Sam Wein lives in Chicago. He has published one poetry chapbook and has a second chapbook forthcoming. He co-runs the literary journal Underblong. He can be found on Twitter at @samforbreakfast.
At 15, I was outed to everyone at my high school: I told three girls I was close to that I'd kissed a boy, and in less than a week, three people became 300. I pretended everyone didn't know, but they did. I pretended that their bullying didn't affect me, but it did.
As high school went on, I spread myself across several friend groups, so nobody could spend too much time with me, see too much of me. I didn't want to be seen. I wanted to hide until I could escape. I thought about killing myself -- I didn't kill myself. I came out to my parents at 17 in my last year of high school, and they reacted horribly. They kept asking me if I could change myself. In one year, I kept telling myself I could leave. So I waited.
If you're considering suicide, call the TrevorLifeline at 1-866-488-7386, text "START" to 678678, or visit The Trevor Project's website.
In my first month in the dorms, I came out to my entire floor -- everyone except my roommate. After moving in, we did an icebreaker as a floor -- moving to different sides of the room based on our comfort levels around various sensitive topics, then discussing them. My roommate was the only one who stood on the "uncomfortable" side of the room when discussing about living with a queer roommate. I told people not to tell him. I stayed away from my room, walked around, ate in other people's rooms, found other places to do homework. I felt like being gay was always something that put me on the run.
I stayed away from my room, walked around, ate in other people's rooms, found other places to do homework. I felt like being gay was always something that put me on the run.
My school, Washington University in St Louis, let second-year students have dorm priority if they chose roommates in the first three months of their first year. I wanted out of my room, away from my roommate, so I agreed to live with three other boys from my floor whom I liked but didn't know too well. But then I lived with them, saw their endlessly wild nights. Their behavior scared me. I tried to stay away, which made me a target: They got drunk and broke my things in the common space, threw pasta and spaghetti sauce at my door, dumped an entire full trash can in my room. One of them kept screaming "faggot" at me while I tried to sleep. I stopped sleeping there. I was on the run again, just like the year before. I was tired of feeling this way, and didn't know where to turn. I needed community, and I needed help.
During that second year of school, Washington University hired a new LGBTQ+ student liaison, Christine Dolan. Dolan took time to know us. They wanted to make us feel supported in a tough, homophobic college environment. I wasn't able to move out of my toxic living situation until midway through the year, so Dolan told me I needed to find community and encouraged me to join an LGBTQ+ student group called Safezones, which dedicated itself to training students on campus to be more inclusive and supportive for queer students. In one weekend, alongside nine others, I trained for three days on all aspects of LGBTQ+ identity. We had hour-long sessions for each letter of the acronym, followed by sessions on how to facilitate trainings for peers.
I think I learned more in my introductory course to Safezones than I did in my entire college career. Going through every aspect of sexual orientation and gender expression in a room of only queer peers allowed each of us to gain knowledge from experienced facilitators while sharing how we have experienced these identities in our own lives. I still remember my orientation group, how each of us shared our own identities alongside the models we were learning, how we unlearned our own internalized hatred for ourselves, how we learned where these phobias stemmed from.
The facilitator for each unit was someone new, an undergrad or grad student who already belonged to the group and had signed up to train us on a subject they were knowledgeable about. I was learning about identities from people who claimed those identities for themselves in a safe space. It felt like the first time I'd found a family.
I was learning about identities from people who claimed those identities for themselves in a safe space. It felt like the first time I'd found a family.
A close friend of mine now who was involved with Safezones back when she was in college said that Safezones doesn't teach straight people about queer people -- it teaches straight people about themselves. But I think it also taught me a lot about myself: I reevaluated how I understood relationships, when I learned about asexuality and mapping relationships emotionally and sexually. I learned about bisexual erasure and how the people you date and how you identify can vary. I learned about gender expansion, about the way we all learn the gender binary, and how deviating from that in any way can be such a freedom but also can put us at risk for harm from others. I felt freer learning about people like me.
The best, however, was yet to come. When I started facilitating training for Safezones, I put my educator skills to use in a peer-to-peer setting. I worked with various student groups like a capella groups and cultural student groups, fraternities and sororities, and even trained faculty on LGBTQ+ basics, stressing respect and understanding above all. Through these trainings, I was helping others learn about themselves in the way I had learned about myself. The Safezones model asks people to interrogate their own biases, which in turn revealed to themselves the contexts in which they had learned about queer identities. From there, we could figure out the unlearning they needed.
I led privilege walks, where people took steps forward and backwards based on their inherent privileges, then discussed it. I also facilitated discussions where participants revealed what they knew, what they didn't, and what they wanted to know about giant lists of LGBTQ+ topics. I tailored my training to accommodate knowledge gaps for people, which I could do because I felt confident in everything I'd learned from my own training. I trusted that people in the room would share their experiences and what they knew so we could learn together. Every time, the training was unbelievably successful.
I trusted that people in the room would share their experiences and what they knew so we could learn together. Every time, the training was unbelievably successful.
Safezones did become my family, my community, for a significant amount of my time in school. The year after I joined, I was elected to an executive position, the new education coordinator. I helped organize and restructure the training for new members, meeting with each prospective recruit one-on-one before they joined. I wanted to understand what they wanted to get out of the group, what they wanted to learn more about.
What's incredible about Safezones is that some people were excited to train and educate, while others only wanted to go through the 20 hours of training to become more educated about LGBTQ+ advocacy and issues. My executive role taught me about how to be mentored by those more experienced and how to mentor students new to our community.
After college, I continued this kind of work: I've now been in social services for five years, starting in housing programs for chronically homeless, HIV+ individuals. I also worked in HIV/STI testing and research, then with a social services health clinic for uninsured, undocumented, and unhoused populations.
I believe Safezones is the reason I'm passionate about helping others, as it taught me the framework to engage in conversations with people who don't know enough.
I believe Safezones is the reason I'm passionate about helping others, as it taught me the framework to engage in conversations with people who don't know enough. The group made me more confident -- able to trust others to use new knowledge to foster their own growth -- and most importantly, it inspired me to become a leader in my community, striving to better myself and those around me.