Being a kid is hard enough; but LGBTQ+ students have it even harder.
LGBTQ+ students are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicide.
The term LGBTQ+ is a blanket term for several groups. The letters stand for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and queer, or questioning. The plus is for other related groups, like asexuals, as well as those who don’t fit neatly into one of the other groups.
Many teachers want to help LGBTQ+ students, but they’re not sure how to do so. Here are 6 ways teachers can show support for their LGBTQ+ students and help make school a little less traumatic for them.
1. Honor your LGBTQ+ students’ identities
Your name and how you physically present yourself, are crucial components of your identity. How you look, and what you call yourself are cues to others how they should see you.
For transgender students, this is especially important. Their name is the first signifier to others their correct gender. Since many students will be early in their transitions, they may not be physically present as the correct gender yet. A name helps others see the real them, even before it is physically apparent.
Using the correct name for a student doesn’t only help transgender students. Those who are cisgender (identity with the gender assigned to them at birth) may also prefer a name that differs from the one printed on your roster.
I had a student whose biological father harmed them, but they still had that person’s last name. Hearing the name, upset them. I never used it, and crossed it off of all the seating charts I left for subs.
No matter the reason a student uses a different name, honoring it costs you nothing.
If you’re concerned that a student will request an outlandish nickname, and you will be honor-bound to follow it, don’t be. You shouldn’t call a student “Sir Mittens the Destroyer” all year at their request, that’s ridiculous. You’re the boss of your classroom, and you decide what’s fair. It’s fair to honor someone’s real identity and not to honor someone else’s joke.
In addition to using a student’s chosen name, also use their preferred pronouns.
Some non-binary, trans students may prefer gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them or ze/zir. Learning to use them can be difficult if you aren’t used to speaking that way.
To change may take some effort on your part, but with practice, these pronouns are pretty easy to master. There are probably many things you had to stop saying when becoming an educator.
If you’re not perfect and use the wrong pronoun, simply apologize. Students will be happy you’re trying your best to be respectful of them. They’ll understand if you’re upfront about this being a little new to you.
No matter how your students show up at your class, treat them with the same dignity and respect as any other student.
2. Embrace difference in your class
What you chose to include and not include in your class tells students what you think of that implicitly.
For LGBTQ+ students, they find themselves absent in school spaces. Story problems, assigned reading, historical figures, all presented as cisgender and straight. By not being mentioned, their lives and experiences are made taboo.
You can also make a student uncomfortable by accident with “girls v. boys” competitions in your class. If you don’t feel comfortable identifying as one of these binaries, you can feel resentful of being forced into an identity.
The easiest way to avoid this is to embrace differences in your classroom. Don’t group by things that students have no control over. Allow them to choose their teams, or team them by interest. I find “prefers sports / prefers arts,” “likes Batman or Spiderman better,” and “more of a dog person or cat person” usually splits about even. If you’re making more groups, you can come up with more preferences. This strategy is also more likely to produce a better group since the people in it have something in common that they chose.
As for LGBTQ+ invisibility, that’s easy to remedy too. Switch out gender-specific terms like “husband/wife” for “spouse.” By doing this, you make the question or example more inclusive without changing it at all. If you’re writing example scenarios, use they/them for a few, or include a same-sex married couple. Just like using names that are less likely to be coded caucasian, this expands the world to include people like all of your students.
Adding the contributions of LGBTQ+ people to your curriculum is also a great way to embrace diversity. Celebrate LGBTQ history month in October, and Coming Out Day on October 11th if you want to do something special.
Even outside of these times create a space for LGBTQ+ authors, scientists, mathematicians, artists, or activists in your class. Showing you value the work of these people communicates that you value your students. It demonstrates that people like them have a place in our society and contribute essential things.
I know that in many places, there is still a contingent of hateful people who will discourage you from this. Do as much as you are comfortable doing. Anything you can do that tells LGBTQ+ students that they are valued and appreciated is worth the effort.
3. Sponsor or support your GSA
A GSA, or gay-straight alliance, is a school club that encourages students of all sexual orientations and gender identities to support equal rights and dignified treatment for LGBTQ+ people.
In my experience, a GSA is a safe place for LGBTQ+ students and their friends to go and discuss issues they face in their lives. When some students can’t be out and themselves, even in their own homes, a GSA gives them a place to do that.
GSAs can also raise understanding and awareness in all students about the difficulties that are faced by the LGBTQ+ community. Building understanding and acceptance at a young age in children can save lives. What starts as fear and misunderstanding can often become violent.
LGBTQ+ students face an increased risk of bullying and harassment. 10% of LGBTQ students reported avoiding school to avoid this abuse. The presence of a GSA on campus provides students with a safe place.
GSAs can sometimes have a difficult time finding sponsors. Heterosexual, cisgender teachers sometimes feel they aren’t suitable as sponsors because they can’t relate to the experiences of the students in the club. Remember that it’s the gay-straight alliance. All it takes to be a supportive member is the belief that all people deserve fair and dignified treatment. Even if you’re not an LGBTQ+ person yourself, you are an adult who listens, empathizes, and cares.
If your school has enough sponsors, just lend your support. Wear rainbows during pride week. Give money to or volunteer at fundraisers. Do little things to show your support when you can.
In a world full of hate, we need all the allies we can get!
4. Remind LGBTQ+ students it gets better.
Being a teenager can be very bleak. LGBTQ+ students are more likely to face additional pressures. Families can be abusive. In many states, “conversion” therapy is still legal. LGBTQ+ people experience homelessness at higher rates since they are more likely to be rejected by their families.
