In this time of social unrest and physical disconnection, fostering an inclusive classroom environment is especially important. It gives all students the chance to challenge biases and misconceptions, critically think and respond in a sensitive and productive manner, build supportive and mature interpersonal relationships, and succeed academically. For students who identify as LGBTQIA+, we need to remember that they face some unique (as well as some similar) realities as other students:
- Intolerance, hate, and violence persist, and depression and suicide are still at disproportionately higher rates than for heterosexual counterparts.
- Living a lie every day by hiding one’s identity is stressful and exhausting. As DiPietro (2012) wrote, “…for closeted LGBT students…trying to mask their identities; monitoring their classroom speech; using gender-neutral pronouns; avoiding mention of revealing names, places, and websites; and otherwise censoring their speech and writing…diverts cognitive energy away from the real focus of the classroom—delving deeper into content—and can translate into unrealized learning potential.”
- For students thinking about coming out or who may be out to select others, deciding who to tell means repeatedly facing the possibility of rejection, ostracism, and potential violence. For those students who have started to live their truth after leaving home for college, having to return home for online learning could mean going back to hiding who they are.
All of these realities can be exacerbated if one’s LGBTQIA+ identity intersects with an identity from another oppressed minority group (McConnell, Janulis, Phillips, Truong, & Birkett, 2018.) They can also be exacerbated when one has an intersecting identity in a community/group that has historically marginalized people who are LGBTQIA+ (Harris, 2009).
Here are seven ways you can foster a more inclusive LGBTQIA+ learning environment:
- Include an open-ended question in a pre-semester survey, such as, “What would you like me to know about your identity, background, or needs?” This gives students the opportunity to share whatever they’d like you to know about interacting with them in class and sends a message that you are sensitive to issues about their identity.
- Familiarize yourself with current terminology. Language is constantly evolving and is context dependent. For example, queer was used as a slur against people who were LGBTQIA+, but has more recently been reclaimed by some, but not all, in the LGBTQIA+ community. Remember that it never hurts to ask a student first. If you do use a word inappropriately, humbly correct yourself on the spot. Then help correct others, if need be, in a positive manner.
- Assess your course content. Incorporate LGBTQIA+ history (October is LGBT History Month), current events, and people who have contributed to your field into course content and assignments where applicable. Seeing their identities reflected in course content sends a powerful message that they belong in this class and major/field of study.
- Assess your own classroom climate for indicators of implicit bias (aka microaggressions—words and behaviors typically not intended to be hurtful but that nevertheless marginalize others) and explicit bias (overt expressions of prejudice) about gender identity and sexual orientation. The well-meaning greeting, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” is a microaggression as it excludes people who identify outside of the female/male gender binary. Explicit bias and personal attacks in the classroom should not be ignored, as your silence can signal tacit approval. You might pause for a reflective activity before discussing, or table the issue for the next class. If a comment feels ambiguous and surprising, seek clarity from the speaker.
- Be a resource. Learn about student clubs, events and initiatives, and campus offices that support students who are LGBTQIA+. For example, here at Temple we have our Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy, and Leadership, the Wellness Resource Center, and the Career Center (that can point students to supportive organizations in their discipline). Temple also holds events like OuTU Fall Welcome and Lavender Graduation. Other universities support initiatives such as the You Can Play Project that helps to create a safe and inclusive environment for LGBTQIA+ athletes.
- Be mindful of pronouns. Put the pronouns you use on your email signature. Doing so signals to students that you are sensitive to identities outside of the gender binary. You can also link your pronouns to one of the many sites that explains more about the different pronoun choices and the importance of correctly using another’s stated pronouns. Correctly refer to students by the pronouns they may indicate to you privately or through your course registration system. You might also encourage students to rename themselves in their Zoom window to reflect their pronouns so that they are not misgendered by fellow students.
- Be an ally. Complete your school’s Safe Zone training and post your certificate of completion visible to students to demonstrate your allyship. If you identify as LGBTQIA+, consider whether self-identifying would support course content, be a resource for your students’ learning, enable you to be your true self, and/or serve as a role model. This is a personal decision that still comes with some risks, but has rewards as well.
I’d love to hear what else you may be doing to foster a more inclusive LGBTQIA+ learning environment. Share them in the comments so that we can all learn more.
Cliff Rouder, EdD, is the pedagogy and design specialist at Temple University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching. His pedagogical interests include issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Prior to this position, he served as director of an accredited nutrition program that prepares students to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. He earned his doctorate in nutrition education at Teachers College, Columbia University. His disciplinary interests include food security and sustainable food systems.
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