Professional Development: When Diversity Means You

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.

An example of what the general population of scientists often say when LGBTQ people are brought up

An example of what is often said among scientists when LGBTQ people are brought up

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.

12 thoughts on “Professional Development: When Diversity Means You

  1. My school has a Safe Zone training program, but nobody in our department has a sticker outside the door. I believe I’m the only queer person in the department (in sexuality and gender), and it’s extremely lonely. Maybe I will see if the department would be willing to do something like you’ve organized here.

    • I’ve been in that situation many times. What I’ve found helped is reaching out — finding people in your program who are or could be allies, and also reaching outside academia into the local community to make sure that the queer part of your life is fulfilled.

  2. I’ve never seen a single sticker on a door in my department, either, and I’m determined to get one. I’m going to drag a few faculty with me, too. I think there’s this wishful thinking that everything’s fine, and because the cis/straight folks aren’t exposed to it, they think these kinds of reactions don’t happen (or they don’t realize that “keep it to yourself” is super fucked up and damaging).

    Thank you for writing about this.

    • “I think there’s this wishful thinking that everything’s fine, and because the cis/straight folks aren’t exposed to it, they think these kinds of reactions don’t happen” speaks very strongly to a reaction I had at a gathering of women scientists. Being a young student, I naively asked where the resources were for LGBT scientists and their response was a prolonged silence followed by, “Huh. We never thought of that.”

      Visibility and awareness of LGBT scientists is very much lacking, and I think is an excellent first step to opening up people’s eyes to the issues we face.

  3. That sounds so hard. I hope you feel it was worth it. I did my university’s safe space training of my own accord. It was difficult dealing with people’s lack of sensitivity at times. But those stickers did mean a lot to me when I started here (though I’m in a part of the country where good intentions are not backed by the law).

    • It was exhausting, as I mentioned, but I think it was a worth while afternoon. I did come out of it wishing that I had known in undergrad what my colleagues had to say, especially in regards to how horrified they were upon even considering being so rejected from an REU adviser. At the time, I just lost a letter and didn’t talk to anyone about it. If I had known what a faux pas an incident like that is, it would’ve made me reach out for help to my university advisers.

      These trainings are important and making things better for the next generation of students. Sometimes such a small sticker can be a lifeline.

  4. We don’t have that kind of training in my area but reading through your experiences, I am very happy to hear that it exists. I count myself fortunate in my faculty – our dean is openly gay and brought his partner with him (as a spousal hire) when he started. Ironically they broke up after arriving but still work collaboratively together. I can think of at least two additional faculty who are openly gay as well as support staff and students. I’m so proud of the steps our university has taken to be more open and accepting, despite living in a city that is less so. 🙂

  5. This made me look up training at my university, and it looks like we have an active group. Thank you for bringing it up–I’ve emailed my Chair to see about training for my department.

  6. We just got an email for Safe Zone training. I had to sign up after reading this. I’ll probably send this article to a few friends (if not the entire department) to encourage them to go as well. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront (for those of us who just didn’t know).

  7. I’m in the humanities so a bit of an interloper here, but at my university (the University of Denver) we have moved away from “safe zones” and toward the creation of a “queer & ally network”(, on the grounds that no part of the university should feel unsafe for students, faculty, or staff. The trainings aren’t department-based, though – when I did mine it was with faculty and staff from around the university.

    No one has asked about my placard since I put it up in September, but I like to think that it works at minimum as “passive programming” for everyone who comes by my office.

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