Recently, my department had it’s first-ever Safe Zones training. It’s a diversity program, available at many colleges and universities, that raises the issues faced by gender and sexual minority students. After attending the training, participants are issued “Safe Zone” stickers that they can put on their door, which allows faculty to open display that they are aware of and had training in issues that many LGBTQ students are uncomfortable bringing up. Every time I visit a university for a conference or to give a talk, it’s immediately on my radar and gives me a sense of whether the department has ever even had a passing thought about people like me.
Unfortunately, it’s uncommon to find science departments that have taken the training. This was the case at my current institution. In discussions with a faculty member higher up on the chain than I am, which as a post-doc is pretty much everyone, I convinced her to convince our department that we should really have this training. The department agreed, and the ball was set in motion.
I happened to have previously met the person on campus in charge of the local Safe Zones program, since I have a tendency to actively seek out other queer and queer-friendly folk, and we had become friends. Our department was to be their first training in a STEM department and I was asked to help provide some examples that could be made anonymous for the training. So we sat, and I chatted. I recalled the time that I participated in a summer REU program and happened to begin transitioning just after the REU but before applying to grad school, and when I mentioned this so that my REU adviser would put the correct name on my reference letters, he refused to write a letter and told me to never contact him again. I relayed the story of a friend of mine, a gay man at the top of his field who was driven from his institution because of the harassment he received. I chatted about what happens when you type in “gay physics” into Google and what pops up is page after page of people saying “Don’t ever talk about it, it will hurt your career.” I talked about the problem that exists for trans academics who change their name later in life, and how that affects our publication record and that we have to choose between outting ourselves on our CV or leaving off chunks of our research.
And then the day of the training arrived, and it was one of the most draining and awkward experiences of my life. Of course I attended, since I had pushed for it to happen, and I got to hear all of my life experiences relayed in a hypothetical manner. There were group discussions on what happens if a trans student approaches you, about everything I experienced. “What resources would you give them?” it was asked, after handing out a piece of paper with a list of resources on it. “Obviously, this! See, our field is fine, there’s no problem here.” The paper of resources that I made. A sheet filled with resources that didn’t exist before a lonely queer student starting reaching out because she was struggling to keep her head afloat in a culture that said she shouldn’t exist and to shut up and never talk about it.
When the training ended, I just wanted to lock the door to my office and cry. The professor who organized the session came up to me afterwards, excited by how it went and wanted to know what I thought. What I told her is still true, that I’m glad that the training happened. That it was necessary and important, especially so the next set of LGBTQ students to come through our department don’t need to go through what I did. And that it was emotionally draining beyond words.