First of all, high five to all the teachers. Homeschool, public, or private school teachers do so much unrecognized work every day. I know they do this work because they love their job; they love the positive impact they make in kids’ lives. Because of this, I trust many — if not most — teachers would be happy and willing to do whatever is necessary to make sure their classrooms are LGBTQ inclusive and affirming.
Every classroom has the potential to have a queer kid in it. Queer encompasses the gay kids, the transgender and gender nonconforming kids, and the nonbinary ones too. If there isn’t a queer kid in class, there will be a kid who knows or will know and love someone who identifies as LGBTQ. We need to validate a queer child’s self-worth and build an army of allies who will fight for them and not against them.
Teachers already have a lot on their plates, but I promise this work doesn’t have to be hard or time-consuming or expensive. Here are a few things we can do to ensure our learning spaces are safe and comfortable places for ALL students:
1. Provide Inclusive Books
Adding diverse books to a classroom is probably the easiest thing a teacher — and a whole school — can do to make LGBTQ kids and their families feel included. Thankfully there are lots of books from preschool to high school that showcase families with two moms or two dads, have gender nonconforming kids, and tell the stories of transgender and gay characters. Diverse books educate, provide representation, and open the door for conversations that normalize all families, all gender expressions, and all gender identities. They also remind kids that LGBTQ people exist.
There is a rule that claims a person must hear a message 7 times before it is truly absorbed. Absorbing new concepts visually takes even longer. For example, it takes 10-20 times for a kid or adult to see a new word before it is understood in a meaningful way. Kids who are part of the majority, who fit nicely into a heteronormative world, may not have any exposure to queer topics and people. This lack of representation makes queer folks seem unnatural, uncommon, and abnormal. So to normalize and celebrate our differences, we need to repeat stories and messages that celebrate LGBTQ students and families. We need to keep diverse books in constant rotation so all kids can grasp, accept, and appreciate diversity.
2. Listen and Publicly Address Hurtful Words and Conversations
Kids have lots of opinions, many of which aren’t really their own — they repeat what they hear at home or what their friends say. After working with a wide range of kids, here are some hurtful things I have heard kids say and how I redirected them:
“Ew! Gross! Boys can’t marry each other!”
“Actually, boys can marry each other, but not until they are older. You have lots of time to still be a kid, but sometimes a man and a woman fall in love and sometimes two women or two men fall in love. Everyone is allowed to get married in this country. It’s the law.”
“You can’t have two moms! That’s weird.”
“Yes, someone can have two moms. My kids have two moms. It’s not weird, but it is different than the mom and dad family you know and see all of the time. Kids can have two dads. There are lots of ways to be a family. The important thing is that everyone loves each other.”
“That’s so gay.”
“I heard she’s a lesbo.”
“He looks like a tranny.” Etc., etc., etc.
“The words you are using are offensive. There is a chance the person you are referring to identifies as lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer but unless they ask you to give them a certain label, it is not your responsibility to do so. I am happy to help you understand why these terms are inappropriate or help you understand what LGBTQ labels mean to most people.”
Listen closely to what kids are saying; address hurtful words against LGBTQ kids and their families before they become expected and accepted. And don’t just pull a kid aside to have these conversations. Make a point to the entire class. Set a tone for zero tolerance. Jamel Myles, the 9-year-old who killed himself after being bullied when he came out to his classmates, might still be alive if he’d had a safe space to be himself.
3. Challenge Gender Stereotypes
All kids have the right to express themselves in a way that makes them feel good — as long as it isn’t hurting someone else. Kids — regardless of their sexuality — use clothing, hair, and accessories to express who they are to the world. But the world has rules about what boys and girls should wear, how they should act, and with what gender they should identify as. This is called the heteronormative.
Gender identity and expression are not only important to queer kids. Every kid has the right not to conform to society’s expectations of gender roles. When we hear kids say something is “for a boy” or “for a girl,” we need to remind kids that things don’t make them any less or more of the gender they identify with. Teachers need to encourage all gender expressions and give kids the opportunities to play with gender roles.
Most kids will either identify as male or female. Some kids will identify with the opposite gender than the one they were assigned at birth (transgender). And some kids will identify as both male and female or neither (nonbinary). These kids don’t need to wear their labels, though. They do want to wear confidence, and we can give that to them by providing safe and open spaces that encourage them to be themselves.
4. Remove Gendered Language
Removing gendered language will take the most practice. Most teachers when addressing a group of kids do so by saying “Hi, boys and girls!” This may not be wrong, but there are other approaches that are more inclusive. Odds are good there is at least one student in any given classroom who feels uncomfortable with being called their assigned gender. A closeted transgender boy may cringe every time you ask him to line up with the girls. A child who feels like neither a boy or a girl or both may panic when doing a homework assignment that depends on them answering the question, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
While it is important to validate a child with their proper pronouns, it is unnecessary to group kids — or a singular child — by gender. For kids who already feel internal pressure, shame, or sadness about having to hide who they really are, their educational experience suffers when they are forced into a box that doesn’t fit them.
So, instead of saying “boys and girls,” try using “friends,” “team,” “distinguished students,” or “eager learners” to address a group. When separating a class, do so by shirt color, or favorite ice cream flavor, or household pets. There are so many ways to speak to children that tell them you see them for who they are and not the gender you assume them to be.
And when talking about people and roles, remove gendered labels. For example, say firefighter instead of fireman, postal worker (mailman), police officer (policeman), partner or spouse (husband/wife, girlfriend/boyfriend), and child (son/daughter). No one is confused by the role you are talking about, yet you are allowing all roles to be occupied by all genders. YAY for inclusive language!
Teachers, these four simple actions do so much to make an LGBTQ child feel welcome and affirmed in your class. It takes away the exhausting emotional labor that accompanies being a LGBTQ kid or family member of a kid in your class. It should not be up to them to feel like they have to explain their differences.
I am an advocate. I am also a parent. My kids have two moms. One of my kids is transgender. I am tired from the emotional labor and time spent preparing schools for my non-conforming, non-heteronormative family. But my 7-year-old and my 5-year-old twins — as well as every kid in their schools — deserve to be recognized and celebrated for their differences. They don’t need to be put on the spot or carry the weight of living in the margins. I put in the work so they don’t have to. I put in the work so teachers can take over and continue these practices day after day, year after year.
I need — and kids need — teachers to make these changes in the classroom; these changes not only create affirming places, but they teach acceptance. Every kid deserves to learn in an environment where they feel worthy and loved.