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McGill is not a bad place to be gay. Neither is Montreal, for that matter; both the university and the city are mainly tolerant places where discussion and support groups, social groups, bars and clubs, sports teams and other organizations exist for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, two-spirited, intersexed, queer or questioning (LGBTIQ).
But even here, it's not always easy to be queer. It can take a lot of courage to mention a same-sex partner in casual conversation, as queer people tend to censor themselves for fear of discrimination. "Straight people don't realize that they come out as straight all the time," says Gregg Blachford, chair of the McGill Equity Subcommittee on Queer People. "Whenever they talk about their spouse or partner, they are coming out — but there is still something stopping queer people from feeling like they can do the same."
The subcommittee's Safe Space workshops, begun last year by PhD student Liz Meyer, aim to educate staff and student leaders about issues of homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism. Meyer is writing a dissertation about gendered harassment in schools. She said, "Part of why I started the Safe Space workshops was to create an environment where people who experienced this kind of harassment in high school could be sure they wouldn't experience it at McGill."
The two-hour workshops provide participants with a 40-page manual containing information, useful websites, some history, legal and policy information, and phone numbers. "It gives a tangible set of resources to people who may already be familiar with the queer community and with McGill's policies and procedures," said Meyer. The workshop facilitators discuss how to handle certain scenarios, such as telling someone that a joke making fun of gay people is offensive. Then participants have the option of putting up a Safe Space sticker in their office or classroom to show that they are an "ally," part of a growing network that now comprises over 100 individuals on campus.
"Allies don't necessarily identify as queer themselves," said Meyer, "but they are willing to stand up and challenge jokes and name-calling in their presence." Those who choose to put up the sticker are ready to take on a leadership role in potentially uncomfortable situations. There is a WebCT message board where the community of allies can exchange anecdotes and give advice. Meyer is compiling an online list of allies on campus, so that students will be able to seek out people who will provide an inclusive environment. "As gay people, we look for signals that straight people 'get us' and that it's ok to talk about ourselves," said Blachford. "We're so used to keeping quiet, it is a challenge to speak up sometimes."
Some straight people feel that they are being singled out as "the problem." Blachford emphasized that this is not the case and that queer people bear some of the burden for marginalizing themselves. "We need to take responsibility and stop censoring ourselves," he said. And allies, in turn, can create an environment where a man can mention the vacation he took with his partner, a woman can complain about her girlfriend's cat and a female-to-male transsexual can joke about going into the wrong bathroom. "These workshops are important because they get people talking," said Blachford. "They're about visibility and respect."
For more information about McGill's Safe Space program please go to www.mcgill.ca/queerequity/safespace/.