Creating inclusive classrooms for students of allgender identities and sexual orientations
In a survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 96 percent of all LGBTQ students could identify one adult in their school who was supportive of students of varied sexual orientations and gender identities. Teachers play a crucial role in supporting and advocating for LGBTQ students, ensuring they are able to learn and explore in a safe classroom space. The following guide discusses the importance of inclusive classrooms and provides tips and tools for being an ally to LGBTQ students. There is also an expert interview that explores common questions teachers of LGBTQ students may have.
A Teacher’s Guide to Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Terms
It is important for teachers to understand the different labels used within LGBTQ communities for two reasons. First, the American Psychological Association points out that many stigmas are still associated with LGBTQ individuals, and much of this is due to a lack of understanding that breeds prejudice and discrimination. Second, teachers without this set of knowledge may struggle to fully understand the range of identities in these communities, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to supporting their students as allies. Some of the most common terms that relate to LGBTQ groups include:
Ally Allies are individuals who don’t identify as LGBTQ but support both individuals and communities who do, and advocate on their behalf.
Asexual People who identify as asexual are not sexually attracted to either sex, though the spectrum of experiences vary from person to person.
Bisexual Individuals who identify as bisexual are attracted to both sexes, either in physical or emotional ways, or both.
Cisgender A person is considered to be cisgender if they identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Closeted An LGBTQ individual who has not yet revealed their sexual orientation or gender identity publicly.
Coming Out/Disclosure LGBTQ individuals often disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity to their family, friends and/or community – also known as coming out.
Gay/Lesbian This term is used to refer to individuals who are emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to someone of the same gender; women who are attracted to other women often prefer the term “lesbian,” while men use the term “gay.”
Gender-Expansive Individuals who are gender-expansive believe there is a wider spectrum of gender identities than simply male and female.
Gender Expression How one expresses gender identity using outward appearances, behaviors or other means.
Gender Identity While the sex assigned at birth is binary, one’s gender identity is informed by how one sees oneself.
Gender-Neutral This phrase refers to a number of different concepts, all of which revolve around neutrality. It could be used to discuss gender-neutral pronouns, bathrooms or identities.
Queer Once carrying a negative connotation, numerous LGBT youth have re-appropriated this word to refer to the LGBT community as a whole.
Questioning Individuals who are currently exploring their own sexual orientation and gender identities are said to be “questioning.”
Transgender Transgender individuals are people who don’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth and instead choose to express a different gender identity.
Transition Transition happens when an LGBT individual takes steps – legally, medically or socially – to affirm their gender identity. This may include changing one’s name or seeking gender reassignment surgeries.
LGBTQ Ally Action: Knowing Students’ Rights
As the LGBTQ community is historically misrepresented and discriminated against, it’s vitally important for teachers to understand LGBTQ students’ rights and are able to identify biased or judgmental behavior. Because LGBTQ individuals still do not fully enjoy the same rights and privileges of their straight counterparts, it’s equally important to understand prejudices within the law and provide advocacy for the advancement of their rights. Some of the most common areas where LGBTQ students experience discrimination include:
HARASSMENT Title IX bans federally-funded schools from discriminating against LGBTQ people, but many states are enacting additional protections against harassment and bullying, particularly for LGBTQ youth.
PRIVACY LGBTQ youth are provided the same constitutional right to privacy as all other citizens, and this means no one from school can disclose a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity without their approval, even if they are a minor.
SPEECH LGBTQ students enjoy the same freedom of speech granted to all American citizens. Only speech deemed hate speech or disruptive to a classroom is subject to censorship.
GENDER EXPRESSION Discrimination based on gender identity is unlawful in all 50 states, giving students the right to express their gender identities via clothing and other means – provided they are appropriate any student, regardless of gender.
GAY-STRAIGHT ALLIANCES The Equal Access Act stipulates that public schools with non-curricular clubs must also allow students to create a GSA club.
