive gay-related comments. The security officer listened to the message and said if no physical threats were made, there was nothing he could do. He left me feeling nervous about answering my office phone. Also, just last year, a student called me a “fucking faggot” after I thanked him for opening a door for me while leaving the Humanities building. Although the student later found out who I was, and although another faculty member talked to him, I did not feel better. The experiences, coupled with the news stories, left me wondering what students would do and how students would feel if they found themselves in similar (or worse) situations.
I did not know the answers. The associate dean suggested I speak with Dr. Deborah Stearns, a friend and colleague who advises the People’s Alliance, our campus’s GLBTQ student group. To my surprise, she told me the College had been considering a Safe Zone program for some time. We spoke with the two counselors that had been working on proposing a program; they said they needed interested faculty and students to prove there was a need. We said, here we are, and there is a need, the need for prevention. Why wait until after someone gets hurt or after one of our students commits suicide, to do something? Our small group of four met, went over our resources, and shared ideas such as forming peer counseling sessions for students and sensitivity/ally training for faculty and staff. We created a proposal, and a delegate met with our provost. She said yes! And yeses are all we have been getting since the project began.
Yesterday, one of the counselors and I presented the Safe Zone program to the college-wide Academic Assembly, which consists of deans, chairs, and other heads of college governance. We cited a GLSEN study that found GLBTQ students are more likely to skip school if they feel unsafe, but they are also more likely to do better if they can identify supportive faculty or staff members. Our program, we said, means to create an environment where students can feel safe in order to succeed. The Assembly was pleased to hear about the Safe Zone program and the faculty-staff training, and they underscored the need to build an accepting campus environment.
A lot of smart people, hard work, good timing, and patience went into this project. The Safe Zone program is already taking registrations across our three campuses, and that is exciting! We look forward someday to having a GLBTQ Resource Center, a real space where students can feel comfortable, find information, and meet to form a sense of community. Everyone of our students, faculty, and staff have the right to feel safe and welcome at work. Yesterday, I realized that a great place to work is a place that lets you use the best parts of who you are to make the workplace even better. This is why I love my job.