Establishing an Allies/Safe Zone Program

"People always ask why I care about a movement that does not include me. My answer is that the gay rights movement should include me. Although I am straight, I know people affected by hate and prejudice – they are my friends. I believe that everyone who has seen the face of hatred, whether affected by it or not, should be involved in preventing it. That is why I am involved with my GSA. That is why I sit every week with other students not afraid to face prejudice. That is why I work with them to teach respect in our school. And that is why I refuse to sit idle while religious extremists discuss the morality of a lifestyle that they have never experienced." Caleb Baker, a straight student and member of a GSA in New York City (excerpt from GLSEN’s Students and GSA’s Yearbook)

What is an Ally?
In the most general sense, an "Ally" is "a person who is a member of the dominant or majority group who works to end oppression in his or her personal and professional life through support of, and as an advocate for, the oppressed population." (Washington and Evans, Becoming an Ally) Allies to racial, religious and ethnic minorities have been remarkably effective in promoting positive change in the dominant culture, and only recently has their instrumental position been extended to the area of sexual orientation. In recent years we've seen more and more LGBT Ally organizations strive to make the culture of a campus or workplace more aware and accepting of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

An Ally strives to...

  • be a friend
  • be a listener
  • be open-minded
  • have his or her own opinions 
  • be willing to talk
  • commit him or herself to personal growth in spite of the discomfort it may sometimes cause
  • recognize his or her personal boundaries
  • recognize when to refer an individual to additional resources
  • confront his or her own prejudices
  • join others with a common purpose
  • believe that all persons regardless of age, sex, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression should be treated with dignity and respect  
  • engage in the process of developing a culture free of homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism
  • recognize his or her mistakes, but not use them as an excuse for inaction
  • be responsible for empowering his or her role in a community, particularly as it relates to responding to homophobia or transphobia
  • recognize the legal powers and privileges that cisgender straight people have and which LGBT people are denied
  • support the Ally program of his or her university or workplace

As important as it is to define what an Ally is in a positive sense, it is also helpful to understand the boundaries of an Ally's role.

An Ally is NOT...

  • someone with ready-made answers
  • necessarily a counselor, nor is he or she necessarily trained to deal with crisis situations
  • expected to proceed with an interaction if levels of comfort or personal safety have been violated

How to Establish an Ally Network or Program

The easiest means to establishing an Ally program is to seek assistance from those individuals who are most likely already trained to cope with issues concerning gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender individuals or at least have some experience with such issues.

On a university campus, an Ally program might include administrators, faculty, staff and students; therefore, potentially helpful contacts are usually:

  • Office of Residential Life
  • Office of Student Services
  • Office of the Dean
  • Office of Multicultural Programming
  • Office of Affirmative Action
  • Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Student Life
  • Office of Health Education
  • A Coalition of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students
  • A Coalition of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Faculty and Administrators

In the workplace, the most amenable office would most likely be in the area of Human Resources.

We Have a Group Interested in Becoming Allies. Now What?

1. Define Yourselves: Develop a Mission Statement or Statement of Purpose
For example, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut established an Ally program during the 1997-98 academic year. Its mission statement reads:

The Wesleyan Allies is a group of students, faculty, administrators, and staff committed to enhancing gender, sexuality, and orientation issues reflected in the Wesleyan community. Wesleyan's diversity involves multifaceted personal identities (age, race, class, gender, orientation, etc.). On both an individual and group level, these identities can be celebrated or denied, affirmed or oppressed, and be the source to strength, pride, and/or struggle. The Wesleyan Allies will focus especially on individual/group identities and issues of gender, sexuality, orientation, attraction, and affection.

The Wesleyan Allies are here to:

  •  expose and critique how sexism, homophobia, and anti-gay oppression affect us
  • examine the social conditioning of roles (gender, sex, orientation) — how they are learned, internalized, institutionalized, and enforced.

How do they affect our sense of ourselves and our relationships within and across individual/group identities?

  • be able to listen to and support individuals who are exploring their own feelings and/or struggling with these issues
  • train and support members of the University to become Allies in this work
  • sponsor proactive programs such as workshops, lectures, discussions, etc.
  • identify pertinent community resources for further support

Western Michigan State University has developed a program known as Safe on Campus. This group's statement of purpose reads:

Safe on Campus is a program which identifies gay-friendly faculty and staff and students who provide support and resources for WMU gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. The Safe on Campus symbol is a message to gay, lesbian, and bisexual students and colleagues that you are understanding, supportive, and trustworthy. Students will know they can come to you for help, advice, or just to talk to someone who is supportive of their sexual orientation. The symbol also means that homophobic and heterosexist comments and actions will not be tolerated, but will be addressed in an educational and informative manner. Colleagues and students have a right to their opinion; however, if someone is stating myths or misinformation about gay, lesbian, or bisexual individuals you will inform them of more accurate information in a respectful manner.