PROMS, HOMECOMING, AND SCHOOL EVENTS The First Amendment protects LGBTQ students’ right to express their gender identities and sexual preferences at all public school events, so long as they comply with rules and regulations applicable to all students.
Students who identify as LGBTQ are five times more likely to skip school due to feeling unsafe or having previously been bullied.
LGBTQ Ally Action: Preventing Bullying
The 2013 National School Climate Survey reports that in 2012, more than 74 percent of LGBTQ students were verbally harassed, and percent 36 percent physically harassed, due to their sexual orientation. The best LGBTQ-allied teachers monitor behavior to ensure LGBTQ students feel safe at school, and that potential aggressors understand discrimination of any sort will not be tolerated. The following table provides recommendations for teachers responding to the harassment of LGBTQ students.
TRUST YOUR STUDENTS If a student says they are being bullied, take them at their word and don’t dismiss the actions as teasing. Allegations about bullying must always be taken seriously.
INFORM ADMINISTRATORS Inform school leaders of all reports of harassment so that they can monitor the situation and respond appropriately.
SIMPLY LISTEN If a student tells you they have been harassed for their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, listen without judgment or assumption.
CONNECT STUDENTS TO RESOURCES Students who have been bullied may not be aware of school services that could help, like counseling or therapy. Make sure students have all the information they need to access support.
BE IN THE KNOW LGBTQ students are disproportionately the target of bullying, whether on-site or online. Teachers should learn how to recognize and respond to warning signs of bullying in all forms.
INTERVENE If you see a student being bullied or harassed, take action immediately. Targeted students need to know those around them will intervene-and bullies must know their actions won’t be tolerated.
61.6 percent of LGBTQ students who took part in a recent GLSEN report stated school staff did not respond to reports of LGBTQ-related harassment or assault.
Harassment and bullying rank second among the biggest issues facing LGBTQ students today.
LGBTQ Ally Action: Supporting Student Groups
Student clubs can provide an invaluable support system for LGBTQ students, whether they serve the whole LGBTQ community or a specific population within it. Teachers can empower their students by serving as mentors, advisors or sponsors for different organizations. This section highlights common LGBTQ student organizations, from middle school to college.
GAY-STRAIGHT ALLIANCES (GSAS)
WHAT ARE GSAS? Gay-Straight Alliances are clubs created by LGBTQ students and their allies in high schools and middle schools across the nation. The goal of GSAs is to empower these students to be leaders and advocates in the fight for equal rights, school safety and healthy communities.
HOW CAN TEACHERS HELP SUPPORT GSAS? GSA networks are created and run by students, but teachers must be willing to open their classrooms, serve as faculty advisers and offer support their initiation. Teacher-advisers may also mentor and empower GSA members behind the scenes.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE? The GSA Network website provides valuable information about what the group does and what it takes to start a chapter.
LGBTQ College Student Groups
The majority of colleges and universities now offer numerous types of LGBTQ groups and organizations: some may cater to students who identify across the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrums, while others may be dedicated to LGBTQ students pursuing specific majors. University faculty have many important roles they play for LGBTQ groups, including that of advisor, mentor, advocate and ally.
Campus Pride Campus Pride is the only nonprofit in America dedicated to empowering students and campus groups focused on creating safe environments for LGBTQ college students.
Offices of LGBTQ Student Life Many colleges, such as the University of Chicago, have entire offices devoted to serving the needs of LGBTQ students on campus.
LGBTQ-inclusive curricula benefit students of all sexual orientations and gender identities in several key ways: Cisgender students gain an unbiased and more thorough understanding of the LGBTQ community while learning how to promote acceptance; LGBTQ students receive validation of their experiences, sexual orientations and gender identities and find a safe space to express their opinions and values. The following table highlights ways teachers of different academic levels can incorporate LGBTQ themes or topics into their lessons.
Heather Has Two Mommies This book is a great resource for reading time that teaches students about nontraditional family structures.
Examining Marriage Laws Have students read the landmark Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges cases to compare and contrast interracial and same-sex marriages’ legal journeys.
