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Support LGBTQ Students and Educators as Our Rights Are Decided

As the Supreme Court hears cases to decide whether federal law protects LGBTQ people from employment discrimination, one queer educator explains how his colleagues can be accomplices in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights.

This week the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in three cases that will decide the future of legal protections for LGBTQ workers, including LGBTQ educators, for a generation. The cases—R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County—will ask the court to decide whether an employer can discriminate against queer people based on their gender or sexual identity. At the heart of the three cases rests a simple question: Do LGBTQ people have the right to exist openly and freely in the workplace? 

The question may seem odd to readers because the majority of Americans support these protections. After the historic 2015 ruling Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized marriage equality nationwide, it’s easy to believe the march to progress is inevitable. In fact, an April 2019 study from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed 67 percent of respondents incorrectly believe federal laws already make it illegal “for a business to fire or refuse to hire” someone based on their gender or sexual identity—the very issue the Supreme Court is now deciding.

But LGBTQ workers are only protected in 21 states. Across most of the country, LGBTQ educators can be married on Sunday and fired for that marriage on Monday. The outcome of this week’s hearings will determine if we have protections to be ourselves seven days of the week. 

This week’s cases are monumental, and we will not know their outcomes for months. But we cannot wait for the nation’s courts to provide leadership on affirming our LGBTQ students and colleagues. Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall reportedly said, “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” 

As a queer educator, I ask my non-queer colleagues to consider taking four steps while we wait for the law to catch up. 

 

Educate yourself on the fight for LGBTQ civil rights. 

Despite marriage equality becoming the law of the land, legal battles over LGBTQ people’s rights continue. Podcasts offer an accessible introduction to historical and contemporary fights for LGBTQ rights. You can start with Teaching Tolerance’s Queer America, Slate’s Outward, NPR’s Strange Fruit and New York Public Radio’s Nancy. For those who prefer to read, Lambda Literary is a good place to find recommendations for LGTBQ literary highlights, both fiction and nonfiction.  

 

Critically evaluate your curriculum. 

Where are LGBTQ voices present? For K–12 teachers, this means considering the books we use to construct our class libraries, the read-alouds we do with our students and the histories we honor in the classroom. For administrators and teacher educators, this question means considering how we position LGBTQ people as experts within the field of education. 

For example, educators can evaluate their practices and administrators can lead faculty in professional development using Teaching Tolerance’s Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students. Librarians and literacy coaches can construct professional learning using Reading the Rainbow: LGBTQ-Inclusive Literacy Instruction in the Elementary Classroom by Caitlin Ryan and Jill Hermann-Wilmarth. And teacher educators can incorporate sj Miller’s about Gender Identity Justice in Schools and Communities in their coursework. 

The Teaching Tolerance guide Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students includes recommendations for assessing school policies, building inclusive classroom culture and instruction, and engaging families and communities. Additional resources within the guide include a glossary and lists of LGBTQ books, films and historical figures.

Engage in affirming pedagogy and instructional strategies. 

Including LGBTQ texts in curricula is an important step, but it is not a final step. We have to consider how LGBTQ texts and topics are framed in our classrooms.” We can start by refusing to label LGBTQ topics as “debatable.” We can teach about the ways bathrooms have historically been battlegrounds for civil rights without asking students to debate whether trans people deserve basic access. As educator Jess Lifshitz wrote this week, “Our kids hear [about cases like] this and know their humanity is again up for debate. That does something to a human. But our schools and our classrooms ... can be safe spaces, if we create them as such.”

Even small changes in the language we use can have big results. Avoid labeling LGBTQ topics as “controversial,” a description that reinforces the idea that being LGBTQ is somehow controversial. If you label characters’ sexualities and gender identities, then label all characters’ sexualities and gender identities. Stating for students, “The main character in this book is cisgender and heterosexual” is an easy way to disrupt the notion that cisgender and heterosexual identities are the defaults. 

 

Show up and stand up for your LGBTQ colleagues. 

The onus of dismantling homo-, trans-, and queerphobia cannot fall on the communities who are harmed by these oppressive forces. We need accomplices in the fight who will stand up and speak out for LGBTQ educators. Consider the ways you can use your privilege to speak out for the importance of LGBTQ curriculum, the need for professional development to support LGBTQ families, communities and students, and the urgency of hiring and retaining LGBTQ educators including teachers, administrators and teacher educators. 

In the coming months, the Supreme Court will decide whether federal laws fully recognize the humanity and dignity of LGBTQ people. The nation’s highest court does not bestow humanity or dignity upon LGBTQ people; that dignity and humanity exist outside any jurisprudence. Although we will have to wait to learn the outcomes of these cases, we can work to recognize and affirm the humanity and dignity of LGBTQ educators, students, families and communities in our classrooms today. 

Miller is an assistant professor of English education at the College at Brockport, State University of New York and former high school English teacher. He is also a 2016 recipient of the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.