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Fostering a sense of belonging and inclusiveness for LGBTQ2S+ students

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June is Pride Month, celebrated in communities around the world. Supporting all voices, such as historically underrepresented voices including LGBTQ2S+ students, is a way that educators can enact integrity and inclusion within classrooms.

Students come to us from all walks of life and with all kinds of backgrounds and prior educational experiences. As educators, it is important to support learning by becoming aware of students’ cultural and social contexts and then foster a sense of belonging for all students. Doing so not only supports learning outcomes but also academic integrity and a lifelong commitment to learning.

In this post, we will focus on LGBTQ2S+ students and how this is defined, before expanding into ways educators can both build and enact knowledge and allyship.

Who might identify as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community?

The letters (and symbol) in LGBTQ2S+ each stand for a part of the LGBTQ2S+ community, which, in itself, is a diverse group of people that spans race and age.

LGBTQ2S+ describes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and two-spirit people (to be inclusive of indigenous people). The “+” includes other identities, such as pansexual and non-binary or gender nonconforming people.

There are many people who may self-identify as LGBTQ2S+ but don’t publicly say so; it is important to respect boundaries and let individuals share who they are on their own terms and timeline. Exposing someone’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender non-binary identity to others without their permission is called ‘outing’. Outing someone can have serious repercussions on employment, economic stability, personal safety, or religious, or family situations.

What is inclusive language for LGBTQ2S+ and transgender students? And why is inclusive language important?

Students learn from educators . They learn from our behavior and what we choose to include on the course syllabus and what we decide to point out as significant. Consequently, in order to solidify trust, it is critical to model inclusive language in the classroom at the earliest possible stage; this is a vital component of learning. If a student does not trust you, how can they learn from you?

When describing an “out” student, it is important to say “gay student” or “lesbian student”, rather than “a gay” or “a lesbian,” - just as one would say “Black student” or “Asian student” versus “a Black” or “an Asian.” The term “queer” is one that is self-defined, and should not necessarily be used to describe someone without their consent. Again: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer, and other terms that LGBTQ2S+ describes are adjectives, not nouns. Overall, if you’re in doubt, ask the student how they would like to be identified.

When it comes to transgender students, pronouns are a particularly visible way to show support. A transgender woman should be referred to as “she” or “her”; a transgender man should be referred to as “he” or him.”

That said, it is important to ask for correct pronouns, as a person’s outward appearance may not fully communicate transgender identity. Some transgender people identify as neither a man nor a woman or a combination of both. They may call themselves nonbinary, genderqueer, or gender nonconforming and may want to be referred to as “they” and “them.”

To that end, you can include your pronouns in the syllabus, on your Zoom screen, alongside your email address, and so on. Stating your pronouns is a way to show your support and allyship; the effort may be small but the impact large. According to Théodore Pavlich, “Not having to assert, or even think about, your pronouns is a privilege cisgender people don’t often think twice about, so the simple act of acknowledging them can speak volumes.”.

The syllabus is an important venue for communicating expectations and making first impressions; the tone of a syllabus can impact classroom engagement, student attitudes toward learning, intrinsic motivation, and positive feelings for the course (Dechief & Brulé, 2021). Ensuring that students feel seen and included when reading a syllabus can positively impact learning outcomes, especially since many students from historically marginalized communities can dread the first day of class where their names can be mispronounced, they can be called by the wrong name, misgendered, or singled out in other ways.

How to build an inclusive and safe space for transgender and gender nonconforming students

Showing allyship and being sensitive to your students on the first day of class sets a tone for the remainder of the course. The first day of class is always full of anxiety on behalf of both the instructor and students, both of whom are observing details to the smallest degree. What is the teacher wearing? Are they smiling at all? Will they be supportive? And for transgender or gender nonconforming students, will they be misgendered or be called the wrong name?

The following are some common interactions on the first day of class that can, with adjustment, uphold inclusion.

Stay mindful when taking attendance

When checking student attendance, just call last names. Avoid using gendered honorifics like Miss or Mister, as these still assume the students’ gender matches their records. If you can’t resist using an honorific when calling last names, you can always have some fun using fake, gender-inclusive ones like Captain, Doctor, and Lieutenant.

