Being an ally to LGBTQ students means bringing people in and reaching out. With these tips, we hope you can create a community within and beyond the school that helps all families feel valued and helps all students feel they have a place to be their authentic selves.
Including and empowering all families
Including families of all types in your teaching and classroom activities builds empathy and disrupts rigid ideas about what constitutes a “normal” family. For LGBTQ students who may one day desire to raise a family, this practice offers role models and representation.
Consider these steps to ensure that activities include LGBTQ students and students with LGBTQ guardians.
- Start the year with a family survey, inviting families to tell you about themselves and about your student. Let students and their guardians work together to answer questions such as, “Who is in your family?” “What’s your favorite thing to do as a family?” “What makes your family unique?” “Where does your family come from?” and “What’s your favorite holiday and how do you celebrate it?” Creating a classroom culture of respect and letting students share these answers with classmates will set the tone for the year.
- Keep holidays inclusive. It’s not uncommon to celebrate holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day in the classroom. But be aware that activities and decorations surrounding these holidays can sometimes alienate LGBTQ kids and kids with nontraditional family structures. Writing cards for Mother’s or Father’s Day? Make sure instructions include options to express gratitude to all sorts of guardians. Having kids pass out Valentine’s Day cards? Try to avoid heteronormative or binary expectations of who should give them to whom.
- Incorporate all families into the curriculum and classroom community. Introduce your students to different families by including them in assignments and guest-speaking opportunities. Have students do community- or family-based projects like oral histories, memoirs or surveys. Invite guardians to speak to your class about their culture, job or community—or invite them to read a story that means a lot to their family!
Inviting LGBTQ people and allies into your classroom
Even if none of your students have LGBTQ family members, you can highlight other members of the community to ensure your queer students feel seen and that all students see examples of LGBTQ-inclusion from daily life.
Local LGBTQ organizations, activists or allies can contribute to many of the conversations discussed in this guide. Make sure you aren’t presenting LGBTQ people as exhibits, as if to say, “See, they do exist!” Instead, invite them to add substance to a conversation you’re already planning to have in the classroom. Perhaps invite guest speakers or groups on days that correspond with:
- LGBTQ History Month in October
- Local Pride parades or events
- Lessons relating to LGBTQ figures in literature or history
Consider asking those community members if they’d be interested in mentorship. Many queer young people have no local role models with whom they can talk about struggles and triumphs. Finding trustworthy community members who can fill that gap could help students see paths to success and acceptance. If your town has an LGBTQ community center, that’s a great place to start.
Working with unaccepting families
For a variety of cultural reasons, LGBTQ students will not always find acceptance from their families or communities. For educators, this can create a conflict. On one hand, we must do what is best for the safety and well-being of the student. On the other, we must be genuine in our efforts to involve all families in that endeavor. These suggestions can help educators value a student’s identity while also maintaining a relationship with an unaccepting family.
- Never “out” a student to their family (or others) without their consent. LGBTQ students have the right to come out to others at their own pace and often have valid reasons to wait. “Out” or not, they may have witnessed homophobic or transphobic behavior at home. Telling their family about their sexual orientation or gender identity could compromise both their trust and their safety.
- Meet families where they are. Avoid finger wagging or demanding language such as, “You have to do this for your child.” This may cause defensiveness or, worse, backlash. Instead, start from the assumption that each family cares deeply for their LGBTQ child and try to help them understand how nonacceptance could negatively impact the well-being of their child and their family dynamic.
- Use an evidence-based approach. Some parents will be genuinely curious or ignorant as to what it means that their child is gay, bi or gender nonconforming. They may ask questions like “How could they know?” or “What does that mean?” Others may be more hostile or dismissive. In both situations, point to research when available. Stay calm. If they are open to it, ask families what kinds of guidance and materials they may need to feel more informed, and do the research so you can help them make the connection.
- Be open about attitudes and biases. Be honest about any preconceptions you may bring to the conversation about nonaccepting families, and ask them to do the same regarding their preconceptions about LGBTQ people. This creates an opportunity for an open and honest discussion that can eventually reach a hopeful consensus point: both parties want what is best for the child, and that may mean overcoming preconceptions.
- Remind families that the school values religious identities. LGBTQ-inclusive practices are often viewed as anti-religious. Families may feel these practices 1) promote “behavior” in their child that is against their beliefs or 2) force their child to abandon their religious beliefs. Remind them that students are entitled to religious viewpoints and that all identities—including religious identities—can be reflected in class discussion, classroom libraries or studied historical figures. But students of other identities have the same rights and are just as deserving of representation and respect.
- Encourage dialogue between families. Members of unaccepting families may feel more comfortable talking about this topic with people who share common ground. It may prove fruitful to connect such a family with another family who accepts and honors their queer child’s identity. Starting this conversation among families may help some feel as if they have a community of support—and it offers them a window into what it would look like to accept their child.
