Creating an Affirming Space in the Classroom for LGBTQIA+ Students
by Lena Schmidt
Hi y’all. Hey there. Hello everyone!
I imagine you became a teacher because you care about people. I imagine that you are still a teacher because you believe in potential. I imagine that your desire to help your students learn and grow, even with all the challenges they face at home and within the world, is often top of your mind. So, did you know that with some small, intentional shifts you can make your classroom a space of safety, healing, and self-esteem building?
It is our role as educators to create and sustain an environment for learning that is safe, calm, and affirming. When space that is dedicated to learning is intentionally welcoming, especially to those who are most vulnerable, students, teachers, and communities thrive. Whether you work in elementary school, middle school, high school, or college; whether you teach online or in person; whether you teach physics, yoga, reading, or rock climbing, the ability to build an affirming space for LGBTQIA+ students can go a long way. With just a little intention, your classroom space can become a place where students know they are safe to express the truth of their being and to find a sense of belonging.
What do you need to know?
Have you seen multicolored, striped flags flying in celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month this June? Fly it high and let it wave! LGBTQ Pride Month is celebrated in June each year to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising in New York City in 1969. Initiated by trans women of color, the Stonewall Uprising is considered a tipping point for the modern Gay Liberation Movement. Today Pride Month celebrates the resilience of and impacts made by LGBTQIA+ people. In a world that vilifies LGBTQIA+ folks, through subtle messaging in film and TV, horrifying violence, “jokes” made by family members, religious doctrine, and discriminatory legislation, pride is a revolutionary declaration of value.
LGBTQIA+ is an acronym that encompasses several fluctuating identities on the vast spectrum of identities that exist outside of heteronormativity. Heteronormativity assumes a gender binary of men and women and that sexual relations are best suited only between those assigned male or female at birth. The existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual/androgynous/ally, two-spirit, pansexual, and nonbinary folks challenges this notion. While some of these labels are related to sexuality and some are related to gender, the recently reclaimed term “queer” is a catch-all for anyone who may identify as other than cis-het (cisgender, heterosexual). Based on context, some people prefer to identify specifically and some prefer to identify as queer. (PSA: Always and only refer to someone by the identity they have chosen to share with you. For a more comprehensive discussion of key terms, check out a recent article, “A Guide to Gender Identity Terms.”)
The existence of people who identify as LGBTQIA+ reminds us all, members of the queer community and allies alike, of the beautiful variety within the realm of human possibility. This natural diversity, like the magic of rainbows, is indeed worthy of celebration. Whether a student you know shares with you that they identify as Trans, Lesbian, Queer, or is coming to terms with their sexual or gender identity, your classroom can and should be a place of safety and affirmation.
Heteronormativity is the hegemonic water we are swimming in here in the United States. The dominant ideology that is evident in films and TV, legislation, religion, school curriculum, and many family cultures is that the only appropriate romantic and sexual connection is between heterosexual, cisgender bodies. For this reason, the “boys and girls” in your classroom are likely already being affirmed in their identities daily through the curriculum and the classroom culture. (More healthy, holistic, and mindful approaches to gender expression must be taught as well. For a helpful conversation about the social construction of gender and creating inclusive spaces in your classroom, check out the Teachers Talk Shop Episode 14.)
But your LGBTQIA+ students may feel outcast. And that makes learning difficult. The demonization of and historical discrimination and violence against LGBTQIA+ bodies can make it challenging and scary to live life freely. In several countries being homosexual is still punishable by death. In many states and cities, there are reports of physical and sexual attacks against LGBTQIA+ folks. The repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning the service of LGBTQIA+ folks in the U.S. military was only ten years ago. The legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. was only in 2015. Almost every day anti-trans bills are introduced in the U.S. Congress. LGBTQIA+ youth experience higher rates of drug use, homelessness, bullying, and suicidality than their peers. QT/BIPOC (queer, trans, black, indigenous, people of color) students, students who live at the intersection of oppressed identities, experience these challenges at even higher rates. In light of these horrors, why wouldn’t you want to make your classroom a place where your students can potentially feel relief and reprieve? It is entirely possible that your classroom, or wherever you hold space, is one of the only places that your students who identify as queer are able to relax, feel seen, and experience the sense of belonging necessary to thrive.
