When schools closed their doors this spring due to Covid-19, many students felt akin to ships lost at sea. What was next? Would they see their teachers and friends again? What would learning look like during a pandemic?
For some, the shock gave way to a new appreciation for home—many discovered that learning at home felt like a good fit, and spending so much quality time with family was something they previously had been missing. For these students, home is a sanctuary that nurtures their mind and spirit. The solace of not having the stress of changing classes or succumbing to peer pressure allows them to blossom in this new reality.
For others, including many LGBTQ students, school was the one place where they could be themselves and be seen for who they are. Due to the pandemic, this safe space was ripped away in the blink of an eye; the home environment that already caused them fear and anxiety became a cage from which they could no longer escape. But even in a virtual environment, teachers can create safe harbors from the storms of uncertainty, as well as from home learning environments that may feel hostile and isolating.
After many years of working with LGBTQ teens, I have used the following strategies and taught them to teachers and administrators to create LGBTQ safe spaces.
Creating LGBTQ Safe Spaces Online and in Person
Make sure your classroom is open and affirming: Open and affirming spaces are ones that allow students to be open about their identities and affirming in those truths. This means that if a student asks to be called by a different name than is on your roster, you honor that. It also means respecting the pronouns they request you use. Ask everyone to go around and share their name and pronouns, thus normalizing the experience and educating other students about LGBTQ inclusion.
Some students may not want to publicly share their pronouns, as this may out them in ways that are not safe, so make disclosure optional. For example, saying, “Please share your name and any other information you would like us to know; this could include things like your pronouns, where you are from, or some of your personal interests” allows students who do want to share their pronouns to do so but also provides a safe avenue out for students who do not feel comfortable sharing. Tell them that if there’s anything they’d rather share one-on-one, they’re more than welcome to share this information with you privately after class.
Weave inclusivity into lessons: Just as sharing names and pronouns teaches students that this is a practice we should all do—not one reserved solely for transgender, gender nonconforming, or nonbinary students—we have the responsibility to weave inclusion into all of our classroom practices. No matter the subject you teach, make sure to highlight LGBTQ leaders in that field.
Discussing the contributions of diverse scholars, scientists, and authors can mean the difference between a student feeling erased and seeing that their future is indeed bright and a path well-traveled by those before them. As children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman said, “You cannot be what you cannot see.” If you are a social studies or English teacher, you have even more opportunities to highlight the voices of LGBTQ authors and ancestors. You can also open your students’ minds to how culture has taught us the myth that LGBTQ people are a recent and Western invention.
Observe and support: When a student is in our classroom, it is easy to see who is sullen, disengaged, or despondent. We can immediately go up to them and ask if everything is OK or catch them in a quiet moment to check in on their well-being. In a virtual environment, however, this can be slightly more challenging—but doable, nonetheless. Schedule time to check in with your students each week on life outside of academia. If a student is falling behind or seems distracted, don’t assume that they are careless or lazy. Instead, ask them if they feel like they can complete the assignments with the resources they have, and if not, brainstorm ideas to remedy that.
Many LGBTQ students may display symptoms of trauma such as falling asleep in class or crying during a lesson due to what they’re experiencing at home because of their identity. Connect these students with any school resources you have, and ask the administration if you can form a virtual Gay-Straight Alliance. You can also encourage students to call LGBTQ-help hotlines, such as the Trevor Project, which specialize in support for LGBTQ youth and are available 24/7 at no cost.
Being an affirming adult for LGBTQ young people is not just the right thing to do; it is a matter of life and death. Research conducted in 2019 showed that LGBTQ youth who had at least one affirming adult in their lives were 40 percent less likely to attempt suicide. Calling students by their correct pronouns, showing them that they aren’t alone, and reminding them that life is so much larger than anything they are facing in this immediate crisis can be the lifelines for which LGBTQ students are desperately grasping.
As educators, we are beacons in the darkness of the lives of many students who deal with trauma and rejection. Let’s make sure that our virtual environments reflect that.