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LGBTQ center teaches allyship through Safe Zone trainings


Photo Courtesy of April Callis, assistant director of the UNC LGBTQ Center

Dr. April Callis and co-facilitator Lee Roberts with members of the Carolina Black Caucus celebrating a successful Safe Zone training at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Safe Zone trainings are part of the national Safe Zone Project. The trainings at UNC were developed independently. The article has been updated with the correction information about the trainings. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

Each Safe Zone training begins with introductions using pronouns. This is the first step in the training’s goal to teach allyship strategies to all participants.

Safe Zone trainings are programs held on campus by the UNC LGBTQ Center to learn about gender identity and sexuality. They are a part of the national Safe Zone Project, an online project with resources for LGBTQ+ awareness.=

“Often times, when people hear the word ally, they think straight people or cisgender people that support LGBTQ individuals,” said April Callis, assistant director of the LGBTQ Center. “We move beyond that definition to talk about the fact that everybody can be an ally to everybody else.”

The first Safe Zone training at UNC was offered in 1998 by the undergraduate LGBTQ+ organization that eventually evolved into the Sexuality and Gender Alliance after they noticed a knowledge gap in the community. Starting in 2003, the University's new LGBTQ Center hosted the trainings.

“The LGBTQ Center opened in 2003 as part of the Office of the Dean of Students and one of the first things that the center did was start doing these Safe Zone trainings,” Callis said. “And then the LGBTQ Center became its own stand-alone center in 2006 and once again, one of our flagship things from then until now is the Safe Zone Program.”

Each training is four hours long and includes different components such as group activities and one-on-one conversations.

“It’s four hours, and we usually take three hours and 59 minutes because it’s a lot of content,” Jhon Cimmino, academic affairs coordinator for the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said. “It’s a lot of sharing. People are getting to know each other. We don’t want to just have it as one big group, we have those small group conversations so that different learning styles are engaged.”

Cimmino serves as a facilitator of Safe Zone trainings. He attended his first Safe Zone training in September 2017 and trained to be a facilitator in October that same year.

“It’s just a thing I love to do,” Cimmino said. “I like to have those types of conversations and help people share their perspectives and learn about new things. It was something I sought out.”

Participants can share their personal perspectives and experiences with the group during the training. For Reinaldo Caravellas, an MBA candidate and president of the Kenan-Flagler Pride Club, it was the first time he came out in the U.S. after growing up in Brazil. 

“I literally didn’t know if it was safe to be LGBT here," Caravellas said. "So being in a Safe Zone training, being among friends, gave me the support that I needed to come out.”

Some Safe Zone trainings are tailored to specific groups and schools of the UNC community. Edward Bahnson, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine, worked with Callis to start hosting trainings for people in STEM fields this year. These trainings will cover the same topics, but will be structured differently.

“We’re just going to talk about it differently,” Bahnson said. “We’re going to show some articles with data, with some research that there is a problem in STEM for faculty, for students.”

Bahnson’s personal experience as a queer Latino in the STEM field inspired these trainings.

“I have this perception that, which has been confirmed by literature that I found, that in the STEM world, we want to be the most meritocratic as possible,” Bahnson said. “The only thing that matters is that you’re a good scientist. As a queer Latino, I lived the untruth of that statement. I have to put this extra effort to leave my queerness and my Latinoness outside to be able to be on equal footing because we have this idea that your personal life doesn’t matter. In reality, you don’t stop being who you are when you’re at work.”

Based on his experience, Bahnson implemented more data-driven curriculum into the trainings to encourage acknowledgment of LGBTQ+ experiences within the STEM field.

The differences in participants and their experiences makes Safe Zone trainings unique.

“We follow a set of listed activities, videos, questions and scenarios, but because the people change every time, each training is going to be extremely different of an experience because they’ll ask different questions, they’ll have different concerns,” Cimmino said. “People will share different perspectives that maybe the group has never heard from before, so that really changes it a lot.”

Though each Safe Zone training may be distinct, the ultimate objective remains the same: for participants to learn strategies they can use after attending a training.

“An ally isn’t something that you are,” Callis said. “It’s something that you do.”

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