How teachers can be a better ally to LGBTQ+ students

With school term starting soon, our newest international guest writer Sarah Darren gives some good tips on how teachers, both in the US and the UK, can be a better ally to their LGBTQ+ students, as a wave of changing tides across the USA cause consternation and barriers for young people.

Understanding and Connecting with LGBTQ+ Students

As a teaching professional, a significant part of your role includes creating safe, strong relationships with your students. When individuals have fundamentally different experiences or belong to different demographics, creating solid relationships between those individuals requires mutual respect, openness, curiosity, and understanding to find common ground in the midst of difference. 

This can sometimes be a difficult task for teachers who experience sexuality differently than their students. Because sexuality and sexual identity are fundamental aspects of an individual’s personhood and significantly affect the ways each individual experiences the world, it’s important for teachers to learn how to regard this aspect of each of their students and relate with students that identify or understand their sexuality differently.

Today’s Prevalence of LGBTQ+ Students

According to Census Bureau data, approximately 8% of the adult population in the United States identify as LGBTQ+, and in the UK the 2021 Census data wont be out until November this year but ONS data from 2018 suggest that the population then could have been anywhere between 2 – 4 % but we think this is definitely higher.

After surveying today’s high school population, CDC research results indicate that the upcoming generation contains a much larger percentage of LGBTQ+-identifying individuals – perhaps as high as 20%.  Whereas the UK’s Department for Education estimated that around 6% of all students in schools identified as LGBT almost ten years ago, we see this number as having risen since then, but no new data is available.

This means that many teachers who may not have previously encountered sexual diversity in their lives or communities will much more likely teach a young person or persons that identify as a sexual minority today than they might have even 5 years ago. It is more important than ever before for teachers to better understand the experience of LGBTQ+ students and be able to relate to them in healthy, caring, supportive ways.

Resourcing Yourself for Greater Understanding

There are several helpful resources available for teachers that can help them develop their skills and knowledge across a range of subjects and topics. Better understanding sexual identities is one of those areas. Professional development content for teachers comes in a number of various forms, including podcasts, books, academic journals, written resources, conferences, consulting and mentorship, and more.

In the UK there are a wide variety of options for schools themselves to use to train their staff. The Diversity Role Models Scheme, the Stonewall CPD programme or Equali-Teach a newer organisation providing in-service training on all aspects of diversity in schools.

If you teach a student or students that identify as LGBTQ+ and you feel uncertain about the best ways to relate to them, educating yourself on the basics of sexuality and sexual identity is a good place to start. Familiarize yourself with common terms. 

Listen to stories and experiences of LGBTQ+ students and individuals. Learn from other teachers who have made the journey towards in-depth understanding of experiences that are different from theirs. There are countless resources available that can help you gain a familiarity with the topic and be better equipped to converse knowledgeably with your students.

Be aware that knowing the lingo is not the only purpose of becoming more familiar with the sexual minority landscape. Just as important as understanding terms and language is being able to more deeply understand the personal and human experience of being LGBTQ+. When not familiar with an experience or identity different from our own, it is difficult to understand the depth and nuance of that identity. It is much easier to reduce the identity into a shallow caricature, make assumptions, or feel anxiety or fear about interacting with people that identify that way. 

Learning the stories and experiences of LGBTQ+ persons and youth will help you better understand the humanity behind each sexual identity and will contribute significantly to your ability to build strong, trust-based relationships with your LGBTQ+ students.

In Practice: Building Relationships and Investing in LGBTQ+ Youth

If you feel uncertain about how to create solid teacher-student relationships with LGBTQ+ pupils, the starting point is probably much simpler than you may think. Understanding and connecting with LGBTQ+ students does not require traversing through some mysterious, political, grenade-studded danger zone. 

It takes the same process, effort, and care required to create relationships with anyone that differs from you. And it can yield the same types of benefits – more empathy, increased understanding about others, and productive relationships that can foster learning for everyone involved.

To understand and connect with LGBTQ+ students, you can go a long way by simply demonstrating a genuine interest in getting to know them as people. Speak with them the way you’d speak with anyone else. Ask about their experiences. Get to know what they enjoy. Care about their hopes, dreams, and fears. Don’t reduce their personhood to a sexual identity you consider foreign or different.

If you are LGBTQ+ yourself, you obviously have a strong platform of shared experience and understanding that can benefit your efforts to connect with your LGBTQ+ students. And otherwise, the same principles above apply. 

In the United States due to ever-shifting legislation and pressure at the local and national levels to change how teachers may or may not refer to or discuss LGBTQ+ issues, stay informed about what you are allowed to discuss or disclose – but if possible, and when appropriate, being open about your own sexual identity can be a way to create trust and help your students know that you relate to their experiences in that way. (The UK has different legislation and processes. The Equality Act 2010 gives sexual orientation and gender reassignment a protected status, and guidelines from the DFE and OFSTED, the schools inspecorate, ensure that provision for LGBTQ+ students is catered for.)

LGBTQ+ students, in many respects, are just like any other student in your course or classroom. Understanding the ways their experiences might differ is incredibly important, and can ultimately help you better understand the core similarities you actually share. Show interest, be humble, and be open to learning. Anyone, of any sexual orientation or identity, can follow these basic principles to build strong, robust relationships with LGBTQ+ students.

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