Since the beginning of the new year, the issues that face the LGBTQIQ community have become increasingly public at MSU. In January, the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA), a student club on campus, sent an email to the administration in response to Gov. Bullock’s executive order intended to protect state employees against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Strong reactions, not surprisingly, came from both sides of the aisle.
The online comment section for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s article on the subject was a particularly good showcasing of both sides in action. There, individuals used a combination of logic, rhetoric, facts, figures and the occasional video link in attempts to sway everyone else to agree with their point of view. By the time the dust had settled, however, everyone seemed to be more entrenched in their starting positions.
This came as no surprise. Debates rarely change minds because they are primarily oppositional in nature. The only minds that debate will change are the minds of those who did not have an opinion on the subject in the first place. Too often, when human beings watch or participate in debates, it is to reaffirm their own beliefs rather than to challenge those beliefs.
An alternative to debate is dialogue. Dialogue invites the participants to examine their own beliefs. It is collaborative in nature and promotes mutual understanding, instead of focusing on the differences between the participants.
Debates like the one on the Chronicle website will not help the Bozeman and MSU community come to an understanding, but participating in dialogue will. Understanding where the other side is coming from is necessary for making the best decision for everyone involved when it comes to matters of law and public policy. In order to for each side to develop a real understanding of the other, real dialogue needs to take place. That is the goal of MSU’s Safe Zone program.
Safe Zone was created to provide education about LGBTQIQ issues and to promote awareness of these issues to the public. According to Ariel Donohue, the program director, nine percent of the MSU student body identify as LGBTQIQ. It is unknown to what extent the issues raised in QSA’s email affect all LGBTQIQ students; but what is known is that LGBTQIQ students comprise a significant sector of the student population which has unique concerns and experiences.
The goal of Safe Zone is to promote individual and community understanding of these concerns and experiences through free, voluntary courses for the public, as well as through courses for campus departments and classes that are interested. What individuals choose to do following Safe Zone varies according to Donohue.
Safe Zone’s methods are not the catch-all solution for creating positive social change, but they are an important part of that process. Understanding an issue is the first step towards dealing with the root causes that drive it. The time and effort required to develop that understanding can be discouraging, but as more people seek to understand the issues that concern the LGBTQIQ community on campus, the more likely the campus will see changes that are beneficial and satisfactory to the whole community.