Play it safe in a zone of no judgment

Safe zone

Brian Wells, an academic adviser for the Bitonte College of Health and Human Services, has watched the campus atmosphere regarding the LGBT community evolve. Photo by Chris Cotelesse/The Jambar.

From 1998 to 2001, when Brian Wells was an undergrad at Youngstown State University, there was a “negative attitude” toward specific members of the campus community — namely those who displayed rainbow-colored Safe Zone signs on their office doors.

However, things have changed.

“It went from, ‘OK, is that person gay because they have a rainbow sticker on their door?’ to now — people pounding down our doors, going, ‘When’s the next training?’” said Wells, an academic adviser for the Bitonte College of Health and Human Services.

The YSUnity Safe Zone training program, which Wells helps to coordinate, has more than 400 allies. The program educates faculty, staff, administrators, student employees and student leaders on LGBTQIA issues.

“It’s really about building empathy, so people can relate to the struggles of people within the community,” Wells said.

The four-hour training program includes information about proper LGBTQIA terminology and features testimonials from members of the LGBTQIA community.

“One of the things that has been the best piece of Safe Zone in my opinion is that we have a couple students who share their own personal story, as well as one of our campus administrators who talks about her daughter’s coming out,” Wells said.

As many as one out of four people are kicked out of their homes when they come out to their parents, Wells said.

“There have been students in the past who have not been in contact with their parents as a result of coming out, so I’ve helped those students to work with financial aid,” he said, adding that students under 24 need their parents’ tax information to do so. “If you’re not talking to your parents, it’s a little difficult to get their tax information.”

Those who participate in the Safe Zone program are made aware of these issues and are taught how to support LGBTQIA students during difficult times.

Ashley Altiero, a Safe Zone member, said the experience has been awesome.

“I’ve been able to view any student in an open way, no matter what problem they approach me with,” she said.

Altiero said that being a part of the program has made her a more understanding person.

“It’s also given me more community resources so I can direct [LGBTQIA students] in the appropriate direction if they need to talk to anybody in particular,” she said.

Altiero encouraged other members of the YSU community to participate in the training.

She said the rainbow placard is a sign of allegiance that makes the university more like a family.

“Because students know that my office is a Safe Zone, immediately when they come in, they feel comfortable talking to me,” Altiero said. “When students come in, they know the place they’re going into is somewhere where they’re not going to be judged.”