Facilitate inclusive introductions

Encourage students to take turns introducing themselves, encouraging them to say their name and, if they are comfortable, their pronouns. Set an example by introducing yourself with your name and pronouns. If a student doesn’t offer their pronouns, don’t press them; it’s possible that they aren’t sure what their pronouns are. Avoid language like “preferred pronouns” or “chosen pronouns” as these can be seen as delegitimizing or trivializing transgender people’s pronouns, implying that their gender identity is a choice or preference, much like one might choose to wear jeans or khakis (Pavlich, 2020).

Of course, learning goes beyond the first day of class.

As the term goes on, it is important to uphold other components of inclusion and support.

Use inclusive language

Similar to the previously mentioned guidance to avoid gendered honorifics, if you do not know your students’ gender identities, it is helpful to avoid binary and gendered language. Instead of using phrases like “ladies and gentleman” or “you guys” when addressing the whole class, consider using alternatives like “people” or “y’all.” If you want to have fun with it, there are many lists of suggestions for gender-inclusive greetings, some more appropriate than others.

Correct yourself and others

If you or someone else makes a mistake with respect to a student’s name or pronouns, a simple correction can mean a lot. Often, transgender or gender nonconforming (TGNC) people have to bear the burden of educating and correcting others, which can be both mentally and emotionally exhausting, as well as frustrating. The allyship of correcting a mistake in their stead is simple but powerful. There’s no need to make a production out of the correction—in fact, that can be more frustrating. This guide offers helpful suggestions on correcting yourself and others in a supportive manner.

Don’t assume

If you have a self-identified TGNC student—that is to say an individual who has disclosed their identity to you or the class at large, not one that you assume to be transgender or gender nonconforming—reach out to them to ask how you can be supportive. Don’t assume that one student’s preference is the same as another’s. TGNC people, like all other demographic groups, are not a monolith. While this guide aims to cover the basics of creating a supportive and inclusive environment for TGNC students, each individual may have different preferences or comfort levels, and it's important to determine what is right for each of your students.

How can educators create a safe environment for sharing and discussion for LGBTQ2S+ students?

According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2021 National Climate Survey, LGBTQ2S+ students who experience victimization based on their orientation are more likely to miss school, have lower grade point averages, are less likely to pursue further education, and have lower self esteem and higher levels of depression (2021, p. XIX).

According to GLSEN, some of the ways in which schools can support LGBTQ2S+ students are:

  • Form GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances or Gender and Sexuality Alliances) or similar clubs.
  • Enact supportive and inclusive school policies, such as clear anti-bullying/harassment policies and nonbinary student policies.
  • Foster supportive school staff.
  • Provide curricular resources inclusive of LGBTQ2S+-related topics (GLSEN, p. XV).

Why are GSAs important?

According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), “Supportive student clubs, such as Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) create a safer and more inclusive school environment.” The effects of these organizations make it so students hear pejorative terms less often at school, more likely that school staff intervene when hearing homophobic or transphobic remarks, less likely to miss school, more likely to feel safe, and felt a greater sense of belonging (GLSEN, p. 8).

The Gay Straight Alliance Network (GSA Network) provides guidance on how to start a GSA group at school, detailing GSA purpose and benefits.

GSAs and other school-based extracurricular groups can foster a positive school environment, address inequality, and positively influence school performance by reducing discrimination and fostering a sense of belonging in the LGBTQ2S+ student populations. While they are student-led, consider offering to start a group at your school with students or becoming an advisor for an existing group. When students can identify which faculty are supportive, a sense of safety is inherently expanded.

What are supportive policies for LGBTQ2S+ students?

Building supportive and inclusive policies for LGBTQ2S+ students on campus is a way to approach support from a systemic level.

Supportive policies most likely begin with reviews of existing policies.

If there is an anti-bullying and anti-harassment policy, ensure that it enumerates and specifically includes protections for LGBTQ2S+ students (GLSEN).

When it comes to non-discrimination policies, make sure the language is clear, specific, and consistent. In an existing policy, specifically protect and affirm students’ sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression, among other characteristics (e.g., race, religion, etc.), and prohibit discrimination against students, families, and educators on those bases.

