This past Pride, like most in recent history, saw a growing number of signs with phrases like “Pride is still a riot,” and “Black queer lives matter.” A critical and timely effort to refocus the movement on its origins and those in the community who are most marginalized, these signs represent a broader reminder: Pride isn’t just a party. It’s also a time to call attention to efforts toward improving queer and trans lives.
While we see many of these efforts displayed prominently at Pride — efforts around healthcare, legal support, social and financial services — one area we still don’t often see addressed is education.
Though more and more schools are implementing anti-bullying laws and gender neutral bathrooms, there’s still a long way to go. As Michael Sadowski says in his book Safety is Not Enough, we need to go beyond making schools simply safe for queer and trans kids, and start working to transform them into learning spaces that validate and engage them, personally and intellectually.
Just last month, a story from Boulder, Colorado told us about a local public school teacher named Chris Segal who has seen at least three queer or trans students in his school who dropped out after being bullied. Chris realized that safety should not be the endgame when it comes to supporting queer kids. He includes queer authors in his curriculum, but even he wants teachers like himself to be able to do more to create an inclusive environment for LGBTQ students.
So what exactly does an “inclusive environment” look like? Quite simply, it’s a learning environment in which every student is engaged in and relates to the content. It’s instructional materials, as Rudine Sims Bishop describes, that both gives students a window into lives and experiences different from their own, and holds up a mirror so they can see themselves reflected. It’s an environment in which the teacher understands the learning contexts of their students and leverages unique parts of their identities as tools for learning. We know that students learn better when they feel validated and challenged by what they’re learning. And yet, many preK-12 schools continue to teach about a very narrow set of lived experiences — one to which fewer and fewer students can relate.
Like Chris, many teachers have the will, but not the way, to teach queer-inclusive content. With so many teaching standards to meet, little time or funding, and no inclusive teacher professional development, most educators don’t know where to start. Even with great teaching resources from GLSEN, Teaching Tolerance, and others, the real problem is that many educators don’t know where to find them, how to implement them, or how and when to share them.
Particularly for teachers who are not queer themselves or have not before engaged with topics of sexual and gender minorities, talking about these topics with students can be a formidable challenge, even with a how-to guide. What’s worse is that many districts including those in the handful of states in which it is still illegal to mention LGBTQ identities in the classroom, are far from the point of even attempting to prioritize queer students.
So what do we do? In states and districts like this and beyond, it will take difficult, ongoing conversations between schools and those advocating for inclusion to frame inclusive curricula as a feasible goal. It will take careful articulation of what anti-racist queer inclusivity is, why it matters for all students, and what the ramifications are of not creating inclusive classrooms. It may even take more robust data on the outcomes of these types of materials on student social-emotional learning, engagement, and test scores. This type of data, particularly on queer K-12 students, is as severely lacking as it is desperately needed. Though storytelling has historically been and remains a cornerstone of the queer community, it may not be enough to sell this idea to those resisting it.
At the same time, intentional LGBTQ inclusion will require tearing down the misconceptions around what it means to support queer students. It requires empowering teachers to approach their lessons with language awareness and self-respect, not inappropriate conversation and indoctrination as some believe. There is much that can be done in classrooms to support queer students outside teaching about the gay civil rights movement. School leaders, educators, and students can be intentionally inclusive in everyday interactions, and promoting this in the classroom benefits all students. To get existing resources into the hands of teachers who are willing and prepared to use them, we ought to talk to districts and school leaders, and promote collaboration between students and experts in the community.
Pride month or not, inclusive learning environments should be a priority among the community and our allies. There is both a will and a way for supporting queer students, and connecting them is our challenge.
Sabia Prescott is a senior program associate with the Education Policy Program of New America, a D.C.-based think tank, where she focuses on LGBTQ-inclusive resources and open educational resources for educators and leaders.