How to Support LGBTQ+ Students at School

A 2022 national survey of nearly 34,000 LGBTQ+ youth, ages 13-24, paints a clear, distressing picture of the trauma endured by LGBTQ+ students in America. Nearly three-quarters reported symptoms of anxiety, 58 percent reported symptoms of depression, and 45 percent said they had seriously considered committing suicide within the past year. However, the survey also shows that educators can make a very big difference. High school and college-aged LGBTQ+ youth who found their schools and campuses to be affirming reported lower rates of suicide attempts and suicidal ideation. With that in mind, here are three things teachers, faculty, and staff can do to help support LGBTQ+ students at school.

1. Use inclusive language. Tami Staas is an International Baccalaureate teacher and the executive director of the Arizona Trans Youth and Parent Organization. Amidst all of the new anti-LGBTQ+ legislation being introduced, the key to making students feel included in the conversation is language and intent, says Staas. “Look at any school mission statement and it says ‘all kids, everyone’ and when we talk about everyone, we have to include the LGBTQ+ kids,” says Staas. “By using inclusive language, we kind of set that environment where they’re able to feel more comfortable.”

Staas suggests avoiding binary-restricting directions and language. For example, educators should not divide the class into “boy” and “girl” groups or lines. Instead, divide by shirt color, randomly generate groups, or even let students choose. Similarly, teachers can make strides to normalize inclusive language and pronouns. For instance, some use “they” and “them” to refer to individuals when one may not know the preferred pronouns. Some also display their pronouns in all spaces—an easy way to make students more comfortable sharing their own.

2. Address harmful comments. Regardless of political or religious beliefs, classrooms should be a safe space for all students, says Amber Ingram, a New Jersey ESL teacher. That is why Ingram suggests addressing harmful language and comments in an open and honest conversation. “Just kind of attack it head on—not from a place of calling a student out, but just kind of examining why they said that or where it’s coming from—so I know my students who are queer feel safe in that space,” says Ingram.

Staas was once approached by a teacher asking for advice on a student who had begun transitioning, using a different name and pronouns within her classroom. “[The teacher] said some of the kids were basically saying, ‘I don’t get it. I’m not going to do that,’” says Staas. “So I counseled her to have a classroom discussion.” Staas suggested her colleague tell students that they don’t have to understand, but they should try their best to display respect and kindness. “What we’re asking you to do is be kind,” says Staas. “Empathy doesn’t mean endorsement.”

3. Amplify voices. Rather than arguing about student experiences and autonomy, educators and legislators alike must take a step back and listen to the voices of student’s being impacted. “Give them a platform,” Staas suggests. “Give them the microphone. Make them feel comfortable speaking their truth. If you’re setting up that classroom where it’s a safe space, and they know it’s a safe space, they’re going to use their voices. That’s going to help and that’s going to go a long way.”

Sam Long, a Colorado high school teacher, is an advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion in curriculum and standards. He explains that educator representation and voice also plays an important role in student’s comfortability. “Every child deserves to have teachers who share their experiences and identities because these adults provide hope and proof that a fulfilling life is possible,” writes Long. “For our growing number of trans and nonbinary and questioning students, I get to be that proof.”

One additional suggestion? “ Look for moments of joy,” says Staas. “Look for the celebrations, because there’s so much that is so negative. Looking for those moments of happiness and joy, tends to break up that negativity.”

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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