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Teachers SHOULD say “gay”: Supporting LGBTQIA+ students in the crosshairs of anti-identity legislation

Anti-LGBTQIA+  (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual+) legislation is at a tipping point with lawmakers writing bills to marginalize an already vulnerable population: LGBTQIA+  identifying youth.

Florida has passed a bill that would prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s primary schools (known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill). 

Texas governor, Greg Abbott, has instituted an order for licensed professionals (including teachers) to alert the Department of Family and Protective Services if they become aware that any parent of a transgender minor is supporting their child receiving gender affirming medical care. 

Legislation barring transgender athletes from sports participation has been bubbling up for several years, with eighteen states now prohibiting transgender women from playing on womens sports teams. 

The examples are multiplying quickly, and our students feel the assaults on their identities. It’s no surprise that the Trevor Project’s 2021 LGBTQ Youth Mental Health survey cites 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth and 94% of LGBTQ youth report that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health.

How can teachers affirm and protect their LGBTQIA+ students?  What are measures educators can take to support this population already prone to abusive systems and cultural stigma? 

How do we do our best to support and include but not cross boundaries and become unintentionally invasive or cause unintended harm? 

This blogpost will offer small actions a teacher or administrator can undertake to affirm LGBTQIA+  identities in the classroom and as a school in practice, and program.  But the first step is identifying your own discomfort and perhaps lack of confidence when it comes to communicating your support in terms of language: terminology, definitions, acronyms, pronouns, and names.

What if I say something wrong? 

The knee-jerk response of many teachers when approaching the topic of gender identity with a student is avoidance. You can’t cause harm if you don’t say anything at all, right? Wrong. The student will pick up on your general avoidance of communication and will immediately or eventually feel ignored or othered. If you are aware of a student who has pronouns that do not align with their gender assigned at birth, or uses a name that doesn’t align with your interpretation of their gender, it’s important to make a significant effort to address the student in the way they see themselves. When you make a mistake, either in the moment or at another appropriate time, you can say something like: “I’m sorry I used the wrong pronouns today. I’ll make an effort to remember and not make the same mistake again.” It does not have to be a huge discussion or emotional apology. It’s an acknowledgement and an expressed commitment to do better. 

Terminology is seemingly ever-evolving. Be open to being corrected. The students care how you see them, so they’re letting you know what is important to them. It’s also key to do your own work around gender identity rather than rely on your students to teach you in real time. A helpful resource is genderspectrum.org. Here you can find a glossary of terms and resources specific to education professionals. 

Lastly, notice what makes you uncomfortable. What do you think and feel when you see a student defying gender norms in outward expressions like clothing? What do you think and feel when you see a same-sex romantic couple holding hands in the hallway? What do you think and feel when you sit down to your first parent teacher conference with the parents of a transgender student? Notice and then seek to understand the why behind these internal thoughts and emotions. 

Normalize Gender Spectrum and Fluidity

In Practice

At the beginning of a new semester or school year, many teachers have students fill out a survey that helps them organize their seating charts, get to know new students, and understand how classroom dynamics may play out. This is also an opportunity to normalize gender spectrum and fluidity in your students. 

Consider a survey that asks every student the following: 

  • What are the pronouns you use? Examples: she/her, he/him, they/them 
  • Do you wish to be called by another name than the one on the roster? If so, please write it below and also indicate pronunciation. 
  • Is there anything I should know about communicating with your parents and the information you provided above?* 

*In California, the department of education states that “To ensure the safety and wellbeing of the student, school staff shall not disclose any information that may reveal a student’s transgender or gender nonconforming status to others, including parents or guardians and other school staff, unless legally required to do so or unless the student has authorized such disclosure.”

In some states, the department of education may not have privacy protections in place. In this case, when asking such questions on a survey, it would be important for the students to understand who will see this information and that this information may be shared with parents. Providing context around the scope of privacy of such a survey is important. 

In community, when introducing yourself as a teacher, a way to normalize stating pronouns would be to say your name as well as a statement like “I use they/them pronouns.” This is a simple way to show support of gender non-conforming students in your care. Personally, I have also added my pronouns to my school name-tag that I wear for parent and community events. 

In Program

In considering how your program supports LGBTQIA+ learner engagement, it’s important to consider how you would measure your success or impact. Questions you may consider: 

  • How many of the books read in language arts classes are written by LGBTQIA+ authors?
  • Do our theater productions tell stories about the LGBTQIA+ experience?
  • Do we often cast gender non-binary or transgender students in leading roles in school productions?
  • How often are LGBTQIA+ identifying students chosen as student leaders?
  • When teachers discuss human sexuality in a health class, do they use inclusive language? Ex:  “Sexual organs” vs. “reproductive system”?
  • On overnight retreats and experiential learning trips, do we default sleeping arrangements by male and female?

With colleagues, come up with your own bank of questions that can be the start of assessing how inclusive your program is when it comes to LGBTQIA+ students. 

Lastly, with the recent political and legislative assaults on LGBTQIA+ identities and those who support them, sometimes it’s necessary to throw out the lesson plan and talk about the current events that are hurting this marginalized population. You may not think you have any students who identify as LGBTQIA+, but you are probably wrong. You also may have students who are questioning their gender identity and sexual orientation, and you will never know that this content is crucial to their identity development and self-confidence. Another reason to broach these topics in the classroom is to build a community of allies, students who will use their power and privilege to support and stand up for those with less. By incorporating LGBTQIA+ relevant content into your classroom and school program you are sending a message that these students are seen, loved, and supported when the world is telling them the opposite. 

 

For more information on gender identity: 

www.genderspectrum.org

https://www.thetrevorproject.org

Los Angeles LGBT Center 

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