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Exploring Equity: Gender and Sexuality

Creating loving spaces in which students of all gender and sexual identities can flourish

February 2, 2021
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Educators have a responsibility to support young people as they grapple with multiple parts of their identities, including their gender and sexual identities. Critical to this work is a commitment for educators to reflect on their own biases, assumptions, and ideas about gender, the gender binary, and sexual orientation. This type of self-work allows adults to create loving, inclusive spaces that nurture possibility for young people.

A new module offered at Harvard Graduate School of Education this January as part of a pilot of HGSE’s Equity and Opportunity Foundations course focuses on how gender and sexuality shape identities and experiences in educational contexts.

>> Learn more about Equity and Opportunity and HGSE’s other foundational learning experiences.

“Training educators, particularly in this historical moment, requires a commitment to both reflexive and pedagogical work. We need the tools to understand and care for ourselves, as well as the tools to create spaces where our students can come to understand and care for each other,” says course faculty lead Gretchen Brion-Meisels, an expert in adolescent development and a lecturer at HGSE.

For educators seeking to create spaces that are inclusive and equitable for gender non-binary, trans, or LGBTQIA students, the following strategies can help.

Understand your own meaning-making processes and biases

Adults who are unaware of their existing biases often unintentionally project these on to the young people they work with which can cause harm. Recognizing biases or how the gender binary impacts your work as an educator can start with the following prompts:

  • What are the messages you heard from different adults, authorities, or institutions around gender and sexuality growing up? What assumptions might you carry as a result?
  • Where did you see counternarratives or possibilities for other ways of being in the world?
  • How can you use your words & actions to open up possibility around gender and sexual identity development for youth?

Set your vision for education

Brion-Meisels offers as an example the vision that, “I’m working toward developing young people who feel like they can be who they are around their gender and sexual orientation, who don’t feel stuck or fixed in their expression of those pieces of themselves, who are equipped with the skills and tools to keep themselves safe in relationship to others, and who are careful not to harm others.”

Identify the fundamental curricular and structural elements that need to be in place to achieve that vision

These elements may vary depending on the context, but a few universal ones could include:

  • Creating safe spaces and inclusive, non-binary structures. Brion-Meisels notes schools must commit to both protecting LGBTQIA students and including them fully in the academic and social fabric of the space. Educators and schools rely heavily on the gender binary — from seating charts to bathrooms to uniforms. “What does this binary organization mean for the possibility of how people can be? What would it look like to shift some of these structures so you’re not constricting possibility for young people?” she asks.
  • Comprehensive sex and health education. Understanding consent and bodies is necessary at all ages, for students of all gender identities and sexual orientations. A preschooler might need to understand where their body ends and someone else’s begins or that there are bodies in the world that look different from theirs. A teenager might need a curriculum that doesn’t assume all students are heterosexual.
  • Giving students agency. Allow students to self-identify their name and pronouns.  This can be done with any age group and in any context. “Too often adults feel they know what’s best for young people, stripping young people of the agency to make decisions about their own lives,” says Brion-Meisels. “We need to honor students’ knowledge of themselves and trust them to tell us what they need.”
  • Providing students with curriculum and resources that reflect multiplicity and reflect their identities. Books and visuals used in the classroom should show different kinds of families, communities, and people. Historically, LGBTQIA characters in books have been represented as white or depicted in non-human form. Luckily, today there are hundreds of new books being released that provide us with much more diverse, inclusive, and complex representations of gender and sexuality.

Change structures and policies to allow students to freely explore their identities

Nondiscrimination policies or antibullying policies that explicitly name and enumerate safety for gender non-binary, trans, and LGBTQIA students can make a difference. However, schools should remember to address adult-perpetrated discrimination and structural inequities in these policies.

  • Commit to a cultural shift that will protect all community members. True cultural change takes a lot of time and effort. Quick fix solutions, like zero tolerance policies, may hurt some students while protecting others. Schools should focus on restorative practices that benefit everyone and address issues that impact many facets of identity.
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