StoryCorps StoryCorps is a free app provided by NPR that bills itself as America’s oral history project. Have students conduct interviews with LGBTQ members in the community to broaden their understanding of the community.
Celebrate LGBTQ History Month Once a week during the month of October, try to incorporate an LGBTQ-inclusive them into a lesson plan.
Interpreting Data Use a lesson about statistics to have students review and analyze LGBTQ demographics.
Watch “Who I Am” as a class This movie touches on sexuality, stereotypes, homophobia and racism and provides an excellent starting point for class discussion.
Unheard Voices This book, which features compiled biographies of notable individuals who identified as LGBTQ, offers many opportunities for assignments.
Watch the ‘Coming Out’ Video Series This set of videos features interviews with individuals discussing what it was like to come out in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.
Celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month Each class period in June, take time to highlight a notable LGBTQ individual who worked in your field of study.
Ready, Set, Respect! This resource from GLSEN was developed especially for elementary school teachers trying to build inclusive classrooms.
He Continues to Make a Difference This resource for high school educators provides a series of lesson plans around the life of Matthew Shepard.
Challenging Assumptions Ask students to review this list of assumptions about the LGBTQ community provided by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. Discuss how many of these they held.
Expert Advice from an LGBTQ Ally
How can teachers become allies in fighting for the rights of LGBTQ students?
Teachers can be tremendous allies both in their role as educators and also as affirming adults in the lives of children. Creating a classroom environment where everyone feels safe and valued is an amazing first step to helping every student feel their presence is important and needed, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. Teachers have a wonderful opportunity to not only support students, but also to work with their school administrators to ensure that all families receive education in support related to these issues.
What is a teacher’s role in preventing bullying, ensuring inclusion, and making each student feel safe?
Bullying of any kind is not to be tolerated. Teachers can act swiftly when bullying is apparent by immediately addressing the aggressive student and working with school administrators to provide appropriate intervention for that student. Often the student that is bullying needs support as well. Many times, the best way to deal with bullying is to make sure the entire school receives messages of inclusion and acceptance. Further, when folks lash out at LGBTQ individuals, it is often due to a lack of knowledge or understanding in general.
Not allowing homophobic or transphobic language in the classroom or school environment is paramount. For every slur that goes unchecked, an LGBTQ person may be emotionally injured which can lead to a host of serious concerns. Using the name and pronouns of a transgender or gender expansive student is the easiest way to show support and inclusion as well as creating an environment of safety. Teachers lead the way, and if students witness teachers being respectful and inclusive, they are more likely to do so.
How does LGBTQ-inclusive curricula help further equality in classrooms?
ALGBTQ-inclusive curricula demonstrate the value and contribution of LGBTQ individuals in our history. Students to see themselves reflected in lessons, which allows them to understand their own value both in school and in the world at large. By encouraging respectful dialogue and critical thinking skills, all students are taught the value of inclusion and diversity.
What is the best way for teachers to make LGBTQ students feel safe?
Create safety by having clear expectations of classroom behavior; make it abundantly clear that bullying or harassment of any kind will not be tolerated. Encourage thoughtful, respectful discourse. If homophobic or transphobic language is used by a student – don’t ignore it! Turn it into a teaching moment and deconstruct the ideas the student may have about a particular phrase or word. Often kids don’t understand the reasons why a word or phrase is hurtful. Once a teacher opens the dialogue, comments such as these are likely to decrease. Supporting the development of a Safe Space or GSA or other affirming student organization can go a long way to helping LGBTQ kids find community within their school. The aids in lessening the likelihood of isolation – which can be a major struggle for gay or gender expansive kids.
Additional Resources for LGBTQ Youth & Allies
Advocates for Youth This organization provides a variety of LGBTQ-inclusive lesson plans for educators along with tips and strategies on creating safe classrooms.
Stop Bullying This government website provides many resources about creating safe environments for LGBTQ youth, laws and rulings concerning this population, and information about different types of bullying.
The Trevor Project This nonprofit is the leading organization for crisis- and suicide-prevention for LGBTQ youth.
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