While LGBT is still a popular term used to describe the queer community, it has grown to LGBTQQIP2SAA. For this reason, I will often simply use LGBT+ or LGBTQ+ in my writing as a way to be inclusive of everyone. But just what DO all of those letters stand for?
L – Lesbian: Female identified person who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to other women.
G – Gay: Male identified person who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to other men. Gay has also been adopted by some people as a general term referring to themselves as LGBTQ+ in some way, especially among younger generations.
B – Bisexual: Once defined as romantically and/or sexually attracted to both men and women, many bisexuals today say they can be attracted to all genders and/or sexes.
T – Transgender: A person whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Q – Queer: An umbrella term that includes all sexual and gender minorities, including those who do not fit into, or reach beyond the LGBT terms… used to be a slur, and may still be used as such. One should not use that term to refer to someone unless that's how they have explicitly said they identify.
Q – Questioning: Someone who is exploring their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
I – Intersex: People born with anatomy or chromosomal makeup that doesn’t correspond to male or female.
P – Pansexual: Can be attracted to members of all gender identities and biological sexes.
2S – 2 Spirit: A term used by many indigenous groups to describe the gender, sexual, or spiritual identity of those not identifying fully as either male or female.
A – Asexual: Experiences little to no sexual attraction, but can have romantic, emotional, or aesthetic attraction to another person. Asexuality is a spectrum. For instance, some may only experience sexual attraction to people they already have a strong romantic bond to.
A – Ally: Does not identify as LGBTQ but supports the rights and safety of those who do.
So, how do we go about supporting our students, friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers and everyone else around us who fall anywhere along these gender and orientation spectra? I’ve come up with some ABCs of my own to help us do just that :) Mine focus specifically on LGBT+ youth as an educator, but can certainly be applied to people of all ages in many diverse situations…
ACCEPT and ALLOW
Acceptance is the very thing that these kids need most. They need to know that you, a caring adult in their lives, accept them for who they are and allow them to express their identity in the way that is best for them. This has nothing to with religious beliefs or condoning specific behaviors and everything to do with simply letting this child know that you care about them for who they are as a person. Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
BE an Ally
Allies take acceptance one step further, to stand up for and support the rights of LGBTQ+ kids. In a school setting, this could be simply attending GSA or other LGBT club sponsored events, publicly displaying your support with a Safe Space or rainbow sticker, or speaking up when you hear other students use Anti-LGBT language.
CREATE an inclusive atmosphere
Let classes know from day ONE that your space is a safe, welcoming space for ALL students, regardless of race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity.
Dysphoria is the feeling that your body does not reflect your true gender. Especially in children, gender dysphoria can cause severe distress, anxiety, and depression and can be so intense that it interferes with the way they function in normal life, for instance at school or work, or during social activities. Consistently using students’ preferred names and pronouns can do a LOT to help them manage the effects of dysphoria. There is no such thing as “not trans* enough”. Transgender people do not have to be 100% passing or “stealth” for their identity to be respected.
Encourage ALL students to not only be themselves, but to accept their classmates for who they are. Let them know that discrimination of any sort will not be tolerated in your presence. When a student seems to be having a hard time with something, encourage them to talk to you or another trusted adult about their situation.
Focus on your students for who they are as young people. Their gender and sexual identities only make up a piece of that, so don’t get caught up focusing on just those aspects of their identity. See them for the whole, beautiful, amazing kids they are!
GROW with them
It’s okay to say “I don’t really understand this, but I care about you, so I am willing to learn.” And then actually take the time to learn, do some research, talk to some LGBT people in your community, and get their input on how you can best support your kids. This is the avenue that many parents and grandparents take to get to a place of acceptance when the kids they love come out to them. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can’t put new knowledge and ideas into a closed mind. Remember, minds are like parachutes…
Honor your students’ identities in and out of class. If you hear a student or another faculty member referring to your LGBT students in any way that is not respectful of their identity, speak up. If you happen to slip up with names or pronouns, simply correct yourself and move on. Ignoring the mistake can make students feel like you don’t care enough to fix it, and making a big deal out of the mistake simply puts a spotlight on that student in front of their classmates, both of which, for most, are extremely unpleasant situations to be in.
Include and provide positive representations of LGBT people, history and themes into your curriculum to ensure that your LGBT students see themselves reflected in your lessons. This also creates opportunities for all of your students to gain a more complex and authentic understanding of the world around them and encourages respectful behavior, critical thinking and social justice.
Join an advocacy group or educator network that deals with LGBT student issues. GLSEN’s Educator Network is a great place to start, with the largest network of K-12 educators working to create safe, supportive school environments for all LGBT students. Another awesome teacher’s group is The Badass Teachers Association (or BATS), a network of over 62,000 educators who advocate and lobby for an “Excellent public education for all students, regardless of economic status, race, nationality, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.” They have many subgroups on facebook and other social media, including a BATS lgbtqs support group.
KNOW when help is needed
Know when and where to seek help. LGBT+ youth are often subject to abuse, homelessness, suicide, harassment, and physical violence. Enlist the help of your school’s counselors, nurses, and/or administration to create a list of appropriate referral agencies for crisis intervention, mental and physical health services, emergency assistance, etc. If a child in your care reports any of these situations to you or you start noticing signs that they may be in a dangerous situation, DON’T keep it to yourself, but DO keep the child’s safety and privacy as the top priority. Many of these kids aren’t “out” to their families and outing them could put them in an even worse situation.
