Safe Zone

A couple of weeks ago, I finally got around to participating in one of the workshops for the University of Richmond’s Safe Zone program. For those who don’t know,

Safe Zone educates members of the University community about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues to create a network of allies who, together with members of the LGBT community, work to create a community of safety and full inclusion for all its members.

I am now entitled to (and do!) display a sticker on my office door, letting people know that I’m “supportive and affirming of the LGBT community.” I urge UR faculty, staff, and students to do the same. Hard data are hard to come by, of course, but based on anecdotal information that seems credible to me, UR’s campus culture is not as comfortable a place for LGBT students as it could and should be. This is a little thing that each of us can do to show where we stand.

But I have to say that there’s one thing about this program that doesn’t feel quite right to me: the name “Safe Zone.” To be specific, the word “safe” seems to me to set the bar far too low.

It was clear from the workshop that the goal is to be active and committed advocates, whereas to me the word “safe” suggests merely promising to be harmless.

I don’t think this is a minor semantic quibble. I first encountered the term “Safe Zone” a number of years ago, when I was visiting another university and saw a few stickers on people’s office doors. My immediate conclusion was that that university must be a terrible place for the LGBT community, since it appeared that well over 90% of the offices on campus were “unsafe” for them.

I don’t think that the University of Richmond should be, inadvertently or otherwise, conveying a message that only a few places on campus are “safe” for LGBT community members. For one thing, I fervently hope and believe that that message is inaccurate. I know that there is a range of beliefs and attitudes about sexuality and gender issues, but at least in the parts of campus I know about (faculty and administrative offices, primarily), I think that a commitment to support of LGBT people is by far the norm.

More importantly, we should make clear that “safety” (at the very least!) for LGBT people is expected of all community members. Any faculty or staff member who makes LGBT students feel unsafe is guilty of professional misconduct. Walking around campus and seeing that a small fraction of offices are “safe” conveys precisely the opposite message, namely that we as an institution find “unsafeness” to be an acceptable and even normal state of affairs.

I’d like to suggest a simple name change. Those who have made the Safe Zone pledge should be called something affirmative, such as “allies” or some similar term. That seems to me to be better in every way: it’s more accurate, it conveys a more positive and supportive message, and it avoids the pitfall of defining “unsafeness” as the norm.

Just to make 100% sure there’s no confusion about this, let me repeat that I strongly support the Safe Zone program.  I think it’s a great thing to do, and if you’re a colleague or student of mine, I urge you to take part! I just think that a simple name change would make the program stronger.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

6 thoughts on “Safe Zone”

  1. I’ve always felt the same way about ‘tolerance’ (which was big a few years ago – not sure if it’s being used as much any more). To me, it implies an unwilling, grudging acceptance, and when used in reference to one’s attitude towards sexual, religions, or other minorities, really seems like the absolute minimum one should expect rather than a goal to shoot for. (If you think about asking someone “How do you feel about your in-laws?” “Well, I tolerate them” – it’s not terribly positive.)

    [Note: this is*not*meant to say anything about my experience with actual in-laws!]

  2. I notice you are not on the list. Maybe it is not up to date.

    What is to learn except “don’t discriminate”? Surely treating everyone equally is a) enough and b) should be required of all faculty (and indeed, of everyone at the university).

    How safe is Virginia in general for LGBT folks?

  3. Yes, I don’t think they update the list on the Web site very often. I’ve got the sticker as proof!

    You’re right, of course: this shouldn’t be hard. Attitudes do seem to have changed a lot (as far as I can tell from my perspective as a straight person) in a generation or so, but there’s still a way to go.

    It doesn’t help any that many people in one of our two major political parties cynically stir up fears of the “threat” of equal marriage rights to score political points. In the long run, that’s a losing strategy: it’s effective with old voters and completely ineffective with young people. So this problem will eventually be solved actuarially, although one certainly wishes it could happen a lot faster (by old folks changing their minds, I mean — not by increasing the speed of the actuarial solution).

    Virginia’s a funny state demographically these days. Northern Virginia is essentially suburban Washington DC, and is completely different from, say, rural western Virginia. This shows up clearly in the politics: Obama took Virginia by building up big margins in Northern VA and some other urban areas, including Richmond, to make up for massive losses in the more sparsely-populated areas. I’m pretty sure that attitudes towards LGBT folks follow a similar pattern.

  4. Oh, and I like Ashley’s point about the word “tolerance.” Both words (“tolerance” and “safe”) represent a bare minimum standard of acceptable community behavior, not something we should be especially proud of.

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