“Ensure that district and school policies are designed and implemented to support transgender and gender nonconforming students, who face more hostile school climates than other students in the LGBTQ2S+ community,” states GLSEN. For starters, accept the gender identity that each student asserts at the administrative level and allow them to use their chosen name. Provide equal access to all school facilities like restroom, locker room, or changing facilities consistent with gender identities. If there is a school uniform, double check that they are gender-neutral or allow students to dress consistent with their gender expression.

For more suggestions, GLSEN provides policy recommendations to support LGBTQ2S+ students.

How can educators support LGBTQ2S+ students?

Instructors and administrators have inherent authority on campus, and therefore, the power to create safe spaces for LGBTQ2S+ students. Here are some ways educators can create a safe environment so that LGBTQ2S+ students can feel safe while learning.

Display safe space signs

By placing visible stickers or posters in your classroom, you let students know that you are willing to challenge anti-LGBTQ2S+ language or harassment.

Stand up against homophobia and transphobia

GLSEN reports that research has shown "LGBTQ youth face bullying at significantly higher rates than their peers, and the consequences, such as increased rates of suicide, can be heartbreaking." Faculty intervention is one way to change this. Teaching Tolerance provides an activity guide to help teachers handle remarks like this in the classroom.

Pursue professional learning and development

Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton states, “Equity advocates write extensively about how it is not their job to educate those from dominant (and predominantly white) social groups. It is up to those from dominant groups to take responsibility for building our own understanding of equity, diversity, inclusion, decolonization, and Indigenization” (2022).

Educators can continue their own learning when it comes to LGBTQ2S+ issues and become more supportive of LGBTQ2S+ students. Professional learning increases the number of supportive staff available to students, and thereby improves student retention. Doing so too, ensures that your school is inclusive, safe, and affirming for LGBTQ2S+ students (Barile, retrieved 2023).

It is important to learn about the issues that affect your LGBTQ2S+ students both inside and outside your classroom. Learn about what resources are available in your region, school, and department. And elevate and amplify the work of LGBTQ2S+ individuals. “You don’t need to become an expert,” according to Pavlich, “but you should be aware of their often-erased contributions and history. It is particularly important to seek out this information from (transgender and gender nonconforming) TGNC activists, journalists, and scholars, to ensure you are getting accurate, first-hand information” .

How can LGBTQ2S+ topics be represented in the curriculum?

To that end, positive representation within the curriculum is important to students' sense of belonging.

According to GLSEN, only 16.3% of students were taught positive representations of LGBTQ2S+ people; meanwhile, 14.4% were taught negative content about LGBTQ2S+ topics. Additionally, only 7.4% of students reported receiving LGBTQ2S+-inclusive sex education. Research shows that this exclusion results in higher rates of slurs and negative remarks about LGBTQ2S+ people, a higher number of students who feel unsafe, and higher rates of victimization (GLSEN, p. XXI).

The Human Rights Campaign suggests that teachers integrate LGBTQ2S+ people and topics into the classroom.

Ways to include representation of LGBTQ2S+ themes will depend on your subject, but there are LGBTQ2S+ people, history, and events that can be made available. Literature teachers can include books written by or about trans people and LGBTQ2S+ people, history teachers can include trans history or historical figures like Harvey Milk relevant to the subject or era, and science teachers can include the contributions from the numerous LGBTQ2S+ scientists, such as Alan Turing, of the past or present, and so on.

GLSEN offers teaching resources to support this mission so that students can see themselves in their lessons and all students can have an inclusive understanding of the world. The US state of California, for instance, also lists resources for inclusive LGBTQ2S+ curriculum.

Overview: How to support LGBTQ2S+ students in the classroom

Making your classroom a safe space for all students is integral to positive learning outcomes. When it comes to LGBTQ2S+ students, being proactive about inclusion may help a student who is closeted, or uncertain, or actively wrestling with gender identity to identify learning with safety, and therefore, foster a love of learning.

Pride is not confined to June. This is an opportunity to reset and make sure that classrooms are spaces to create belonging and inclusion all year round.