Safe-zones create inclusive environment, safe space to be in

A rainbow flag, the symbol for the LGBTQ+ community, is a sign to all that the space is a safe place to go and be included in everything without worry of discrimination.

Story and photo by AINSLEY YOUNG

Every month, the LGBT Resource Center at the University of Utah holds classes known as Safe-Zone Trainings. They’re a three-hour session designed to answer questions and provide a safe space for people to come together and be educated about the power of words, how they affect people around you and how to keep an open mind when it comes to diversity.

Each training session is usually formatted with a short presentation, a discussion and activities. At the training offered during Pride Week 2012, the activity was to go around the room and silently answer several yes or no questions and then add a bead to a string for each yes, to symbolize the attendees’ privileges.

“In the training, we cover concepts related to the LGBTQA community. We also do exercises that are intended to spark dialogue on what it’s like for people to be marginal on gender expression and orientation,” said Kai Medina-Martínez, the director of the university’s LGBT Resource Center.

“The trainings create a situation of inclusion around dialogue that’s intended to bring awareness to people and have them learn things based on inclusive narratives,” said Medina-Martínez, who uses the pronoun they.

“We live in a world where we assume everyone is cisgender [born as a gender and identifies and acts within societal expectations of that gender] and heterosexual but we’re not. We have people who are transgender, gay, bisexual and a-sexual,” they said.

Medina-Martínez said it’s important to break down the negative stereotypes that are cast by society.

“We value a certain type of person, but we live in a diverse world with a lot of diverse people. Not everybody is the same, and we should all benefit from equal treatment,” they said.

The trainings are designed to be a safe place where people can meet others who are interested in learning how to be inclusive of all people or people who want to share their knowledge on being inclusive.

“I think it’s a great resource for anyone who wants to know a little more about the community and the real issues that face this population,” said Valerie Velarde, the safe-zone coordinator at the LGBT Resource Center. “As for creating a safe zone, people have to know where they can go for support with no biases or assumptions precluding them. Too much of this world is harsh, and people need that place they can go to relax and be themselves.”

Velarde said the trainings can help to make the world “be that much less harsh.”

“We always say once you hear a person’s story, it is a lot harder to hate them. I think that is a lot of what we are trying to get out there — personal stories of raw and real hatred. We are all privileged and not everyone sees the pain we often inflict,” she said.

“Safe-zone training gives individuals the quaint, safe space to ask any questions they want and get a rough view of LGBT identities,” Velarde said.

These trainings are a good way to educate people on different matters and issues going on in the LGBTQ+ community that may not be shown to everyone all the time, she said.

“For too long, people have had little to no idea of what the community really looks like, simply gaining most of their assumptions from popular media or the news…. A little more knowledge never hurt anyone,” Velarde said.

It’s important to be knowledgeable and active in minority communities, such as the LGBTQ+ community, she said. These trainings are an excellent way to get involved by showing an interest and making an effort to create a safe space and environment for all people, she said.

Between five and 30 people usually attend the workshops that are held in open, public spaces. The LGBT Resource Center also holds private training sessions for companies and departments at the university or small businesses. These private trainings have more than 100 attendees.

In addition to the full-length, three-hour trainings, the center hosts quasi-trainings that are a little shorter, with varying activities tailored to the organization or department’s needs, with job-specific situations and  opportunities to work together as coworkers and peers.

“Also, I sometimes mix and match what I do and ask different questions, but usually the same concepts are brought up regardless of what I say,” Velarde said. She said sometimes she starts with a question and answer session, while other times she’ll start with a discussion or activity she created to best suit whichever audience she is educating.

“These trainings opened up a lot of doors for me,” said Kim Bliss, who attended a safe-zone training in spring 2012. Bliss attended the training when she saw a flyer for it around the university campus that caught her attention.

Bliss said she was deeply impacted by one of the discussions at the training, and that it had changed her mind about a lot of the stereotypes that she had been familiar with.

“Whether you’re straight or gay, black or white, young or old, you’re still a person and you deserve to be treated with respect. Just because you may not agree with how someone lives their lives doesn’t mean you can judge them and cause them any harm,” she said.

Velarde holds these trainings  once a month at various locations around the U campus. Velarde said there can be more than seven meetings a month depending on which department or campus organization wants to schedule one.