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Identity Safety for LGBTQIA+ Students and Families

October 5, 2022

Ways to Validate Students: Identity Safety for LGBTQIA+ Students and Families

As educators, we owe it to children and youth everywhere who deserve to attend school and live in a world where they feel identity safe and included.

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By Becki Cohn-Vargas

When my daughter Melania and her 2-year-old son Anteo were wading in the Russian River, Anteo made a friend, a 3-year-old named Ronan. Both boys, wearing water wings, splashed as their mothers hovered over them. “Hi Ronan, I am Anteo’s mother. He calls me Ima (mother in Hebrew), and over there is his Mama,” Melania pointed at her wife standing on the shore. “Is that your mother and your father over there?” As I listened, I thought how natural it is to give little Anteo (and Ronan) a message that having two mothers is completely normal. Later, Melania pointed out to me that she has several books about kids with same-sex parents, one about a trans child and another one titled A Kid’s Book About Being Non-Binary. And yet, she worries that most messages Anteo will hear as he grows up will mainly have traditional families with a mother and father. And now, in many states, books with diverse families and protagonists are banned from schools and libraries. So how can she keep her sweet child from experiencing the sting of bigotry, the shame of negative stereotyping, and the pain of bullying? 

Many educators are becoming intimidated and frightened by threats of lawsuits claiming that any mention of gay family members constitutes a “gay agenda.” One superintendent asked an outside LGBTQIA+ inclusion consultant to “be sure to be neutral about these topics” when he gave teacher workshops. However, there is no neutrality regarding hate, homophobia and transphobia.

Tips for Educators: Part 1

  • Learn about gender identity and sexual orientation (LGBTQIA+ Glossary of Terms).
  • Use affirming gender-inclusive language (e.g., humankind rather than mankind, chairperson rather than chairman, and everyone, instead of ladies and gentlemen or boys and girls).
  • Build trust and encourage students to share information about their families; teach everyone to listen attentively; and avoid stereotyping and judging others.
  • Use affirmed or chosen names and pronouns of colleagues, students or caregivers.
  • Allow students/staff to use restrooms that best align with their affirmed gender or where they feel most safe and comfortable.
  • Use instructional materials, books, and role models with examples and perspectives of people with diverse gender identities, gender expressions, family structures and sexual orientations. For example, include images showing people dressed differently and engaged in non-stereotypical activities. (Check out: Gender-inclusive curriculum and LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Curriculum.)
  • Build trust and explain to students that they should only share what feels comfortable to reveal.

Across the United States, 35 states have proposed or passed bills that discriminate against and put LGBTQIA+ students in danger. In The Trevor Project: 2022 Survey, 67 percent of LGBTQIA+ youth reported being threatened or harmed because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Our students who live in inequitable conditions will suffer even more if we allow anyone to silence us. 

Numerous stereotype threat studies have demonstrated that when people are subject to negative stereotypes about their identities, their performance decreases. Conversely, identity safe classroom research has shown that when students feel their diversity is treated like a resource for learning and are encouraged to express their authentic identities, they do better in school and like school more. In other words, when differences are ignored and students have to hide parts of themselves or feel shame about their backgrounds and identities, they are hampered in living up to their full potential. 

Tips for Educators: Part 2

  • Display posters like ones that say, “this is a safe classroom for____” with specific groups (e.g., races, special needs, genders and sexual orientations.) Put up flags, including a rainbow flag, to give a positive message to children.
  • Provide opportunities for students to examine their gender and other aspects of their background through reflective writing, self-portraits and sharing stories about their lives.
  • Do not define any child’s identity for them, and allow for various expressions through clothing and personal style. (Sample Gender-Affirming Dress Code, page 27.)
  • Be careful not to “out” students to their classmates or families.
  • Support students in starting a “Genders and Sexuality Alliance” at your school.
  • Refute stereotypical and insensitive remarks without shaming the person who said them while explaining the harm of these comments in age-appropriate ways. Use these moments as meaningful teachable moments by reflecting on previously taught anti-bias lessons.
  • Help all students learn why teasing and name-calling, including using the phrase “that’s so gay,” is hurtful and unacceptable. Then, immediately respond to slurs and bullying without stigmatizing the person targeted by the bullying.
  • Advocate for professional learning opportunities for supporting LGBTQIA+ students.

The U.S. Department of Education website states its “Office for Civil Rights issued a Notice of Interpretation explaining that it will enforce Title IX's prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex to include: (1) discrimination based on sexual orientation; and (2) discrimination based on gender identity. In addition, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity offered by a recipient of federal financial assistance.” 

If you are in a school or district where the leadership is shutting down conversations about LGBTQIA+ safety and student rights (out of fear or for any other reason), I encourage you to find allies and stand strong and firm. 

As educators, we owe it to children and youth everywhere who, like my grandson, Anteo, deserve to attend school and live in a world where they feel identity safe and included. In the words of National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb: “We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future. Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain. If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.”

LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Educator Resources

Support and celebrate LGBTQIA+ students and inspire meaningful advocacy with these free lesson plans, activities and educator resources.

Identity Safe Classrooms

Identity Safe Classrooms is a site whose purpose is to support educators to assure that all students feel a sense of belonging and achieve at the highest levels.

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