Lucent Technologies has developed a program called the Safe Space Program. Its brochure states:

Most lesbians and gay men remain closeted or at least partially so within the work environment. Paradoxically, there are frequently other people who wish to be supportive of their co-workers, but do not want to risk making them uncomfortable and don't know where to begin.

The brochure continues by listing a series of suggested behavioral practices if one supports the aim of the Safe Space Program.

  • Display a Safe Space emblem in your office
  • Do not permit homophobic comments or jokes
  • Do not assume everyone is heterosexual
  • Use inclusive language
  • Include domestic partners
  • Treat the subject in a positive manner
  • Respect the privacy of the individual
  • As you can tell, mission statements or statements of purposes differ depending on the goals and circumstances of the particular group. Your job is to identify how you wish your Ally program to function and then to write this down in a clear and concise public statement.

2. Develop a Common Language
In order to achieve their goal of serving as a resource for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, Allies should be aware of the meaning and usage of some common LGBT terms and symbols.

  • Homosexual: A person who is emotionally, physically and/or sexually attracted to a person of the same sex.
  • Gay: A common term for men who are attracted to men; sometimes used when referring to both gay men and lesbians.
  • Lesbian: A common term for women who are attracted to women.
  • Bisexual (or Bi): A person who is emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to both men and women, though not necessarily equally or at the same time.
  • Transgender (or Trans): An umbrella term for people whose gender identity or expression is different from those typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth (e.g., the sex listed on their birth certificate). Click here to read HRC's Transgender FAQ.
  • Cisgender: A term used to describe people whose gender identity or expression aligns with those typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth.
  • Queer: In the past, this term was a derogatory word for gay men and lesbians. During the 1980s the term was reclaimed and used in the slogans of some LGBT activist groups ACT UP and Queer Nation (We're here, we're queer, get used to it!). Considered a more inclusive term than gay, some people -- particularly those from younger generations who would rather not identify themselves with a specific label -- identify themselves instead with the umbrella term "queer."
  • Heterosexual: A person who is emotionally, physically and/or sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex.
  • Homophobia: The irrational fear of homosexuals, homosexuality or any behavior, belief or attitude of self or others which does not conform to rigid sex and gender-role stereotypes. The extreme behavior of homophobia is violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.
  • Transphobia: Fear or hatred of transgender people, gender nonconforming people, or those perceived to be transgender. This hatred can be manifested in many ways, including harrassment, discrimination and violence.
  • Transmisogyny: Negative attitudes, hate, and violence directed toward transgender women and gender nonconforming people who present characteristics on the feminine end of the gender spectrum. Transmisogyny is based in the assumption that femininity is inferior to masculinity.
  • Heterosexism: Evidenced by the assumption that everyone is heterosexual. The systematic oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons that is directly linked to sexism.
  • Internalized Oppression: The process by which a member of an oppressed group comes to accept and live out the inaccurate myths and stereotypes applied to the group.
  • Ally: A person who is a member of a dominant or majority group who works to end oppression in his or her personal and professional life through support of, and as an advocate for, an oppressed population.
  • Coming Out: To publicly declare and affirm one's sexual orientation, gender identity, or identity as an LGBT ally to oneself or to others.
  • In the Closet: To hide one's sexual orientation, gender identity or other identity in order to maintain one's job, housing situation, friends, family or in some other way to survive life in a heterosexist culture. Many LGBT people are out in some circumstances, but closeted in others.
  • Rainbow Flag: The flag was originally designed by San Francisco artist, Gilbert Baker, in 1978 and was intended to be a symbol of gay and lesbian pride. It was inspired by the Flag of the Races which had five stripes, each one representing the colors of human kind. The six colors of the flag — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple — represent the diversity and unity within the LGBT movement. The widespread use of the flag is due less to any official recognition of it as a symbol and more to its adoption by members of the LGBT community.
  • Pink Triangle: An inverted pink triangle was a Nazi symbol used to identify homosexuals during the Holocaust. The symbol was adopted by gays and lesbian activists to remember those who were tortured and killed in Nazi concentration camps.
  • Lambda: This Greek letter was adopted by the Gay Activist Alliance in 1970 as a symbol of the gay movement. An ancient Greek regiment of warriors who carried a flag emblazoned with the lambda marched into battle with their male lovers. The groups was noted for their fierceness and willingness to fight until death.
  • Freedom Rings: These six colored aluminum rings are linked together and reminiscent of the Rainbow Flag. Wearing them has come to symbolize independence and tolerance of others. The rings are often used in necklaces, bracelets, rings and key chains.
  • Double Women's Symbol: Representing the planet Venus, this symbol represents women loving women.
  • Double Man's Symbol: Representing the planet Mars, this symbol represents men loving men.

