Reflections on a Decade of “Safe Zone” Education in Higher Education
by Dr. Chase Catalano
September 7, 2021
My research on the experiences of LGBTQ+ diversity education interventions — commonly referred to as “safe zone,” “safe space,” or “ally training” — actually started over a decade ago when, for five years, I served as the director of an LGBT resource center. Of all the contentious issues I anticipated about these trainings, the safe-zone stickers were not among them.
The visibility of a safe-zone sticker on a faculty or administrator’s door ostensibly signals to queer and trans students that the person has knowledge, awareness, and commitment to supporting marginalized genders and sexualities. Sometimes, but not always, these stickers are distributed at the conclusion of what I call LGBTQ+ diversity education interventions, such as trainings or workshops.
The problem surfaced when some LGBTQ+ students shared surprisingly negative experiences talking with those who displayed safe-zone stickers on their doors. These interactions ranged from discomfort about queer and/or trans topics or experiences to enacting queer and trans oppression.
Through an informal investigation of safe-zone sticker origins, two realizations surfaced. First, some faculty and staff with safe-zone stickers on their doors did not even realize one was there, as the previous occupant had left it. And second, others lacked knowledge of contemporary queer and trans identities, experiences, and movements, as it had been years since they participated in any kind of training or workshop, which led them to enact unintentional harm.
Although I was deeply curious about what I was learning, my role as a full-time professional at the director level in student affairs did not provide the time or resources necessary to explore the phenomenon further at that time; this role was quite different from my current work as a tenure-track faculty member. As a student affairs administrator, my email inbox dictated my day, regardless of what I planned to focus on that day. Digging into the larger questions about the purpose, intentions, and historical roots of LGBT+ diversity education interventions was beyond my capacity.
In addition, I was beholden to the metrics used by the institution to evaluate the LGBT resource center’s contribution to the campus community. These metrics generally focused on attendance numbers, media attention, and adherence to campus traditions. Assessment is a valuable tool, and it also has limitations. At the time, the metrics required that I focus my attention on how to ensure a significant enough number of people showed up at an event or training to demonstrate its value and justify the cost, not how to conceptualize safety through an LGBTQ+ diversity educational intervention.
Given these realities, my staff and I did the best we could by reimagining our LGBTQ+ diversity education intervention program, including the stickers. Safety, we recognized, is contextual and only an aspirational promise, not a certainty. Our redesigned training and sticker used Love’s (2018) four components of liberatory consciousness: awareness, analysis, action, and accountability to develop safer people and safer spaces. We limited our thinking to the framework of a one-time, three-hour training that used multiple modalities for learning and interaction that included an intentional conversation about what it would mean to post a sticker.
Facilitating these trainings multiple times a semester — sometimes more than once a week — was part of our jobs, yet it took an emotional toll. We knew a three-hour training would always be insufficient for sustainable change. Could a training, even a series of trainings, ever fulfill the promise of a safer campus environment for LGBTQ+ students and colleagues? We wondered, how do we approach content that is emerging and fluid, not static? Surprisingly, there is a paucity of research on LGBTQ+ diversity education interventions, especially given how ubiquitous they are in higher education.
My current research focuses on questions about the conceptual frameworks of these trainings, why people facilitate them, and how they convey notions of safety or allyship. As I work on multiple manuscripts about conceptual insights and empirical findings from interviews with 87 participants (students, staff, and faculty) who facilitate these LGBTQ+ diversity education interventions, it’s clear there are no quick fixes or easy answers.
LGBTQ+ diversity education interventions are a component of — not a panacea for — addressing the challenges associated with creating more LGBTQ+ inclusive campuses. Stickers (or similar ephemera) in exchange for attendance to a training or workshop or series of workshops remains a contentious topic.
We must continue to grapple with the importance of demonstrating visibility of queerness and trans*ness and recognize that the words we use, the ways we teach, and the interactions we have can negate our intentional acts of LGBTQ+ solidarity. A safe-zone or similar sticker is an invitation to possibilities, not a guarantee of support. Additionally, it’s important to recognize that those who facilitate LGBTQ+ diversity education interventions do not always do so as a part of their college or university positions; almost half of my study’s participants are volunteers. In some cases, in addition to facilitation, they lead curricular design and logistics as well.
Facilitation of LGBTQ+ diversity education interventions relies on facilitators’ content knowledge and training design components, though they may or may not use conceptual frameworks to guide and inform these trainings. Still and all, the benefits are tremendous for those who do facilitate them, including feelings of empowerment, ability to engender change on campus, deepening and expanding campus connections, and hope through participant engagement.
At the same time, the challenges are significant, including emotional and intellectual resistance from participants, navigating participants’ fears of asking the “wrong” questions or using the “wrong” words, the uncompensated or undercompensated emotional and intellectual labor of being a facilitator, and the toll of monitoring and redirecting a variety of participant behaviors that could derail, distract, or antagonize the learning of others. Additionally, participants in my dataset reported a persistent concern about whether their knowledge is deep enough or updated enough to adequately facilitate these trainings.
I intentionally align my educational interests to overlap with my research, which means outside of sharing findings from this project, I expect my research to inform questions to explore in the courses I teach in the Virginia Tech School of Education’s Higher Education and Student Affairs program. For example, what are the uses and misuses of classroom and campus safe-space rhetoric? For whom, how, and about what do we use trigger warnings? What are the historical roots of exclusion in the creation of higher education in the United States, and how has student activism led to the creation of cultural centers for minoritized populations?
In a forthcoming article, a colleague and I explore the commodification of allyship. This article is closely adjacent to my current study of LGBTQ+ diversity education interventions as we conceptually grapple with what it means to imagine transformative (instead of transactional) and liberatory possibilities from LGBTQ+ diversity education interventions. I consider how our efforts to signal and encourage visibility for LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff may have oversimplified what it means to engage in action-based allyship.
I suspect facilitator challenges, ideological questions about safety and allyship, and mixed signals of inclusion may resonate with many of us as we doubt our capacities and capabilities as educators, amplified by dynamics during this COVID pandemic. Our work and lives exhaust us. Many of us may espouse the idea of being lifelong learners, but sometimes, maybe we just want to get the sticker and call it a day? Ultimately, individual actors must decide how much time and energy they are able to give.
I encourage others with interest in these topics to find time to reflect on what it means to engage in and lead change efforts in higher education and consider our engagement in ongoing learning and professional development. My current research has caused me to contemplate which modules I will complete, as well as how I make decisions about how much time and energy I dedicate to offering to workshops or other kinds of educational opportunities.
I intentionally do not offer any best practices as a result of this research because every individual and institution must reconcile with its own temporal, ideological, and contextual dynamics to define their own set of best practices. Facilitating deep, sustainable change that advances social justice beyond representation and symbols requires intentional actions albeit difficult work.
Diversity education interventions — whether they focus on LGBTQ+, racial, or multiple marginalized social identities — have the potential to enhance student, staff, and faculty feelings of belonging for some, if not many. At the same time, there can be unintentional, negative consequences for others. These efforts are likely most promising when they reach across and throughout institutions and are part of a multi-layered, multi-action, and reflective approach to praxis.
LGBTQ+ diversity education interventions offer a starting place for conversations about what could and should be, an opportunity to make commitments to changes participants wish to bring back to their work, their students and colleagues, their campuses and communities.
Chase Catalano, PhD, is an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at the Virginia Tech School of Education.