13 Ways to Create Safe & Supportive Schools for LGBATQQI People

04/20/2015 03:46 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Throughout the world, on university and grade school campuses, in communities and homes, and in the media, issues of sexual identity and gender identity and expression are increasingly "coming out of the closet." We see young people developing positive identities at earlier ages than ever before. Activists are gaining selective electoral and legislative victories. Primarily in academic milieus, greater emphasis and discussion is centering on what has come to be called "queer theory" (an area of critical theory), where writers, educators, and students analyze and challenge current notions and categories of sexuality and gender role constructions.

Students are conducting educational efforts around a number of special events, for example:
• National Day of Silence: a day in mid-April each year when students across the nation take a vow of silence to call attention to the epidemic of oppressive name calling, harassment, and violence perpetrated against lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex (LGBATQQI) students in schools and in the larger society.
• National Coming Out Day: October 11 each year in the U.S., October 12 in the United Kingdom, set aside to take further steps in "Coming Out of the Closet" of denial and fear around issues of sexual and gender identity as a personal and community-wide effort to raise awareness.
• National LGBT History Month: originally proposed in 1994 by Missouri High School teacher, Rodney Wilson, it has become a nationally recognized observance of LGBT history (October in the United States, February in the United Kingdom).
• Bisexuality Day: September 23 to commemorate bisexual awareness and the accomplishments of bisexual people.
• Transgender Day of Remembrance: November 20 to commemorate the estimated two people killed every day somewhere in the world for expressing gender nonconformity.
• No Name Calling Week: based on an idea proposed in the best-selling young adult novel, The Misfits (2003) by James Howe, in which four seventh grade friends suffer the daily effects of insults and taunts.
• National Gay/Straight Alliance Day: January 25 meant to strengthen the bond between LGBT people and straight allies, and in particular recognize and honor Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs), which work to educate peers to stop heterosexism and cissexism in schools and colleges.
• National LGBT/Queer Pride Month: June each year when members of Gay/Straight Alliances join in annual Pride Marches and other festivities throughout the month in their local communities throughout the country.

The California legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 2011, SB48, the first in the nation statute requiring the state Board of Education and local school districts to adopt textbooks and other educational materials in social studies courses that include contributions of LGBT people.

For LGBATQQI youth and allies, this information can underscore the fact that their feelings and desires are in no way unique, and that others like themselves lead happy and productive lives. This in turn can spare them years of needless alienation, denial, and suffering. For heterosexual students, this can provide the basis for appreciation of human diversity and help to interrupt the chain of bullying and harassment toward LGBATQQI people.

California was also the first state to ban so-called "Reparative" or "Conversion Therapy" in August 2012: a cruel and oppressive pseudo therapy intended to change a client from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual, or transgender to cisgender.

Though we have experienced many gains in recent decades, however, we still have far to travel. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), in it 2013 National School Climate Survey investigating school experiences of LGBT students in middle and high school found that generally:

"Schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBT students, the overwhelming majority of whom routinely hear anti-LGBT language and experience victimization and discrimination at school. As a result, many LGBT students avoid school activities or miss school entirely."

Fully 55.5% of LGBT students across the country felt unsafe at school based on their sexual orientation, and 37.8% felt unsafe because of their gender expression. About one-third missed at least one full day of classes in the past month over safety concerns.

Many pedagogical strategies are available to educators in teaching about issues of sexual and gender identities and expressions and by helping to ensure cultural pluralism. A number of educators base their pedagogical approach on constructivism. Derived from leaders in cognitive psychology (including John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Howard Gardner), it involves a student-centered educational method emphasizing the active role of the learner, whereby students "construct" or build understanding making sense of the information, and utilizing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Key characteristics of constructivist instruction include: organizing material and lessons around important ideas, acknowledging the importance of students' prior learning, challenging the adequacy of prior learning, providing a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty, assisting learners in how to learn, viewing learning as a joint venture between students themselves and between students and educator(s), and assisting students in assessing their knowledge acquisition throughout the process.

