Queer Your Classroom: Help LGBTQ Students Feel Safe and Welcomed in School

To celebrate Pride Month, diversity, and inclusivity, we wanted to provide teachers with valuable information that they can use now and in the long term—when class is back in session—to foster safe and welcoming learning environments for LGBTQ students.

Teachers should strive to make their classrooms—whether in person or virtual—fun, safe, and inviting for all students. Unfortunately, sometimes our most vulnerable students are forgotten, whether intentionally or not. Providing LGBTQ* (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning*) students with representative curricula, supportive staff and school policies, and affirming spaces can have positive effects, enabling them to feel a greater sense of belonging to their school community and be less likely to face discrimination and victimization, according to a recent GLSEN school climate survey.

*While LGBTQ is a commonly used acronym, other variations may be substituted (such as LGBTQIA+ to include those who are intersex, those who are asexual, and others.)

LGBTQ Support in Schools

So, how do we make our classrooms/schools welcoming to queer students? (For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll use the word “queer” as an umbrella term for all LGBTQ people.)

There are several simple ways teachers (and every education stakeholder) can make classrooms, hallways, and schools safe for queer students. I have given a professional development seminar about this topic. Here are the most impactful strategies from the presentation.

1. Terminology Matters.

Language is our main communication method, and we learn from others, including family members and friends. A lot of ways we speak can unintentionally harm the queer community. If you start to listen to how you address people, you might find that our language reinforces the gender binary (for instance, “boy” and “girl” are the only two gender options).

It takes work to unlearn these phrases and retrain our brains to use more inclusive language; it won’t always be perfect, and you will make mistakes. But, that’s OK! Even after years of working to stop calling my students “ladies and gentlemen” or “guys,” I still slip up. What’s important is that you reflect and correct yourself if you do make mistakes. Here’s a screenshot of one of the slides of my presentation that I think is helpful in framing what to say instead of using certain words.

2. Gender ≠ Sex.

A common misconception is that gender and sex are synonymous. Scientifically and socially, they are not the same. Sex has multiple biological factors, including internal and external reproductive organs, hormones, and chromosomes, while gender identity is a deeply held personal sense of one’s own gender that is thought to have a neurological basis.

Gender roles, on the other hand, are socially constructed roles. Both gender and sex exist on spectra; there are two ends, but they can take on values in between. For sex, there is “male-ness” on one side and “female-ness” on the other, but there is also intersex (someone whose sex falls in between). Sometimes, a person’s sex assigned at birth matches their gender identity (this is called being cisgender) and sometimes they do not match (this is called being transgender).

There are several resources available that help students distinguish between sex and gender, but one of my favorites is The Genderbread Person (instead of Genderbread “Man”). It has undergone multiple iterations to refine these differences. It’s a useful tool that helps reiterate a crucial point: gender identity ≠ gender expression ≠ sex AND gender ≠ sexual orientation.

These distinctions are important for teachers to understand so that when they talk to students, they aren’t unknowingly reinforcing harmful binary thinking. This especially comes up in biology and sex education curricula, and a friend of mine, Sam Long, has curated several incredible resources on his website, Gender-Inclusive Biology, designed to help teachers understand how to explain these complexities in their classrooms. The website also has a newsletter that gives teachers a few tips and resources each month.

3. Survey Students for Their Gender Pronouns and Family Situation.

I survey students on the first day of school as an opportunity for them to tell me about themselves with the caveat that only I will see their answers and I won’t discuss with anyone else, including their parents or other teachers. In the survey, I ask them what their gender pronouns are (with more questions about their usage), what I should call them, and more about their family. I keep the language gender-neutral, and I don’t call pronouns “preferred pronouns” because preferred implies someone isn’t using their “real” pronouns and the pronouns don’t really belong to them. Here’s what my survey looks like:

When I ask about pronouns, I give the option to write in their own. Students of all ages use personal pronouns, so if you give examples, it should help! For instance, I say, “My pronouns are he/him/his. If you refer to me, you might say, ‘I love Mr. Kubiak; HE is my favorite teacher. HIS jokes are the best. I wish I was more like HIM.’” Pronouns can also change, so it’s important to check in with students often, not just in the fall.

4. Visibly Show Students/Colleagues Your Support.

One great way to show support for the queer community—and, more specifically, the trans and non-binary communities—is to add gender pronouns to your email signature. I even took a further step on my own and made them a different color so that they pop out!

You can add your pronouns to professional or personal social media accounts as well, like I did on my professional teacher Twitter. Doing this is something simple that cisgender people can do so that trans and non-binary folks aren’t the only ones sharing and thinking about pronouns. Students and colleagues will notice that you’ve done this, and it goes a long way.

You might notice in my profile picture the lanyard that I’m wearing. It’s one I ordered from GLSEN that holds my OUT for Safe Schools Badge—another visual way I show my support for queer students as a mobile safe space.

5. Avoid and Address Microaggressions.

A microaggression is an action or phrase that (unintentionally) discriminates against a marginalized group, including queer people, people of color, and others. A colleague of mine once explained a microaggression as being like a paper cut. It doesn’t harm someone that much, but enough of these “cuts” over time will really start to hurt. I liked this analogy because it put microaggressions in perspective for me; enough of these statements or actions can do lasting damage.

Microaggressions against queer people could sound like: “Who’s the man in the relationship?”, “I have a cousin/sibling like you!”, “You aren’t bi, you have a boyfriend/girlfriend!”, “I have a gay friend you should meet!”, “This is my gay/bi/trans/lesbian friend!”, or “It’s too much to remember all of this stuff!” among others. No one in the queer community wants to be labeled as the “gay best friend” or be known only for their LGBTQ identity, so it’s important to be mindful of how we talk about queer people in front of our students and in general.

6. Evaluate Curriculum and Assess Opportunities for Queer Inclusion.

Take a look at what you do in your current curriculum. Where is there an opportunity for positive queer representation? In my chemistry class, for example, I’ve infused talking about gender and sexuality even when it doesn’t seem like it would “fit” or there wouldn’t be time. When we talk about the electromagnetic spectrum, I connect the word spectrum to how gender and sexuality can similarly be a spectrum so that students understand that there can be two ends, but that values are possible in between, as on a number line.

It’s easy to change word problems to not be heteronormative and to include stories with queer characters or relationships. Feature unisex or gender-neutral names! Talk about queer mathematicians, scientists, and/or historical figures in class. Whatever your subject, students should see that queer people exist. They should be able to see themselves going into your field because of the positive representation.

Final Thoughts

  • Know that this could save lives. Even making one small change can make a world of difference for a queer student. If I had a teacher that was queer-affirming in school, it would have changed my life.
  • Be a role model and an upstander. It may be uncomfortable, but standing up to homophobic language and anti-LGBTQ actions is paramount to student safety.
  • Start small. It’s not enough to just throw up a poster, but small things can make a difference. My classroom has multiple Pride flags, but I’ve also worked to create a safe space through other means.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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