Program offers training for students, faculty,staff to create ‘supportive, affirming’ environment
ARLINGTON —Twenty-five thousand students attend the University of Texas at Arlington, but the president of an LGBT student organization on campus said the group has only six to 10 members.
"Most people are closeted, I feel, and some people in our group are still closeted as well," said 20-year-old Deanna Hodge, president of Homage, an LGBT support and educational group at UTA that meets weekly.
Hodge, a sophomore, said attendance at meetings of an LGBT social organization on campus, the Gay Straight Alliance, is only slightly higher, with the two groups sharing many members.
The lack of participation in the groups — and the reluctance of UTA students to come out — isn’t due to a negative or hostile atmosphere on campus, according to Hodge and others.
Rather, they said, the LGBT community at UTA, known as a commuter school, simply isn’t well organized or particularly visible.
Now, though, the leaders of a new Safe Zone initiative are trying to change that.
The Safe Zone initiative, modeled after similar programs at hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide, will offer training on LGBT issues to UTA students, faculty and staff. Those who complete the training will receive stickers that can be displayed in places like office windows or dormitory doors to indicate a supportive and affirming environment.
While Homage and GSA are student-run groups, the Safe Zone initiative is formally backed by UTA’s administration, according to John Hillas, UTA’s openly gay coordinator for student affairs.
"There’s a sense that there’s just really nothing institution-wide being said about the LGBT community," said Hillas, who serves as assistant co-chair of the initiative. "I don’t want to say there’s a negative environment. We’re not reacting to anything by forming this group. It’s just an area that didn’t have a voice."
Adria Villarreal, assistant director of counseling at UTA, is chairwoman of the Safe Zone initiative. Villarreal, a straight ally, said the goal of the initiative is helping LGBT students, faculty and staff to connect and find resources. The initiative will eventually include things like a Web site listing LGBT allies.
"It’s also an opportunity to celebrate a community that is invisible on campus that is important to celebrate," Villarreal said.
Hillas and Villarreal said the initiative is still in its developmental stages, and representatives from the Resource Center of Dallas recently conducted a "train the trainers" session for about 25 faculty and staff. Campuswide training for the initiative will begin in the spring.
Villarreal noted that most major colleges and universities in North Texas — as well as many other UT branches — already have Safe Zone programs.
"While we were a little bit late in doing this, we’re hoping to have it embraced in the campus community in ways that might be a little bit novel," she said.
Hillas recalled his own experience when he enrolled at UTA as a freshman in 2000. Although he’d been out to friends in high school, Hillas said he was reluctant to come out to his roommates in the dorms or join groups like Homage and the Gay Straight Alliance.
"I kind of stayed in the closet to all but a few people," he said, adding that 5,000 of UTA’s 25,000 students live on campus.
By his senior year, Hillas was out to everyone and ran as an openly gay candidate for president of the student activities board. But he said his collegiate coming out process would’ve been "immeasurably easier" if there’d been a program like Safe Zone.
"I feel kind of a sense of needing to address those things that I saw needing to be addressed from my student experience," Hillas said.
Jai Malano-Ayers, a 27-year-old UTA junior who lives with her partner in an on-campus apartment, said she believes more students aren’t out because they fear rejection and because the school is in a conservative area.
"It’s a very fundamentalist Christian kind of community," Malano-Ayers said of Arlington. "There are a lot of Baptist churches, a lot of Southern Baptist churches."
Despite the school’s location, Malano-Ayers said she hopes the Safe Zone initiative will encourage more students to overcome their fears and be proud of who they are.
"I would love to see the GLBT community get more involved," she said.
For more information about the Safe Zone initiative, call Hillas at 817-272-6080 or Villareal at 817-272-3671, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 21, 2008.