By Kelly Huegel Madrone, author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens
As visibility increases for LGBTQ people and issues, kids are adopting these identities at earlier ages. Just a few decades ago, most young people came out in their late teens and early twenties. Now it’s not uncommon for kids to claim LGBTQ identities in middle school and sometimes even in elementary school.
Teachers who never considered how they might handle these issues are now being faced with questions about how to make their classrooms safe and respectful learning spaces for all students.
But how much of a problem is LGBTQ student safety, really?
Every few years, GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) releases its National School Climate Survey, which provides extensive data on the experiences of LGBTQ middle and high school students. According to the 2015 survey, more than 70 percent of students reported experiencing verbal harassment based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation, and nearly 55 percent reported harassment based on their gender expression. Sadly, more than half of students surveyed were unlikely to report physical or verbal harassment to teachers or other staff because of a belief that it would do no good.
And it’s not just students doing the harassing. More than half of students reported hearing homophobic remarks from teachers or other school staff.
Here are twelve things you can do not only to keep LGBTQ students safe in your classroom, but also to enhance learning experiences for everyone.
1. Have LGBTQ-inclusive materials present in your classroom. The subtle act of having LGBTQ-friendly books in your classroom sends a message to all students that it is an inclusive environment. (The resources below include lists of such books.)
2. Be aware of gender stereotypes. If the experience of being transgender or nonbinary (not identifying as male or female) is a new concept for you, it can be very easy to overlook the prevalence of gender stereotypes and underestimate their impact on students.
Anything that reinforces the idea that there are only two genders, or that underscores gender roles (“boys do this and girls do that”), can have a negative effect on all students, regardless of their gender identities. One way to be more inclusive is in classroom productions or any time role playing is used: Allow students of any gender to play any role. (Why can’t Abe Lincoln be played by a girl, Rosa Parks by a boy, or either by a nonbinary student?)
In elementary classrooms, make sure lots of gender-neutral toys are available, and provide opportunities for students of any gender to play with toys or participate in activities (like dress up) regardless of whether the toy or activity is classically geared toward boys or girls.
3. Be aware of your language. As a teacher, your language can have a huge impact on students. It can be an adjustment, but using more inclusive language sends a big message. For example, instead of saying, “Good morning, boys and girls!” try, “Good morning, students!” or, “Good morning, class!”
4. Use preferred names and pronouns. This also has to do with language. Students who are transgender or nonbinary may wish to be called by another name and/or use pronouns that more accurately reflect their gender identities. These can range from opposite-gender pronouns (he/him/his instead of she/her/hers) to inclusive pronouns (such as they/their/theirs).
Using preferred names and pronouns demonstrates your respect for the student’s identity. However, in cases where the student’s parents are not supportive of the student’s gender identity, you may need to work with your school administrator to establish an appropriate course of action.
5. Include LGBTQ people in the curriculum. Fortunately, there are now lots of great resources for teachers of all grades and subjects who are looking to be more LGBTQ-inclusive in their curricula. A few are included in the resources at the end of this article.
6. Recognize diverse family structures. Even students who are not LGBTQ themselves may have diverse family structures that include one or more LGBTQ parents or guardians. Be aware of this when speaking about or creating activities around mothers and fathers (perhaps use terms such as “parents and guardians” instead). The resources listed below also provide several books you can include in your classroom that acknowledge diverse families.
7. Put a stop to bullying. If you see or hear students being harassed for their actual or perceived sexual orientations or gender identities, intervene. Data from the National School Climate Survey shows that this kind of teacher and staff support greatly improves LGBTQ students’ overall school experience, including feelings of safety.
8. Display “safe space” symbols. The Safe Space Kit from GLSEN (see the resources below) includes a sign you can display in your classroom. Teachers have also been known to do all sorts of creative things from wearing rainbow bracelets to creating Pride Month displays in their classrooms. Whether it’s a subtle signal or a grand gesture, these efforts can go a long way to helping LGBTQ students feel welcomed and accepted.
9. Be supportive of students coming out. Some students may choose to come out to you, a trusted adult, perhaps even before they tell their family or friends. Several months ago, I wrote a blog with tips on how to support a young person coming out. Reviewing information such as this in advance will help you be ready in the event that a student chooses to come out to you.
10. Be respectful of LGBTQ students’ privacy. Be careful not to “out” LGBTQ students (tell other people about their identities). In some cases, this might be necessary to protect them (such as bringing bullying incidents to the attention of an administrator), but take great care in doing so, protecting students’ privacy as much as possible.
11. Support LGBTQ student clubs, such as GSAs. Your support of GSAs (gay-straight alliances) and other LGBTQ-oriented school clubs does a lot to make the school a safe space for students and establishes you as a trusted resource. You don’t have to volunteer to be a club advisor (though you could); simply attending GSA-sponsored activities or participating in GSA events is enough.
12. Have resources available. Just as a student may choose to come out to you, a student may also come to you for help with school or family troubles. Having appropriate resources available, such as referral information for counselors or organizations that can help, is one of the best ways to provide support to troubled students. The resources below include some of this information.
Kelly Huegel Madrone is a freelance writer, editor, and educator. She has worked for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., chapter of PFLAG where she helped provide support and educational services to LGBTQ people and their families. The author of two books and more than one hundred published articles, Kelly holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in Colorado with her wife Margaret and their daughter. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her on Twitter at @GLBTQguide or visit her website at kellymadrone.com.
Kelly is the author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.
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GLSEN’s Safe Space Kit
The Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools Kit
GLSEN’s Changing the Game sports project (geared toward coaches and physical education teachers)
“9 Ways Schools Can Support Trans Students”