George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Equity

Heteronormativity in Schools

Too many of us make assumptions about our students’ sexuality identity. Here are six ways to help all students feel safe, respected, and welcome.

September 25, 2014

Three-year-old Oliver was relatively withdrawn for a preschooler, especially one in a rich, play-based preschool. Hesitant to let go of Dad or engage deeply with other students, Oliver seemed out of place all year long. We worried about detachment, disengagement, and most importantly, Oliver's well being.

That summer, Oliver asked Mom and Dad to use female pronouns for her. She started going by Olivia and dressing as she wanted. By fall she was a transformed kid. Joyful, confident, and social, she ran, played, and made friends (including my daughter). Now in second grade at another school in another state, she continues to blossom and grow, living comfortably outside the lines of what most of us consider "gender norms."

Her success is in big part due to a dedicated and supportive family who listened to her. Another part is the schools that embraced her and created a safe place for her to be herself.

Today's Big Picture

Educators everywhere are dedicated to ensuring that each student feels safe, healthy, and welcomed in classrooms and schools. Increased awareness over the last decade has transformed how many schools and districts address bullying and harassment, in both digital and brick-and-mortar domains.

Less understood or examined however, is how districts, schools, and educators work to cultivate schools as safe places for students (and adults) who do not conform to our "heteronormative" bias. In her book, From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK-12 Schools, author Jennifer Bryan, PhD, defines heteronormativity as:

In reading her book, I began to wonder:

  • How do students who do not conform to "the binary view of gender and sexuality" experience school?
  • As a heterosexual, married, male administrator, what messages have I (inadvertently) sent?
  • Have I created a safe place for such students and colleagues?
  • How do I know?

6 Powerful Ways to Help Transform School Climate

It was with these questions in mind that I found the section in Bryan's book on "The Role of Not-GLBTQI (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex) Educators" to be of particular interest. Adapted from this section, here are six things that "Not-GLBTQI" educators can do to increase safety, understanding, and acceptance for all students (and adults) in schools.

1. "Model conscious support of nonheteronormative" individuals.

As "straight" adults, we can demonstrate acceptance of gender and sexuality diversity in many ways. For example, how we respond to students who use terms such as "gay" in a derogatory fashion speaks volumes about who and what we value, and sends the critical message that all are accepted in our classrooms and schools. Equally important is challenging gendered labels such as "sissy" or "tomboy." What do those words really mean? How are kids using them? If a boy is told he throws "like a girl," we need to recognize not just the meanness of this comment but the frank sexism behind it.

2. Do not assume that all students are heterosexual or that a student's biological sex tells you all you need to know about their gender identity.

Students who are wrestling with their gender identity and sexual orientation do not always feel comfortable sharing their struggle openly. Better for us to assume that there are students who need our understanding and support, even when they don't express it overtly. Consider a garden bed full of volunteers. Even though you might not know what flowers will bloom, you mind the soil for them all, regardless of how they might later express themselves.

3. Create opportunities for all students to "see themselves in what they are studying, reading, presenting and researching."

Find and utilize resources that challenge a binary view of gender and sexuality diversity. Include books that have two moms or two dads. Include books that have gender-creative children. Study historical figures who were LGBTQ. In discussions, challenge students to expand how they talk, and encourage them to utilize language (that you yourself are modeling) demonstrating awareness of different ways of being.

4. Support colleagues who are nonheteronormative.

Nonheteronormative educators can be in a challenging predicament when addressing gender and sexuality bias with students and adults. They need the advocacy of their peers and colleagues to establish and sustain a trusting culture of acceptance that lays the foundation for the entire school. As with ending racial prejudices, it takes advocates of all skin colors to disrupt the status quo. Offer to co-facilitate a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) with your gay colleague.

5. Participate in transformative professional dialogue.

What we think we know about gender and sexual diversity is deeply embedded in our belief systems and wrapped up in our emotions, many of which are unexamined. As a result, having constructive conversations addressing our biases can be daunting. But for the educators committed to the well being of each and every student, engaging in such discourse can set the stage for supporting a diverse school community, including students, staff, teachers, and administrators.

6. Champion "programs that support gender and sexuality diversity education."

Here are just a few examples:

  • Diversity Council's Spark Curriculum: A spiraling "prejudice reduction" curriculum
  • No Name-Calling Week: Inspired by James Howe's young-adult novel The Misfits
  • Gay-Straight Alliances: Student clubs that work to make schools safe and more supportive for students of all sexualities, gender identities, and expressions
  • Ally Week: Designed to "identify, support and celebrate allies against anti-LGBT language, bullying, and harassment in America's schools"
  • Day of Silence: Student-led action aimed at "creating safe schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression"
  • Gay and Lesbian History Month: An important perspective on history that is often left out.

Also consider these additional resources:

A Feeling of Belonging

Increasing gender and sexuality diversity equity in schools is important and valuable work. As the late Maya Angelou once said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

As educators, we have the power to ensure that all students feel safe, respected, and welcome in our schools and classrooms. And that has the potential to transform society.

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  • Education Equity
  • Bullying Prevention
  • Mental Health
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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