"Safezones" and the LGBTQ+ College Experience
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 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 if I could change myself. In one year, I kept telling myself I could leave. So I waited.
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 and then discussing them.
My roommate was the only one who stood on the "uncomfortable" side of the room when talking 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.
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.
“I felt like being gay was always something that put me on the run.”
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, and dumped a 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 my second year of school, Washington University hired a new LGBTQ+ student liaison named 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 of queer students.
In one weekend, alongside nine others, I trained for three days on all aspects of LGBTQ+ identity. We held hourlong sessions for each letter of the acronym, followed by sessions on how to facilitate training 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 also 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.
“I was learning about identities from people who claimed those identities for themselves in a [safezone]. It felt like the first time I’d found a family.”
The facilitator for each unit was someone new, an undergraduate or graduate 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.
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 your own 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 can also put us at risk of 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 cappella groups, cultural student groups, fraternities, and sororities. I even trained faculty on LGBTQ+ basics, stressing respect and understanding above all.
Through these training sessions, 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 reveals to themselves the contexts in which they had learned about queer identities. From there, we could figure out the unlearning they needed.
“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 became my family, my community …”
I led privilege walks, where people took steps forward and backward based on their inherent privileges and then discussed it. I also facilitated discussions in which participants revealed what they knew, what they didn't know, 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.
Safezones became 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.
“Safezones … taught me the framework to use to engage in conversations with people who want to learn more.”
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 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 and with a social services health clinic for uninsured, undocumented, and unhoused populations.
I believe Safezones is the reason I'm passionate about helping others. It taught me the framework to use to engage in conversations with people who want to learn more. The group made me more confident and able to trust others to use new knowledge to foster their own growth.
Most importantly, Safezones inspired me to become a leader in my community, striving to better myself and those around me.
Resources for LGBTQ+ Students
Sam Wein lives in Chicago. He has published one poetry chap-book and has a second chap-book forthcoming. He co-runs the literary journal Underblong. He can be found on Twitter at @samforbreakfast.