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Creating a Safe Space for LGBTQ+ Students

by Casey Leach, guest blogger

Fun facts! 4.5% of adult Americans identified as LGBTQ+ with 5.1% of women identifying as LGBTQ+, compared with 3.9% of men in the US in 2017. While that number may sound small, if we were to look at a school whose population is 1,000 students – roughly 45 of those individuals are openly in the LGBTQ+ community. That’s a lot of rainbows! However, queer students have the highest rates of mental illnesses, specifically depression and anxiety, and according to a study from the Human Rights Campaign and researchers at the University of Connecticut, 85 percent rated their average stress as five or greater on a scale of one to 10 (2018 LGTBQ Youth Report).

So in what ways can youths find solace in a school where they feel ostracized and stressed? I remember back in high school the questions I received after coming out:

“So like, do you sometimes like guys?”

“Is this a phase?”

“Are you still half gay?”

“Are you just like, not picky?”

“Do you look at us in the locker room thinking we’re hot?”

When I publicly came out as an agender woman, meaning I don’t identify as having a particular gender, and use “they/them and she/her” pronouns, the questions only got worse:

“So does that make your partner or anyone else you date gay?”

“Are you just saying that for the attention?”

“You look like a woman/I don’t believe that non-binary or agender people are a thing, so can I just use she/her pronouns? Is that even real?”

The answer to all of these questions is, “No” except for the last question. Yes agender/non binary people are real and using someone’s preferred pronouns respects their identity. But why were these questions asked to begin with? I hope people will take time to research those unlike themselves, particularly given that the internet makes finding information easy.

As educators, the first step to help queer students feel comfortable is recognizing that other students’ reaction to being uncomfortable isn’t a reason for people’s existences to go unnoticed or be disliked. Whether others may like it or not, queer people exist and will continue to exist. Be an ally to queer students by doing some research, which many educators already do without batting an eye!

Are there queer historical figures that could be introduced in the curriculum? I remember the warm, excited feeling I had once I learned later in my life that many authors I had read, analyzed, and written on in the past were, in fact, queer. If the teacher had shared that aspect of the author’s identity at that time I would have known that (1) the teacher took the moment to research background of the author and (2) the teacher was confident and comfortable to point it out publicly so that students such as myself would feel validated. Be outward in your support and announcements when introducing queer figures; it’s okay for non-queer students to feel uncomfortable towards the idea of queer people existing. Through integration there is normalization.

Normalization - through recognizing and emphasizing the existence of LGBTQ+ minorities - is what makes rooms more comfortable. And for those who are not in the LGBTQ+ community and fear they may be ignorant to the issue; it’s okay if you make the occasional mistake! You’re learning just as everyone else is. If a queer student wishes to go by another pronoun, use that; if you misgender them, a brief “oh, sorry, [new pronoun]” is enough! If you create a lengthy apology or scene in regard to this, the individual may feel called out or isolated. Small steps and small changes are what makes your classroom comfortable. Normalizing gender-neutral terms is another way to keep things more comfortable. It never hurts to ask for pronouns, or replace terms like “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, young man/lady, girlfriend/boyfriend” with terms like “folks, y’all, (distinguished) guests, friends, individuals, students, class, partner(s), people/persons, etc.” (my personal favorite is Thomas Sanders’: “guys, gals, and non-binary pals”). Using these terms brings a general acceptance and neutrality to the classroom, and for those questioning their gender or simply identify as agender or non-binary, this small detail helps a lot. It’s validating in more ways than folks would initially think. This may also go for whenever you’re addressing someone who hasn’t outwardly given you their pronouns; defaulting to using “they/them/their” in addressing someone normalizes the vocabulary, and once you practice, it’s so much easier to use the singular “they” to those who go by that pronoun. After all, the singular “they” has been used since the 1300s, so it’s not so much that this didn’t exist, it just wasn’t fully recognized and deliberately utilized until recently.

With such an emergence of acceptance and need for growth and understanding in the LGBTQ+ community, my queer heart has been uplifted to see students learn of themselves, openly accept others, and find their identities so early on in their development. To me, it’s a relief to see informed students coming out early on and some greater safety that allows them to do so in educational settings. That being said, I hope to ideally reach a point where resources and more safety fosters this sense and discovery of identity more strongly in the coming years. Tiny steps are leaps and bounds in the LGBTQ+ community, and the more it’s normalized, the more queer students will feel safe and relieved.

Thank you to our guest blogger, Maryland art educator Casey Leach, on their perspective and suggestions. To see more of Casey's work, see their website and/or Instagram account.

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