Sunday, November 3, 2013

Safe Spaces for LGBT Youth

Safe Spaces, Making Schools an Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth, by Vaccaro, August and Kennedy, and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network website ( focused this week's thoughts on ways to actively integrate issues of gender identity into curriculum and schools so that all students feel welcomed and safe in their learning environments. In fact, Safe Spaces expects educators to do more than that; they say we need to create our schools as places "in which difference is not only tolerated but expected, explored, and embraced." I agree.

The article notes LGBT students need strong advocates and that educators can adopt that role through "transformative curricula and transformative communication." The former will aid in helping all students appreciate differences in their peers and in their world, although some educators either have fear or do not feel prepared to address gender-identity issues in their classrooms. In fact, some states mandate that health curriculum exclude exploration of these topics. The authors say that unchallenged assumptions can devolve into fostering bigotry, so sensitive, but explicit inclusion of LGBT topics into lessons can ameliorate those possibilities. However, while this is a first step, the authors say that educators need to go one step further: to teach students to be critical as they examine texts and curriculum to ascertain bias "in the form of LGBT exclusion or negative stereotypes." Communication, verbal and non-verbal, must also be addressed when assessing if our classrooms are safe for all as "many, perhaps most teachers pretend to not hear anti-gay comments.

The Providence schools in which I've taught have been at the forefront of LGBT advocacy and I have found that most of our students have been accepting of their LGBT peers. I have not taught, but have known of several transgender students who were openly accepted by their peers. My school has had an active Gay-Straight Alliance club and our librarian/media specialist actively orders LGBT-themed novels and non-fiction texts and has used several of those books in his student book club. Our school has many openly gay staff members and perhaps that fact helps our LGBT students feel included and safe. Last year, I mentored a gay student whose research-advocacy senior project focused on gay rights in the Dominican Republic; when he presented his project he said he felt proud and safe. Finally, when I teach authors who are gay or lesbian I include that fact  when previewing their lives during the pre-reading portion of a lesson.

Safe Places has several "Reflection Points":
1. What messages did you receive about the LGBT community when you were in school? Which messages were explicit, which were implied?
     The LGBT community was not openly addressed when I was in school but the implied message was that an LGBT orientation was wrong. I remember a handsome student in my school who was a gifted ballet dancer. He hid his training and talents from most students for fear of being labeled gay and I remember that I knew that was wrong. I urged him to showcase his talents, but he refused and I felt sad for him and for my judgmental peers.

2. As an educator, can you identify opportunities to incorporate LGBT voices into your curriculum?
     Yes, if I know of an author's sexual orientation, I include that in pre-reading autobiographical information, such as with W.H. Auden, Langston Hughes, and Adrienne Rich. This year, I plan on introducing poems by Dr. Luzma Umpierre, a lesbian latina bilingual poet who explores sexual identities along with racial and social issues, by including a few pieces from "The Margarita Poems."

3. Do the teachers in your local school receive training on how to confront homophobic or transphobic comments?
     No, we do not receive training on this important issue, but I think we need it. I agree with the authors of Safe Places that many teachers may be too dismissive of comments such as "that's gay." I have not seen that in my school where most teachers are proactive in addressing these types of comments, but we can all benefit from specific training on this topic. For the past several years, however, our senior advocacy teachers have incorporated LGBT issues into their curriculum and have hosted presentations on LGBT themes. Last year, presenters held a vibrant discussion with students on bias and hurtful speech.


  1. I am amazed by everything you and your school community does to advocate for the LGBT community, Polly. I may try to incorporate some of your ideas into my own curriculum. We have received some training in Norton and do have a Gay Straight Alliance, but I feel as though the student population, particularly our LGBT youth, need more awareness and support. There are not nearly enough mirrors and windows in our new building facility!

  2. Polly, I feel the same about the training portion of this. Although many individual teachers try to incorporate, raise awareness and practice tolerance of LGBTQ youth, there really isn't much official PD or training across the board. I've never seen a single PD opportunity geared towards helping teachers learn how to create safer spaces for LGBTQ kids in their classrooms. I wonder if this could become a potential theme of the Promising Practices conference...Or if we will start to see more training and open discussion in the future. Much of the silence we practice regarding these students is a direct reflection of the lack of training and professional development we receive as educators. The school districts, colleges, and administration are silent- and so are many teachers.

  3. I wish that my faculty and staff would receive some type of training or workshop around having LGBT students. We have faculty members that are gay, but are not open with students about it. I wish that my school had an advocacy group where students would feel comfortable coming and talking.