“[T]he day … will go down in history as Anti-LGBT Day.”
This is how James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT and HIV Project, deemed July 26, 2017. On this day, President Trump announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military, and the Justice Department filed a brief stating the ban on sex discrimination in the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not protect workers on the basis of sexual orientation. On the same day, Trump announced he would nominate Sam Brownback, an outspoken opponent of gay rights, as ambassador for international religious freedom.
While the concrete outcomes of these developments remain to be seen, they signal a pushback against recent LGBT rights wins at the federal level and run alongside state-level efforts to limit LGBT rights in the workplace and public life in places like North Carolina and Texas, for example.
More young LGBT people are out than ever before. These indicators of a sea change at the federal level may leave LGBT students, who have grown up primarily during a period of expansion for LGBT rights, feeling disappointed and threatened.
At the start of this school year, it’s crucial for educators to be aware of how their queer students are feeling. Here are some suggestions for letting LGBT students know it is safe to be who they are in your classroom.
Encourage discussion instead of silence.
Don’t ignore questions about these current events. Unwillingness to engage in conversation about the lives of LGBT people validates the belief that such experiences should be whispered about. Use political events as opportunities to encourage queer students to speak their truth and as opportunities for all students to understand the consequences of court decisions and local and federal legislation. The question “What does this mean for me and the people I know?” deserves a thoughtful, non-partisan response.
Bring LGBT role models and public figures into your classroom.
Take time to learn and teach about strong LGBT public officials in contemporary history, such as Barney Frank, Mark Takano, Harvey Milk, Deborah Batts and Tammy Baldwin.
Respond to the White House’s “anti-LGBT day” with a culture of LGBT inclusivity in your classroom. Incorporate gay, bi and trans figures into the curriculum. Even displaying posters featuring inspiring LGBT figures in your room can send a strong, positive message.
Educate your students on the evolution of civil rights.
The Justice Department’s brief explicitly states that the 1964 Civil Rights Act should not evolve to include sexual orientation as part of gender discrimination—a reversal from previous interpretation of the law.
In your reading and social studies classes, use this current event to discuss changing interpretations of previous legislation—even the Constitution—and the need for legislation to change over time as cultural norms evolve. Note that the march toward full equality has always been unsteady and that social movements often see hard-won gains followed by regression.
Remind your students that you support their safety, well-being and rights in any political climate.
Brush up on your LGBT best practices, and ensure your allyship foundation rests firmly in place. Review and share these articles to deepen your understanding of the term “ally”:
- Being There for Nonbinary Youth and accompanying toolkit
- Anatomy of An Ally and toolkit
- Five Steps to Safer Schools
Take inventory of the stories and messages you share.
While the decisions of those in political authority have profoundly affected the lives of many queer youth this summer, you can use your own position of authority to craft a positive narrative of inclusion. Many students will look to their social context for their sense of approval and belonging. Young people absorb messages most indelibly by observing those around them. Therefore, make sure you model a welcoming mind and open heart to match the equity you teach. Speak up when students or colleagues use anti-LGBT language in school.
Remember: As an authority figure, everything you say, from a lecture to an off-the-cuff joke, carries weight and influence. Perpetuating gender norms and heteronormative cultural expectations alienates LGBT students looking for hope.
Avoid the boy/girl dichotomy when dividing student into groups, and think twice before joking with students about relationships or crushes. Even if you unintentionally model negative or biased messages, students may conclude: My identity is abnormal. I do not matter here.
Know your outside resources.
LGBT students’ lived experiences often differ from those of even their most well-meaning allies. Without seeing their identities positively reflected in the media or news, they may seek additional help. Guide your students by familiarizing yourself with resources available in your area: queer-friendly youth shelters, LGBT-affirming places of worship or supportive community organizations, for example.
The ultimate antidote to the threats facing LGBT students lies in a robust commitment to inclusion and empowerment.
Cory Collins is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.
Jey Ehrenhalt is the school-based programming and grants manager with Teaching Tolerance.