Not part of the queer community? Pride yourself on being an Ally/Accomplice/Co-Conspirator. The first step to being an ally is to learn more, so you’re on your way by simply reading this blog post. With your power as an ally, someone with privilege in the dominant culture, you can model compassion and justice as the norm. By claiming your role as someone who accepts, supports, stands with, cheers for, votes for, risks for, and in all ways champions the LGBTQIA+ community, you begin to cultivate a better world for us all. Your solidarity with LGBTQIA+ students through your words, actions, and votes can be lifesaving.
So, what can we each do to create an affirming space in the classroom?
Try integrating this simple mindful shift to help create a sense of belonging in your own classroom space: Use gender-neutral language. Rather than saying “boys and girls,” “ladies,” or “you guys,” try using a variety of greetings for your classes (such as Hello friends! Hey y’all. Hi there. Okay everyone. Thanks, family!) Learn your students’ names and use them. Use correct pronouns and share your own. Leave gendered language out of your teaching as much as possible to create an empowering classroom where all are included. And display safe-space symbols in your classroom: put up rainbow flags, and stick that equality symbol on your re-usable water bottle. Your presence as a supportive educator can change the campus climate positively for your students. Considering the age of your students and the context of your own classroom, what other ideas can you think of to make your classroom affirming for LGBTQIA+ students?
And what can we do to create an affirming space in the school community?
Try integrating this simple mindful shift to help create a sense of belonging within your school community: Learn and teach LGBTQIA+ history. Use lesson plans from Learning for Justice to get started. Assign texts by queer authors and poets. Assign material with positive portrayals of LGBTQIA+ people. Display posters of various LGBTQIA+ icons, changemakers, and everyday people alongside other posters to increase visibility. Incorporate voices of the queer community into your school community by inviting guest speakers to campus. Attend implicit bias trainings as school leaders. Start and support a Gay Straight Alliance. Attend or sponsor a pride event as a school community. Display safe-space symbols and rainbow flags throughout campus. Hire LGBTQIA+ faculty, staff, counselors, and administrators. Considering the age of your student body and the context of your own school community, what other ideas can you think of to make your school community affirming for LGBTQIA+ students?
And what can we do to create an affirming space in the community at large?
Try integrating this simple mindful shift to help create a sense of belonging within your greater community: Center the voices of LGBTQIA+ community. Amplify the voices of those who are not generally given space in mainstream. Pass the mic any chance you get. Follow queer folks on social media. Educate yourself. Educate others. Speak up and out for equal rights laws and policies. Vote with your dollar at companies that openly support the LGBTQIA+ community. Vote with your vote for laws that protect trans and queer folks. Listen to, believe, and actively support trans and queer kids.
As an educator, you can make a big difference. Considering the context of your own community, what other ideas can you think of to make your community affirming for LGBTQIA+ people?
About the Author
|Lena has experience teaching yoga, outdoor education, college writing, social justice, K-12, ESL, dance, and gymnastics. Lena is a Teaching Assistant for the Dimensions of Culture Program at UC San Diego and a writer. Lena finds that the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga aid in the never-ending search for peace, calm, and positivity within. She is passionate about sharing these tools with others and forever learning through personal practice, trainings, and workshops. Lena is intentional about taking yoga off the mat and loves finding the bridges between the heart and mind, the individual and community, and mindfulness and expression. Lena is also an avid hiker, trained as a Wilderness First Responder, and leads adventure/yoga retreats around the world. Learn more about Lena at www.phantommoonholistics.com
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