Being LGBTQ+ can be very isolating, even if they have a supportive family. Being the only out gay student means they may miss out on having friends who face similar challenges and can empathize. They also may miss out on typical experiences of high school, such as dating.
Between family rejection, increased bullying, and social isolation, it’s a depressing experience. That’s what the “It Gets Better” project is all about. This content is easy to access on youtube.
It reminds students who might be struggling that as they grow up, they’ll be able to get away from these situations. They will live lives worth getting up for in the morning.
It’s certainly not only LGBTQ+ students who need this reminder! Being a kid sucks for many of us. It did for me. I was always upfront with my students that, for me, my best years were occurring after school.
It can help a lot to hear that someone else knows that what you’re experiencing sucks. If they lived it and came out ok, then there really might be a light at the end of the tunnel for them as well.
5. Support inclusion in school programs behind the scenes
What you do in front of students is very important, but often what you do behind the scenes is just as important.
What you can do as an active staff member, a coach, a volunteer, and a citizen can make a world of difference. When you can affect policy, you can make much more significant changes for students than you can through personal action.
It’s hard to go over all the ways you can affect change in these areas, but there are some general ways:
If you’re at a faculty meeting and someone proposes something that hurts or excludes LGBTQ students, oppose it. If someone suggests something that helps them, throw your support behind it. Just being an advocate in the room can go a long way.
If you have an idea that may benefit students, present it. It can be something easy, like allowing students to select a same-sex prom court. It can be something more complicated, like establishing a GSA or applying for a grant to help homeless LGBTQ students at your school. If you can do something, try to get it done.
Apathy kills. A lack of public outcry allows many hurtful policies and laws to come into being. Know what your school board, municipal government, state, and federal government are doing that impacts others. Oppose things that hurt LGBTQ people, lend your support to protections.
If you can vote for a member of the board, a local official, policy, or law, do so! Get informed on the positions and vote for a world that is fair, equal, and kind.
6. Don’t allow misinformation or hate language to stand.
Words have meaning, and they have power. They shape how people see themselves and how others see them. Don’t allow the vile things people say without thinking go unchallenged, because silence is easy to mistake for approval.
You don’t have to be the “woke police” running around lecturing every infraction. Not allowing unchallenged hate and misinformation doesn’t usually have to be confrontational. It can be a positive experience for you and the person making the offending comments.
I think most people don’t mean to be unkind. There is a world of misinformation and downright lousy information. They are most likely to be uninformed.
Try to put yourself where they might be, saying things like, “I used to think that too, but I learned…” and “That’s a common misconception, but actually…”. It helps to give that person an out, to be able to retract their sentence gracefully.
When I would hear students calling each other “gay,” I would inform them that they were using another human’s identity as an insult. We would often have good conversations about how messed up that is.
Often they started using the insult before they knew what it meant, and it became a verbal tic. It’s easy to get into patterns of speech without thinking about it.
Many times people are not using a specific slur but instead passing on a stereotype or prejudice as fact.
I worked with people who made frequent comments about the “drama” that female athletes caused because they “all date each other.” The implication was clear that lesbian, bisexual, and pansexuals are incapable of emotional restraint, and they are sexually careless.
I would point out counterexamples of students of opposite genders dating and “causing drama.” I would cite the high levels of “fraternization” between all students engaged in groups, clubs, and teams.
I noted this perceived behavior is not dissimilar from all teenagers. I don’t know if my colleague ever realized they had skewed feelings towards these kids.
What’s important is that students (or faculty) around when he expressed his ideas knew that this opinion was unfounded in reality. They knew this was not the only opinion available.
Again, our society is full of tropes, “jokes,” inadequate representation, and deliberate lies about LGBTQ+ people. It’s easy to end up with an outdated idea.
Be kind and gentle, and maybe you will be lucky enough to change a mind. If not, LGBTQ+ people must hear that someone is in their corner, and this stuff isn’t funny, or cute, or acceptable anymore.
If you’ve made it here, you read the article or at least skimmed it. Either way, you care enough about your students that you want to help them. That’s the most remarkable thing you can do!
Being different is extremely hard. Writing this article, I drew upon my teaching experience but also drew upon my personal experience.
As a queer kid (gender non-conforming, pansexual) growing up in rural Michigan, life was pretty miserable. Teachers didn’t stand up for me.
People, including adults, used abusive language to me and about me. I left public school and attended a charter school due in part to the abuse I suffered. I almost quit high school altogether. If I didn’t have my fiercely, practically psychotically loyal family and friends, I don’t think I would have made it out of those years.
I’m sad for that kid that I was. I wish adults would have cared, or if they did, I wish they would have spoken up. I wish the world had been kinder.
Now it’s up to us all. We can make the world just a little bit better by lending our voices and sticking up for all our kids and colleagues. Being an ally is easy at the heart of it. It’s about listening, caring, and acting when we can.
Thank you for caring enough to want to do that.
Thank you for making this world a little kinder and more tolerable. ❤️
Some amazing readers (thank you Anna and Nichole!) sent this great blog with a pretty exhaustive list of resources for LGBTQ+ students. It’s totally worth a bookmark! It covers everything from scholarships to discrimination representation and can help you help your students and their families even more. ❤️
Another amazing reader got this great resource from her wonderful mentee (thank you Annalie and Soo Yon!), it’s a great article on support for LGBTQIA+ students in college. It includes great resources, such as: selecting a friendly campus, information about community centers and various types of support. It is well worth the read and very helpful. ❤️
Even more of our amazing community members reached out for us to include more resources for LGBTQIA+ students. Thanks to Lily and Kelly for this additional resource. It includes information on LGBTQ-Friendly Colleges and Communities, Anti-Bullying Resources, Support Groups and Helplines and so much more.