According to GLSEN’s 2001 National School Climate Survey, a majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students feel unsafe at school and are likely to skip class or even days of school out of fear for personal safety. The research also indicates that students who can identify a supportive faculty/staff member or student group are more likely to feel a sense of belonging at their school than those who cannot.
For many students, the presence of allies to whom they can turn for support—or even the simple knowledge that allies exist—can be a big factor in developing a positive sense of self, building community, coping with bias, and working to improve school climate. Safe Space programs increase the visible presence of student and adult allies who can help to shape a school culture that is accepting of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, or any other difference.
Safe Space Trainings are held two to three times per semester for both staff and students of Sierra College. Trainings are advertised through campus posters and classroom announcements.
All students deserve to learn in an environment that’s supportive and friendly, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. As you learned above, anti-LGBT bias affects the school performance, school experience, and mental and emotional health of the students who experience it. Protection of actual or perceived LGBT students is the exception, not the rule, in most schools across the country. Often, change has to start with the grassroots effort of a group that is willing to start positive changes through support, education, and publicity.
Another reason to take part—a reason just as valid as the reality of bias and its effects— is the fact that homophobia and transphobia hurt us all. They discourage diversity, encourage hurtful behaviors, and put limits on our relationships and roles in the school community. Being a part of the Safe Space program will give you an opportunity to learn about yourself and others, and will help you make your school a better place for everybody—LGBT or straight. With all these great reasons for joining, who wouldn’t want to be a part?
The main purpose of a Safe Space program is to visibly mark people and places that are “safe” for LGBT students. This is usually accomplished through a sticker with a pink triangle, rainbow flag, or other recognizable LGBT symbol on it. When students and staff put stickers on their lockers, backpacks, binders, or office doors, it stands out as an affirmation of LGBT people and lets others know that they are a safe person to approach for support and guidance.
Often the idea behind Safe Space stickers (and the stickers themselves) gets passed around by word of mouth and there is no organized program within the school. Ideally, however, each participating school should have a Safe Space team made up of students and staff that publicizes the program, hands out materials, provides basic training to allies who wish to be involved, and educates the larger school community about the meaning of the stickers and importance of building safe spaces for LGBT and all students impacted by anti-LGBT bias.
While there are many out and empowered LGBT students who are more than capable of standing up for their own rights, straight allies have a special role to play in the Safe Space programs. An ally is a member of the majority or dominant group who works to end oppression by supporting and advocating for the oppressed population. The work of allies has been a historically effective way of changing the thinking of the dominant culture. In your social studies class, you might have learned about the Freedom Riders, a group of students, ministers, and others who rode interstate buses in an effort to test the enforcement of desegregation laws. Many of the Freedom Riders were White allies who stood up for the civil rights of Black citizens. Their work brought media attention to racist practices and helped force bus companies to abide by the law.
A straight ally is any non-LGBT person who supports and stands up for the rights of LGBT people. It is important for straight allies to demonstrate that LGBT people are not alone as they work to improve school climate, and to take a stand in places where it might not be safe for LGBT people to be out or visible.
Safe Space programs focus on LGBT students for protection because this issue remains largely invisible in the classroom and in the law. Homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism are socially acceptable in many schools. Even in classrooms where bigotry is not tolerated, LGBT issues are considered taboo and not appropriate for discussion.
While there is a need for programs that specifically address anti-LGBT bias, it is also important to acknowledge the interconnectedness of all prejudices. The same conditions that allow homophobia and transphobia to develop most likely promote racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of prejudice. Any effort to reduce one type of bias will probably help reduce other kinds of bias, and will help individuals from a variety of backgrounds feel safer. In this way, a Safe Space program focused on LGBT students may serve as a springboard for work in other areas.
Just as all forms of oppression are related, so too are the many identities within each of us. None of us are just one thing—we all have sexual, gender, religious, ethnic, racial, class, and other identities that mingle together in complex ways. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are also Black and Latina/o, Jewish and Muslim, rich and poor, deaf and mentally retarded. When LGBT people are targeted for harassment, it is often about more than just sexual orientation or gender identity. A Safe Space program that protects LGBT people should therefore be designed to incorporate other “isms” through coalitions and partnerships with other groups both on and off campus.
You might recognize some of the components of the Safe Space symbol, which is a combination of the LGBT Pride flag and the gay pink triangle and lesbian black triangle. Perhaps you’ve seen a rainbow flag flying at an LGBT event, and maybe you’ve seen black or pink triangle buttons or shirts. Understanding the history of these symbols might give you an idea of their importance, and an understanding of their enduring popularity among LGBT people and their allies.
The history of the pink triangle begins before WWII, during Adolph Hitler’s rise to power. In 1935, he revised a German law prohibiting homosexual relations to include kissing, embracing, and gay fantasies in addition to sexual acts. Convicted offenders, of which there were an estimated 25,000 between 1937 and 1939, were sent to prison and then later to concentration camps. Their sentence was to be sterilized, which was most often accomplished by castration. In 1942, the punishment was extended to death. Each prisoner in the concentration camps wore a colored inverted triangle to designate their reason for incarceration. The pink triangle was for homosexuals. Estimates of the gay men killed during the Nazi regime range from 50,000 to twice that figure. When the war was finally over, countless gay men remained imprisoned in the camps, because the law regarding homosexuals remained in the books until its 1969 repeal in West Germany.
Like the pink triangle, the black triangle is also rooted in Nazi Germany. Although lesbians were not included in the laws prohibiting homosexuality, black triangles were used to designate prisoners with “anti-social” behavior. Since the Nazi ideal of womanhood focused on rearing children, domestic duties, and church, black triangle prisoners may have included lesbians, women who refused to bear children, and women with other “anti-social” traits. In the 1970’s, gay liberation groups resurrected the pink triangle as a symbol for the gay rights movement. Similarly, the black triangle was reclaimed by lesbians and feminists. Not only are the black and pink triangles easily recognizable, they draw attention to oppression and persecution—then and now. To many, the black and pink triangles represent pride, solidarity, and a promise to never allow another Holocaust to happen again.
The rainbow flag has a much happier history. It first appeared in 1978, when it was flown during the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade. Gilbert Baker, a San Francisco artist, designed the rainbow flag in response to a need for a symbol that could be used year after year. Baker borrowed symbolism from the civil rights and hippie movements, and created a flag that has gained worldwide recognition. The different colors of the flag symbolize different components of the community: red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, blue for art, and purple for spirit. A black stripe added at the bottom symbolizes a hope for victory over AIDS.
We’ve combined both of these potent symbols for the Safe Space stickers and posters. The emblem reminds us of the joy of the diverse, accepting community we hope to build through programs like Safe Space, as well as the struggle against oppression we face as we try to make that vision a reality. In addition, not all members of the LGBT community identify the pink or black triangles as personal symbols, so combining them with the rainbow flag makes a symbol that is accessible.