(I really wish L were the FIRST letter of the alphabet!) Sometimes, these kids just need someone willing to listen to them. Let them talk and let out their stories, their experiences, their fears and emotions. Being allowed to feel and vent their emotions is so crucial; because too many LGBT youth grow up having to hide their feelings or keep them all bottled up inside. This can lead to cutting and other self-harming behaviors. Self-harm becomes a tool that they use to purge themselves of those emotions that they can’t show through tears, and sometimes it’s just a way for them to feel anything at all. Listen to them, validate their feelings, and let them know that it is okay to just sit with your feelings. We don’t need to try and fix everything; sometimes we just need to let them feel.
Your example can help motivate other faculty in your organization to start creating safer, more accepting spaces as well. Encourage teachers and administrators to sit down and talk to the LGBT students, get to know them, and learn how THEY feel about the school climate. If there is bullying or harassment going on in your school, these kids are likely seeing the majority of it, but many are afraid to come forward for fear of “outing” themselves.
If your school district does not have a non-discrimination policy that includes orientation and gender identity, encourage your students to start a petition to present to the school board.Change.org is a great online format for creating and sharing petitions. Just remember, not all students are "out" to their peers, teachers or even families, so make sure you protect their privacy and safety at all costs.
There’s a solid chance you yourself may currently hold some misconceptions about the LGBT community-THAT’S OKAY. Be willing to learn, unlearn, and grow from the knowledge you encounter. If you’re willing to put in the effort and evolve from the new things you discover, you WILL make a difference in these kids’ lives!
This one bears repeating: Protect the privacy and safety of your LGBT students at all costs. Many of these kids could face very difficult and even dangerous home and social situations if they were to be “outed” unintentionally, even with the best of intentions behind it.
Ask, ask, ask, ask and ask some more. If there is something you don’t understand, just ask. Ask one of the kids (they love talking about themselves when they know that it’s safe to do so), ask a friend who is involved in the LGBT community, ask your school’s GSA Sponsor or another adult Ally. When questions are asked from a legitimate place of wanting to learn and understand, they won’t be offended.
Not only should you respect all of your students and their multifaceted identities, but also respect the beliefs and opinions of your fellow staff members. Not everyone is going to be a supportive Ally, but together, hopefully we can get everyone on board with simply respecting people for who they are, even when they don’t fit their version of “normal”.
STAND UP, SPEAK OUT
Don't be afraid to stand up and speak up for your students. If your school does not promote an accepting, inclusive environment for LGBT students, schedule a meeting with your administrator and let them know that you would like to help improve the school climate. Even better, since we're teaching students to advocate for themselves, invite your administrators to a round table discussion with your GSA or other LGBT student leaders.
Sometimes we need to Educate the Educators. If you have a supportive school board and administration, you can request a representative from a local LGBT advocacy group to present a workshop or professional development. Many of these groups already have educator training programs in place! A little bit of knowledge can go a LONG way!
If there isn't a group in your area that does professional development, I recommend that you request a Safe Space kit from GLSEN (Gay and Lesbian Student Education Network).
USE proper pronouns
Sometimes it takes some getting used to, and sometimes transgender or gender non-conforming kids aren’t 100% passing or “stealth” as they call it, that doesn’t matter. You do not get to determine someone else’s identity. If a student has asked you to refer to them by a preferred name and/or preferred pronouns, please make every effort to do so, not only in their presence, but all of the time.
Value the many differences of ALL of your students, don’t ignore them or pretend “you don’t see them”. Being “colorblind” (for example) sounds great in theory, but can lead to being dismissive of characteristics and culture that make up a large part of a person’s identity. SEE those differences, EMBRACE the diverse characteristics and LEARN from each other, and teach all of your students to treat diversity in this manner as well. Don’t be blind to our differences, VALUE them!
Welcome opportunities for professional development on LGTBQ topics, and invite others to join you. Welcome opportunities to voice and discuss concerns regarding school policies and practices that lack appropriate provisions for LGBTQ students. The time for sweeping these conversations under the rug has long past…
Be the X-FACTOR
Be the Change-Bringer, Be the Difference-Maker. You could be the one teacher with the ability to reach that student that no one has been able to reach before.
Yield to professionals who are knowledgeable in working with LGBTQ youth; don't think that you have or need to have all of the answers.
Okay, can’t really think of anything with Z, so just know that by reading this, if you’ve made it all the way to the end, I thank you and I appreciate that you are taking the first step in making life better for some awesome kids (including mine!). Continue taking those steps and you WILL make your little slice of the world a little sweeter <3
About the Author: I am a High School Spanish teacher in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, and a single mom to a 15 (almost 16) yr old transgender son, Charlie. In the past 2 years, by going through this transition with Charlie, I have become an advocate and an activist for LGBTQ+ youth in our community. I sponsor one of the largest and most active GSAs in our area and have also founded Hampton Roads PTK, a support group for parents of Trans* and Gender Non-Conforming kids. The group is on Facebook - "Hampton Roads Parenting Trans Kids". The blog is hrptk.blogspot.org