By Anne Hartman
As director of the LGBTQ Student Life Office at University of Chicago, Tobias Spears is striving to make the campus a more inclusive place. For Spears, that means having the in-depth conversations, broaching complex issues, and answering the tough questions to help boost the campus community’s appreciation and support for our differences.
That’s why the LGBTQ Student Life Office recently revamped and relaunched the Safe Space: Allies in Training program. The trainings, which are open to the entire campus community, aim to create a welcoming environment at UChicago, one that challenges oppression and builds a network of allies for LGBTQ students. Led by Spears and graduate students Meggie Twible and Darell Hayes, three training sessions were held during Spring Quarter, and more are planned for the 2016–17 academic year.
“Safe Space is this idea that you have a haven, a reprieve, as a minoritized person,” Spears said. “You can come to a place and feel like this is set up for you, this place is where you’ll find someone who understands you, someone who will listen, someone who will challenge you appropriately.”
Past Safe Space trainings had focused on research, theories, and psychological studies, but Spears aims to create a more practical experience for participants. By providing information, resources to learn more, and action steps, Safe Space focuses on how participants can become allies—conscious supporters of individuals who have different identities than them.
“I really think of allyship as ongoing,” Twible said. “I think part of it is about recognizing when to step back and listen, but also when to step up and support someone actively. It’s always a process of learning more and being open to criticism.”
Through the trainings, participants learn working definitions to gain a basic understanding of LGBTQ issues and discuss heterosexual and cisgender privileges—such as living openly with a partner or having the ability to use public restrooms without fear of verbal abuse. The Cycle of Oppression is covered, and participants discuss how seemingly innocent stereotypes can develop into dangerous forms of discrimination.
At the heart of the training is the Living Allyship wheel, which provides specific actions trainees can do to become allies, including: learning about issues that affect LGBTQ individuals; listening to experiences these individuals have; reflecting on privilege; aligning with LGBTQ students, staff, faculty, and friends; speaking up and acting out; checking in on LGBTQ individuals, especially after a negative incident; and admitting and apologizing when mistakes were made.
For Twible, the most poignant moments during the training come at times when participants can self-reflect about how their early knowledge and understanding of LGBTQ people was formed, and when they are given the chance to discuss thorny topics.
“Asking what it means to be an intersex person or what it means when people identify as asexual can seem inappropriate at times or just out of place,” Spears added. “Safe Space trainings allow people to come in and ask what they perceive to be taboo questions.”
Learning about LGBTQ issues is a lifelong process, and Spears points participants to resources like LGBTQ campus organizations or QGroups, where they can continue to learn about and engage with the LGBTQ community. The LGBTQ Student Life Office also will debut two new trainings next fall: Safe Space: Gender and Safe Space: Queer People of Color.
“I think in the same way that we ask for self-reflection around sexuality, we’re also looking for self-reflection in the gender Safe Space to understand that in the same way that being heterosexual isn’t the default, neither is being cisgender,” Twible said, explaining that the trainings will cover the experiences and concerns of queer people of color, gender nonconforming, and trans people.
Groups can also request trainings from Spears and his staff, who will develop a tailored curriculum based on what the group wants to know more about.
Each training helps participants to understand that while there are common denominators among LGBTQ people, many layers make up each individual’s identity, and no one’s identity can be put in a box.
“Safe Space is about creating an attitude, a cultural shift, and people who think about you in ways that are nuanced, in ways that respect who you are, that appreciate and nurture who you are,” Spears said. “In essence, a Safe Space is about the people who are in the space.”