3. Be Visible: Develop a Logo
Now that you have a core network of individuals willing and ready to function as Allies, you need to make your presence visible to the wider public, whether that be the greater campus community or your fellow employees. In order to function as Allies, people who would use you as a resource need to know how to identify you. The easy way to accomplish this goal is to adopt a logo design. Often these designs incorporate one of the symbols mentioned above such as the pink triangle or the rainbow flag; however, the logo does not have to incorporate any existing symbol. It should attempt to visually reflect the purpose of your group. The main thing to remember is to publish what this logo stands for. In other words, draft an ad in the campus newspaper or write an article for your employee newsletter showing the logo and detailing the mission of your Ally network. Members of the Ally program should display this log, whether it be in the form of a sticker, button, or magnet, in a visible location such as their office, dorm room, or on their bag.

Lucent Technologies Safe Space Program
Incorporates the pink triangle encircles in a green ring



Wesleyan University Ally
A green circle that does not utilize existing LGBT symbols



Pennsylvania State University's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Support Network
Incorporates the commonly understood meaning of the rainbow flag
LGBT Support Network








4. Expand and Solidify Your Group: Organizing a Training Workshop and/or Contract for Future Members

Now that you have your core group of Allies organized and functioning, you need to develop a means to train and/or attract new members. This is especially important in a university setting where student turnover is extremely high, i.e., a new class comes every year as another class graduates.

Training workshops would be designed to focus on two parts: (1) exposing, examining and working through one's own internalized oppression and prejudice and (2) learning how to respond effectively to situations that an Ally may encounter.

To reach the first goal, a values-clarification exercise is often used. Such an exercise utilizes open and honest questions such as: 

  1. Do you ever not do something because others may think it makes you look gay or lesbian?
  2. How would you feel if you had an LGBT son or daughter?
  3. Would you suggest that a person see a therapist if he or she came out to you?
  4. Have you ever laughed at a homophobic or transphobic joke?

The aim of these questions and others similar in theme are to assess personal levels of homophobia, heterosexism and transphobia. While the purpose of an Allies program is, in part, to discourage and eliminate homophobia and transphobia, American culture is homophobic and transphobic, and you must discover in what ways you have internalized those ideas and behaviors. Once this is accomplished, you are better able to move onto the second part of a training workshop.

Part Two involves learning what types of situations, that you, as an Ally, might encounter. The most obvious is that as friend, peer, colleague or student might come out to you. A less obvious situation is that a friend, peer, colleague or student might express discomfort and/or confusion about being confronted by a visible LGBT culture. For example, a student may feel confused about the purpose of sidewalk chalking on a college campus on National Coming Out Day. Remember that as an Ally your goal is not only to help people in the coming out process, but to help other non-LGBT individuals understand the importance of equality, fairness, tolerance, and mutual respect. The best way to prepare for such scenarios might involve working through a series of role plays with others training to be Allies.

Some Ally programs have utilized a contract which commits an individual to take on the responsibilities of an Ally. An example can be found in Free to be You and Me (Brunette, 1990).

5. Keep Your Members Informed: Develop a Resource Packet
Since one of the goals of an Ally program is to inform and educate others about sexual orientation and gender identity and to dispel myths and misinformation about the LGBT community, you should design a resource packet for your group.

A packet might include information on the following:

  • purpose and mission statement of your program
  • an explanation of the logo
  • what it means to be an Ally
  • common terms and symbols
  • guidelines on reporting harassment at your institution
  • guidelines as to when to utilize a professional counselor
  • suggestions for creating a non-homophobic, non-transphobic environment
  • myths and realities of what it means to be LGBT
  • sexual identity development (i.e., the studies of Vivien Cass)
  • Kinsey research on sexuality expression
  • history of the LGBT community in the United States
  • explaining and examining heterosexual, cisgender privilege
  • religion and homophobia/transphobia
  • personal experiences of homophobia/transphobia in the classroom or the workplace

6. Are you Accomplishing your Goals? Establishing Follow-up Procedures
One of the most important aims of an Ally program is to assess if that program is accomplishing its intended goals. In other words, follow-up procedures should be established to identify where things are running smoothly as well as where there is room for improvement.

Follow-up and feedback should be incorporated into the training workshop mentioned above in Section 4 in order to identify areas of the workshop that could be improved. Some Ally programs have created follow-up sheets for interaction with an Ally. For example, a person who has spoken with an Ally completes a form regarding who the contact person was, number of meetings with that person, how her or she knew the contact, reason for seeking the Ally, rating the interaction, the most and least helpful aspect of the interaction, and suggestions for improved future experience. The Ally network member can also complete a similar follow-up form. This form might ask the status of the contact, i.e., student year, faculty, staff, or co-worker, gender, race/ethnicity, number of interactions, whether or not a referral was made and to whom, and what type of assistance was provided, e.g., information on coming out, family issues, legal issues, how to become an Ally, questions about LGBT culture or local resources. It is important to remember that due to the nature of the topic, the information included in these follow-up forms is sensitive, and should remain anonymous and confidential.

The National Coming Out Project and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation would like to acknowledge the assistance of Lucent Technologies' "Safe Space Program," Wesleyan University's "Allies," Western Michigan State University's "Safe on Campus" Program, Pennsylvania State University's "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Support Network" and Washington State University's "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Allies Program." Without their submission of materials, this project would not have been possible.