Sam Houston State University’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning population have a new avenue on campus to which they can turn for support, guidance or simply an outlet for expressing concerns as part of a new university initiative.
The campus-wide effort, Haven, sponsored by Student Services and the Counseling Center, has been created to promote inclusion and advocacy on the SHSU campus, according to Chuck Collins, Program Council coordinator and Haven co-chair.
As part of the program, faculty and staff members provide a “safe zone” for the GLBTQ community to discuss issues without having to worry about being discriminated against or admonished for their sexual orientation.
“Aside from the Counseling Center, there are no other primary support resources for the GLBTQ community on the SHSU campus,” Collins said. “It was created as a response to student interactions, incidents, the observed adversity that the GLBTQ community can face on campus in certain situations and to promote awareness of the GLBTQ community.”
Those issues not only include sometimes being disowned by family members but also feelings of intimidation, being threatened or even devalued based on sexual orientation on campus, according to Counseling Center director and Haven co-chair Drew Miller.
A great example of that, Miller said, was when the Texas Legislature proposed to ban same-sex marriage and the talks that resulted.
“A couple of students had come into the Counseling Center at various points who had overheard some professors having a discussion about that, saying they hope this thing gets shot down, ‘those people are so immoral,’ ‘who do they think they are;’ just maligning GLBTQ people,” Miller said. “The students hear that and think ‘that’s me; if the professor knows that that’s who I am, will that then affect my standing in the class? Will that affect my ability to get a reference letter from them some day?’ So they start to feel unsafe by that.”
Students who “came out” while in high school may also have difficulties transitioning to college life because of a “starting over” effect.
“When they already have that identity in place and they come to campus the first day and say ‘I’m gay’ or ‘I’m lesbian,’ there are lots of people who don’t know them, and because they sort of have perceptions of what that label means, don’t even make the effort to get to know them or automatically start stereotyping them or, in some instances, even actively discriminating against them,” Miller said.
These kinds of issues can lead to GLBTQ students dropping out of college, and studies have even shown that depression and suicide attempts increase when students are left to feel adrift, according to Miller.
“Having a program like this in place where they can see very clearly that there are people who value and support them, it really takes a lot of that risk away,” he said.
Safe zone programs have become an “industry standard on college campuses” and research has show how effective they are.
“I think a majority of campuses, somewhere above like 70 percent, have them now. Texas A&M, which is sort of conservative and wears that on its sleeve, has had a phenomenally successful safe zone program for over 10 years now, and it’s thriving," said Miller, an Aggie alumnus.
Adding to the popularity of programs like Haven is the desire by parents to ensure that their children are safe on campus.
“I’ve actually talked to parents who have expressed concern about sending their child to a school that doesn’t have any kind of support, whether it’s a GLBTQ organization or a safe zone; they want that built in,” Miller said. “As a university, our role is to make sure we’re providing the support that we can as well because they’re entrusting their child to us.”
Haven is currently in the process of recruiting and training new safe zone participants with workshops, which will be held on Thursday (Feb. 19), March 19 and April 16. All sessions will be held from 5-8 p.m. in Lowman Student Center Room 302.
“During a workshop, participants will cover such things as vocabulary, slang terms, the coming out process, description of sexual/gender identity, heterosexism, and the concept of privilege,” Collins said. “The workshops are very interactive and discussion is highly encouraged.
“By undergoing a workshop we hope to educate, clarify misconceptions, and provide participants an environment in which they can ask any question they desire. Becoming an ally—someone supportive of the GLBTQ community—is covered in the workshop as well,” Collins said.
Attending the workshop does not commit a faculty or staff member to become a volunteer; they can decide afterward.
To participate as a “safe zone,” faculty and staff members volunteer to simply serve as a presence for the GLBTQ community. After the initial training, “maintenance is very minimal,” Collins said.
“A safe zone program operates as an open-door policy initiative,” he said. “By identifying a location as a safe zone, the person seeking the safe zone location will know that they are approaching an individual who is accepting and empathetic—literally, they enter a safe zone, a place they will be fully accepted without fear of reproach.”
Faculty or staff members' participation as a “haven” will be identified through a placard placed outside of his/her office, as well as through the Haven Web site.
“Safe zone identification does not indicate an individual’s sexual orientation,” Collins said. “It does identify that individual as someone who is supportive of the GLBTQ community and will address all viewpoints regarding sexuality, including those opposed to homosexuality, in an educating, informative, and non-threatening manner."
Workshops are limited to 20 and will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
While the training program is currently open to only faculty and staff, it will eventually open up for graduate and teaching assistants, resident assistants, and possibly select undergraduates as well.
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