Thursday, May 2, 2013 —
Earlier this week, current NBA player Jason Collins announced to the world in a “Sports Illustrated” article that he was gay.
It was somewhat of a surprise revelation that created conversations both for and against his announcement and the whole subject of sexual orientation. Those conversations stretched across many social and religious boundaries and touched off many different feelings.
Numerous celebrities and other famous personalities generally showed their support via Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media — from President Obama to David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA. On the other side, sports personalities such as Tim Brando of CBS and Chris Broussard of ESPN took a different view and have been criticized for their beliefs.
There wasn’t nearly as much fanfare when Rachel Harden came out of the closet or when John Michael Borza decided to start telling people he knew and was close with that he was gay.
The two Pfeiffer University students and many others who have faced the same tough decision know it’s not an easy move to make. Now, those two students are part of 30 members of the Safe Zone program at Pfeiffer that’s currently available to help other students at the school who may be struggling with the same situation or just have questions about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
It’s a part of Spectrum, a diversity club that was formed in September 2009 to advocate, educate and support those on the campus and in the community about questions regarding LGBT.
“When Spectum started, I was actually a freshman, it was my first year here. I wanted nothing to do with the club, nothing at all,” Harden said.
“I saw the people involved and I just wasn’t comfortable with it. Personally, I was in the closet … very far. I was very uncomfortable about the whole topic in general.
“I came here for the religion department, so I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum, as far as who wants to be involved, people being completely against it and people being like ‘That’s really cool, I’m glad you have that on campus. I’m not going to be a part of it, but it’s good for you.’ ”
Harden, 22 and a senior from Stafford, Va., has come a long way from that time. In addition to her duties as a Safe Zone member, she’s also president of Spectrum, a title she’s held this semester after previously serving as vice president.
“I saw a need, really, especially this past year with leadership and getting things done. People didn’t have a lot of time or were not taking enough initiative,” Harden said.
“I kind of stepped up in that regard because I’m not … I’ve always been open about my faith but never so much about my sexuality. So when I came to terms with it and got more comfortable, I started being more outspoken. It just kind of developed.”
Becca McQueen is director of residence life at Pfeiffer and the person who helped get Spectrum and the Safe Zone program off the ground. She had previous experience at Appalachian State University as a graduate advisor for a similar organization and helped start the current Spectrum program at Elon College.
“The original concept of the organization was to be like a gay-straight alliance that you’ll see in a lot of high schools but obviously on a university campus,” McQueen said.
“The purpose is to provide a safe space for students that they can feel like they can come and talk to people about issues that they are having as part of that community or as an ally and also do some educational programming and things for the community.
“Our membership has definitely grown over the last four years, and even just the type of programming and the quality of programming that we are doing.”
Those involved in Pfeiffer Safe Zone go through three hours of training on a variety of subjects, from expectations of an ally and confidentiality to sexual identity development and what to do to help someone who wants to come out. A published list of the members is posted at a couple of spots around the campus for students.
“We think by establishing Spectrum and the Safe Zone program, we are shining the light on who we already were but highlighting that and making it more visible so those students know this is a place it will be OK, safe and accepted,” McQueen said.
Borza, 20 and a sophomore from Chuluota, Fla., saw Spectrum and Safe Zone as a plus for him. He’s one of the first Safe Zone members along with Harden.
“I was battling my thoughts on my own sexuality, so I was like ‘Maybe I should go check this out, see if this is legit or not. Through that, there wasn’t a lot about Safe Zone until Rachel became our president and she was like ‘This is what we have to do,’ ” Borza said.
“I’m 100 percent behind Rachel and her decisions because she’s trying to push the boundaries of the LGBT community and awareness on this campus.”
Borza said a lot of what he learned in becoming a member of Safe Zone was common sense from his own experiences. But the training gave him the chance to learn how to deal with other people’s struggles with the subject.
“This gave me a different perspective about how to approach people because I’m kind of blunt and you’re not supposed to be blunt,” Borza said.
“This was a good way, not only for me, but for other people to be able to know when they see the plaque on my door that I’m safe and if I see a plaque, I can go to talk to them. They are trained and they will know how to deal with this.”
Harden says she’s had students approach her with their own questions or just general conversation about the LGBT community. She hopes that the members of Spectrum and Pfeiffer Safe Zone can each do their part to help establish trust, understanding and knowledge about what many can perceive as a delicate subject.
“On a couple of occasions I’ve had somebody just send me a message on Facebook that says ‘Hey, I need to talk. When are you free?’ So I’ve talked with them. I’ve had people randomly just bring things up they want to talk about,” Harden said.
“It’s been very interesting. Since we’ve gotten our name out there as a club and organization and the things we are doing like Safe Zone training, there’s more visible openness, which was kind of the goal in the first place.
“For me, it was really hard and I didn’t see that there were places I could go and people I could talk to. Since I’ve been more open and out there to things and gotten Safe Zone training, you see a lot more people you wouldn’t expect to be open about it.”
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