Some 17% of adults younger than 30 identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, which echoes recent data collected by the CDC that estimates nearly 2 million Americans aged 13-17 identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender—representing 9.5% of the total youth population.
As a result, there’s a good chance that at least a few students in any classroom may identify as LGBTQ+. These students are at relatively high risk for becoming the targets of bullies, violence—and even committing suicide. Providing support for these students is critical to their success, academically and beyond.
Providing LGBTQ+ Safe Spaces and Support for Students Who Come Out
Rodney Crouse, a fifth-grade teacher for Guilford County Schools in North Carolina in his twentieth year of teaching grew up in nearby Allegheny County, which borders Virginia and the heart of Appalachia. “In my mind, it wasn’t that long ago that I came out as a senior in high school and received death threats. When I asked to take my first boyfriend to the prom, they had to have extra police and security at the prom for my safety,” Crouse says. “Fast forward to just two days ago. We had an all-day training at the high school. I walked in and there was a pride flag with the trans triangle hanging in the middle of a classroom, and that was a really emotional experience for me – to go from death threats and people wanting to kill me to some teacher being brave enough to hang a flag in the room to designate that as a safe space . . . that was a huge leap.”
Although public acceptance has grown, LGBTQ+ students still face challenges as families and communities aren’t always supportive. Crouse understands firsthand as his parents were not exactly accepting when he came out to them, with his mother telling him she’d rather have “a dead son than a gay one.”
“I was very close to being a statistic,” he says. “It was a college professor who stopped me from carrying out my plan. She locked her door and would not let me leave until someone from counseling came down. That was huge for me.”
Although Crouse never formally comes out to his students, he doesn’t hide it, either–he has a picture of him and his husband on his desk as well as a small rainbow streamer, which he says provides subtle clues for those students who may be looking for a safe space or an ally.
“I have more and more students who are either coming out to me or who are children of same-sex families,” says Crouse. “My only agenda is to help them grow as good human beings.”
If a student does come out to you, or if you want to create a supportive LGBTQ+ environment, Crouse offers these tips:
1. Listen without the urge to respond. Crouse says no immediate reaction is okay. “Take a breath because that pause may help you from saying something completely stupid, because I don’t think anybody sets out with the intention of doing harm, right?”
2. Don’t feel like you have to change anything about yourself. “If they didn’t trust you, they wouldn’t be coming to you in the first place,” says Crouse. So he suggests that you let them have that space and be safe.
3. Stay consistent. Try not to change how you respond or react to a student after they come out because others may pick up on that in a classroom, which could lead to unwanted attention and unintended consequences.
4. Signal safe spaces. Crouse suggests that teachers who are willing to be an ally put something in their classroom for those students who may be looking for a safe space, whether it’s a safe space sticker on a door or window, a small rainbow strip or streamers, anything that would say, “This is a safe space,” and allow students to know that.
5. Don’t operate in fear. Don’t be worried that you’re going to say the wrong thing or use the wrong pronoun or acronym. “It’s all about intent,” says Crouse. “If you’re following your heart and coming from a good place, those of us in the community, we know. It is not offensive if you say the wrong thing.” Such moments can even open a space for conversation.
In addition, he cautions those in states that require reporting of such incidents to really consider what they’re doing, and if it’s truly in the best interest of the student to report them.
Providing Representation with an LGBTQ-Inclusive Curriculum
“The people who we label and understand today as LGBTQ+ have always existed in every corner of every community and country ethnicity and belief system,” says Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased, an education nonprofit. “All of the representations young people have, in pop culture and social media, in many spaces of their online life, is now being paired, paradoxically, with so much hate and horrible rhetoric, that it’s just denying their existence, denying their rights.”
Finding ways to provide LGBTQ+ representation can help those students feel accepted. For example, History UnErased offers a curriculum that recognizes LGBTQ+ contributors to culture, science, history, and more, while also dispelling misperceptions, allaying fears, and including everyone in the learning. It has a one-time cost and is designed to be integrated with mainstream courses. “Everything is anchored in primary sources,” says Fowler. “We’re not making it up. And it’s not about sexual behavior.”
The HU curriculum also is an opportunity to weave the other previously erased voices into a more accurate reflection of U.S. history and the remarkable diversity it represents, says Fowler.
“This is life-affirming, it is life-changing, and it is life-saving,” she says. “And that is not hyperbole because I witnessed it myself as a former classroom teacher. And I’ve witnessed it in doing this work working with educators across the country, and what we’re hearing from them is that this is an opportunity for young people to see themselves reflected in what all of their classmates are learning.”