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Creating Safe, Welcoming Environments for LGBTQ Students

A smiling student wearing a graduation cap and draped in a rainbow flag.

Here's how teachers can make their classrooms more inclusive for LGBTQ students.

Teachers have many responsibilities, but chief among them is making sure that students feel safe.

But far too many LGBTQ students feel unsafe and unwelcome at their schools. More than 59 percent of LGBTQ students feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, GLSEN says, and nearly 45 percent feel unsafe because of their gender expression. When students don't feel safe or welcome, they're less likely to learn, more likely to act out, and far more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

Further Reading: 5 Inspirational Books for Teachers in the Last Months of School

Even one positive role model at school could dramatically improve a suffering student's situation. You could be that role model by creating a safe, welcoming environment for your LGBTQ students.

Educate Yourself

The first step you can take to help students feel safe and welcome is to educate yourself.

"Figure out what you know and what you don't know, then start reading about LGBTQ issues in schools now," said Keygan Miller, a licensed special education teacher and a senior advocacy associate with The Trevor Project.

 

There are many more ways you could continue your education. If your school sponsors a gay-straight alliance program, you could become a member or take a leadership role. You could also brainstorm ideas with your colleagues or ask veteran teachers for advice and wisdom.

"There are a ton of resources for educators and books written on LGBTQ topics in education," Miller said. "If you are given the opportunity to research some of these issues as part of your studies, take it."

Plan Inclusive Activities

Many teachers start the school year by getting to know their students. Fun and silly icebreaker activities can be a great way to build rapport and forge long-lasting bonds.

Just be sure that you've designed your activities with everyone in mind.

Start the year by having students fill out cards with the name they go by and the pronouns they use. (Note: Don't ask for a student's "preferred" name or pronouns. These are more than a preference.)

Use nongendered language during icebreakers and while managing your classroom. For example, you could divide children into groups by birthday instead of by gender. And strive to grow your relationship with every student. Don't let the bonds you started stagnate as the year rolls on.

When students see you take the initiative to include everyone, they feel more comfortable in the classroom and are more involved in learning.

Take a Stand on Bullying

Bullying is a sad-but-common reality in schools across the country. About 20% of students are bullied, according to stopbullying.gov.

Unfortunately, LGBTQ students are far more likely to be bullied at school:

  • About one-third of LGBTQ youth have been physically threatened or harmed because of their identity, The Trevor Project's National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020 reports.
  • More than 52 percent of LGBTQ students reported hearing homophobic remarks from teachers and other school staff, according to GLSEN's 2019 National School Climate Survey.

The key to tackling bullying in your classroom is to set a precedent.

"Do not tolerate bullying; biases, overt and subversive; microaggressions; and other problematic behaviors in your classroom," Miller said. "How you address these issues will be different from teacher to teacher, but it is important to make it known that this behavior is unacceptable and will have a specific consequence."

Consequences should reflect the nature of the incident. Sometimes, a simple conversation is enough; other situations might require more severe reprimands. The important thing is to let kids know that bullying won't be tolerated.

Be LGBTQ-Positive with Your Curriculum

Imagine going through 12 years of school learning things you know others relate to but don't apply to you. LGBTQ students don't have to imagine it—it's part of their reality.

As you strive to make your classroom more welcoming, think about ways you can integrate positive LGBTQ material into your lesson plans. Subjects like language arts, history, health, and art are just a few areas where you could seamlessly integrate LGTBQ people and topics into your curriculum. Try reading popular LGBTQ literature or studying a significant event from the history of the gay rights movement.

This a great way to acknowledge every student, and it's also an opportunity to enhance your teaching practice.

Encourage Healthy Social Relationships

Teachers play a significant role in students' lives, but most students—especially teenagers—look to their peers for validation. This might be especially true for LGBTQ students, who might feel the need to change how they act or who they are to be accepted.

Building a classroom culture around healthy socialization is another way you can help students feel safe and welcome.

Assign group projects, change up teams frequently, and give students opportunities to show off their gifts when you can. For example, you could name someone in each group the expert on a subject or loosen guidelines on certain assignments so children can explore their creativity in a team dynamic.

Practice Makes Perfect

"It is so important to create safe, affirming learning environments where LGBTQ youth can thrive," Miller said. "Our recent research has found that LGBTQ youth who reported having at least one LGBTQ-affirming space had 35% reduced odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year—the strongest association being with LGBTQ-affirming schools."

LGBTQ youth are 40 percent less likely to commit suicide if they have even one accepting adult influence in their life, The Trevor Project reports.

Further Reading: Strategies to Bring Diversity Into the Classroom

Take a second to acknowledge your impact on your students' lives. It's powerful—if sometimes overwhelming—to take stock of how much you can really do. As responsible, loving role models, teachers have a duty to integrate open, caring habits. Educate yourself and practice making every student feel safe and welcome until it feels like second nature.