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Students Surviving and Thriving

How to support LGBTQ and gender non-conforming kids
Beyond Survival

For students who identify as LGBTQ or are gender non-conforming, school can be a difficult, even dangerous, place. Especially in the wake of shifts in federal guidance on transgender students, educators can make a difference by openly supporting these students.

When School Isn’t Safe

LGBTQ students can feel “isolated and alone and rejected” when peers and teachers don’t accept them, says Tracie Jones, who runs student diversity and inclusion programs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Children as young as kindergarten can be bullied for not fitting in with typical gender expectations. Transgender students are especially vulnerable, facing more hostility in school than peers who identify as gay or bisexual. According to a 2015 survey [PDF] by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 77 percent of transgender youth were mistreated at school (ranging from verbal harassment to prohibitions on dressing according to gender identity to physical or sexual assault); according to the Human Rights Campaign, transgender youth are twice as likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol [PDF] as straight, cisgender peers.

All of this affects learning. LGBTQ students who are harassed or excluded have lower GPAs than straight peers and are half as likely to pursue post-secondary education. “If you’re constantly in that space of fear, there’s no chance of being able to reach the content and the learning that’s going on in your classroom,” says Tina Owen-Moore, who founded the Alliance School in Milwaukee with the explicit mission of providing an environment that would support LGBTQ students.

Even coming to school can be difficult. When Owen-Moore started the Alliance School in 2005, attendance rates were at 61 percent. Many students who enrolled simply were not in the habit of coming to school because they didn’t perceive it “as a safe or welcoming place,” she says.

Vocal support from teachers and administrators can make a world of difference. Now the Alliance School has an attendance rate of 91 percent, and students are applying to college and focusing on their careers, rather than just trying to “get through” high school. “It’s so important to build a place where young people can thrive instead of just survive,” says Owen-Moore, now pursuing a doctorate at Harvard.

Strategies to Support LGBTQ Students

To reach their full potential, these students need to feel safe and accepted. Here, we provide guidance for educators and school leaders about how to help, collected from Harvard’s Tracie Jones and Tina Owen-Moore, as well as from Michael Sadowski’s Safe is Not Enough, Teaching Tolerance, Welcoming Schools, and the Human Rights Campaign.

  • Educate yourself. Teachers and school leaders need to know what it means to be transgender, genderqueer, or to simply not believe in gender. LGBTQ students are in every school, in every grade, and educators must be prepared to understand them.
  • Respect students’ requests. When a student asks to be called by a different name or pronoun, teachers need to respect it, even if they’re initially uncomfortable or unsure. Says Jones, “It’s better to try, mess up, and own that mistake” than to not listen to the student. “Students need to understand that you are doing your best to ally with them.”
  • Use inclusive language and practices. Even if there are no openly LGBTQ students in a classroom, teachers can strive to look past gender. Rather than call a class “boys and girls,” they can use “team” or “scholars.” They can avoid statements that group the class into genders, such as “I notice all the boys are…” or “I wonder why only the girls….”
  • Ensure the entire school is supportive. Messages of tolerance and welcome should be spread throughout the school, not confined to certain classrooms. All adults in the building — teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, custodians — should understand what it means to be an ally for LGBTQ students. And if possible, all school systems, lists, and data platforms should reflect students’ wishes on their gender identity and names. 
  • Continue to follow the earlier federal guidance on Title IX. The Trump Administration has recently ruled that it won’t direct schools to allow transgender students to use facilities corresponding with their gender identity. However, says Moore, schools can still choose to give their students that right, as directed by the Obama Administration in May 2016.
  • Provide lessons and programming on LGBTQ issues and themes. It’s not the responsibility of LGBTQ students to educate their peers. Instead, educators should infuse curriculum with LGBTQ history and current events, teach students what it means to be transgender and explain problems with the gender binary, and have students read works by LGBTQ authors. Give LGBTQ students the choice to share, but don’t make them the subject of the learning.  

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