While it is not my intention here to give a comprehensive narrative on how to bring equity in terms of sexual and gender identity in the public schools--for what might work effectively in one school might not function in another--some foundational guidelines for educators and school administrators can be considered.

1. Assessment: Hold public hearings, and/or conduct interviews, or distribute research surveys in your school, community, and/or your state to access the needs, concerns, and life experiences of LGBATQQI youth, their families, and school staff. This can help in assessing the overall "climate" or your school.
2. Policies: Schools are encouraged to develop policies protecting LGBATQQI students from harassment, violence, and discrimination. Include "Sexual Identity & Gender Identity and Expression" as protected categories in your anti-discrimination policies. Extend benefits to LGBATQQI employees on par with heterosexual employees.
3. Personnel Trainings: Schools are encouraged to offer comprehensive training to all school personnel in violence prevention, suicide prevention, and specifically the needs and issues faced by LGBATQQI youth.
4. "Safe Zone" Programs: Implement and participate in a "Safe Zone" program in your school. Following a comprehensive training, participants are given a sticker, which they can affix to their classroom or office doors stating that their room is a safe zone for discussions related to sexual and gender identities, and that if students have any questions, they can come to the person who displays the sticker to receive resources and referrals.
5. Gender Inclusive Facilities: Schools are encouraged to provide gender inclusive facilities, including restrooms and physical education changing rooms. Most gender inclusive facilities people are advocating include primarily single-user lockable restrooms. These types of facilities substantially increase safety for all users.
6. Support Groups: Schools and communities are encouraged to offer school- and community-based support groups for LGBATQQI and heterosexual youth. Thousands of schools across the United States and other countries have established these groups, generically called "Gay/Straight Alliances."
7. Counseling: Schools and communities are encouraged to provide affirming school- and community-based counseling for LGBATQQI youth and their families.
8. Library Collections: School and community libraries are encouraged to develop and maintain up-to-date and age-appropriate collections of books, videos, CDs, DVDs, journals, magazines, posters, internet websites, and other information on LGBTQQI issues.
9. Educational Forums: Schools are encouraged to organize and sponsor community-wide forums to discuss issues related to sexual and gender identities and expressions.
10. Curriculum & School Programs: Schools are encouraged to include accurate, honest, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information on LGBATQQI issues at every grade level, across the curriculum, and in other school programs and assemblies. Also, announce LGBATQQI issues and events in your school and local community newspapers.
11. Adult Role Models: Schools are encouraged to select and hire "out" LGBATQQI faculty and staff to serve as supportive role models for all youth.
12. Teacher Certification: Include information and trainings on LGBATQQI youth issues in college and university teacher education programs.
13. Continuing Education:
• Educate yourself to the needs and experiences of LGBATQQI youth and their families. Without having the expectation that it is their responsibility to teach you, listen to, and truly hear their voices when they do relate their experiences to you. Attempt not to become defensive, argumentative, and do not downplay or minimize their stories. These are their experiences, their perceptions, and the meanings they make, and, therefore, it is not up for debate. (Dialogue not Debate)
• Attend LGBTQQI cultural and community events.
• Wear pro-LGBTQQI buttons and T-shirts, and display posters.
• Interrupt heterosexist and cissexist jokes and epithets.
• Be aware of the generalizations you make. Assume there are LGBATQQI people at your school, in your workplace, and in your community.
• To sensitize yourself to the concept of heterosexual privilege, notice the times you disclose your heterosexuality if you define as heterosexual.
• Monitor politicians, the media, and organizations to ensure accurate coverage of LGBATQQI issues.
• Work and vote for candidates (including school board members) taking pro-LGBATQQI stands.
• Use affirming or gender-inclusive language when referring to sexuality and gender identities in human relationships in every-day speech, on written forms, etc. Say the words "lesbian," "gay," "bisexual," "asexual," "transgender," "intersex" each day in a positive way.

No matter how loudly organizers on the political and theocratic Right protest that this is merely a "bedroom issue," we know that the bedroom is but one of the many places we write our stories and histories. Therefore, while each October is a good time to begin the classroom discussions, I ask that our full stories be told throughout the year.