- Point to resources. If dialogue with the family isn’t going well, share options for the family to pursue. Let them know about groups like PFLAG, the Family Acceptance Project, or LGBTQ-affirming religious organizations that offer materials for parents of LGBTQ children. If you are worried for your student’s well-being beyond school hours, see if there is a local LGBTQ (or LGBTQ youth-friendly) community center nearby, and make them aware of it.
- Remember that every family is different. Some families can move faster than others. Some can change their behavior overnight; other families, from all kinds of backgrounds, may start with rejection and ambivalence and become more supportive over time.
Even the most constructive dialogue may not result in a family becoming more accepting of their child’s identity and engaged in their child’s life. Hearts and minds do not change easily. But if you follow these guidelines, students will remember that they had an active supporter who affirmed their identity, and perhaps families will remember that you treated them with respect and offered an open door for dialogue.
GSAs and creating communities within LGBTQ affinity groups such as a Gay-Straight Alliances or Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) are proven ways to support LGBTQ student communities. These clubs aren’t about centering allies or adults. Successful GSAs are often started by students who see a need in their school. At the least, they are faculty-led or sponsored but driven by students.
These suggestions—adapted from resources from the GSA Network—can help ensure that any GSA is successful, inclusive and student-led. Copy or print these guidelines for any faculty sponsors you know who are involved in organizing a GSA.
- Follow the rules. Reference the student handbook or school policies and learn the criteria for starting a club at your school. If you are acting in an advisory capacity, encourage students to keep track of correspondence and the dates that certain steps of the process are completed in case they are met with unnecessary delay or pushback. If they follow the rules, the club legally can’t be treated differently from other clubs; student-organized clubs are protected by federal law.
- Communicate with your colleagues. Informing school leaders about the plan to start a GSA can help students find important allies who are willing to address and respond to criticism from families, other educators or outside groups. Guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists should also be informed; they may know students who would benefit from the group or who may be looking for such a community.
- Don’t keep it a secret. Advertise! Don’t just rely on word-of-mouth. Use bulletin boards, flyers or announcements to let students know the option is available and how to join. For non-LGBTQ students, the very presence of public announcements and decorations can begin to normalize LGBTQ students as peers who are not relegated to the shadows.
- Set standards. Laying ground rules can help make sure all future discussions are safe, confidential and respectful. Similar to a classroom contract, the rules determined by the group can be put together and signed by all members.
- Make sure the GSA is inclusive. GSAs will go wrong if one clique of students controls the club or if students of color are left out of leadership and decision-making. Encourage leadership roles for students from various backgrounds and cultures, and encourage students to think of issues through an intersectional lens. Make sure everyone has a voice in determining the goals of the GSA. Is this a social group? A group dedicated to activism? A place for support and group therapy? If it’s all three, decide how to devote time to each goal.
- Be prepared to respond to pushback. GSAs can inspire negative feedback and false equivalencies from administrators, school board members or outside groups. For common pushbacks and myths—and ways to respond—click here.
- Stay organized. All students and advisors—current and future—benefit from good notes. Keep detailed record of the GSA’s first year, taking note of what worked well and what obstacles the group faced. This will help future generations of the GSA build on successes and learn from tough times.
- Ask the experts: the students. Ask GSA members what they would like non-LGBTQ students and staff to know. This could inform goals, as well as student-led ally training in the future.
- Let them lead. Remember, ideally the GSA is a student-led organization. Provide guidance. Help the club run smoothly and equitably. But what the group becomes should be determined by the needs and wants of students. Encourage students to organize beyond meetings. Let them know it’s okay to start Facebook groups, group chats or other forums that give them a space beyond school to stay organized.
"Just being able to bounce ideas off of people who have both very similar and very different experiences really makes me feel more like my identity makes sense, which I struggled with for a long time." —Simona Morales, "LGBT Students Speak Out: What It's Like to Live in Today's South," USA TODAY College
What do I do if...
A student comes out to me?
It’s natural to want to respond appropriately if an LGBTQ student comes out or discloses the orientation of a family member. Just remember this guiding principle: Focus on the student, not yourself. Here are some general suggestions to help you act as an affirming ally when the situation occurs.
- Listen. Listening is one of the most powerful, healing resources educators can offer; it’s also simple and requires no pre-prepared effort. For many LGBTQ students, the most damaging or painful part of living in the closet is not feeling seen, respected, heard or understood. Having someone to talk to throughout the coming out process may be all the support the student needs to thrive authentically at school. Asking clarifying or open-ended questions such as “do you feel safe at school?” will also reassure the student that they have your attention and your ongoing concern.
- Make yourself available without being a rescuer. The student is likely to benefit from knowing they have your support, but they may not be in the midst of a crisis or desiring substantial help. Offer up your support in an open-ended manner without insisting or pushing them to take any particular action.
- Respect confidentiality. Inform the student that you will not share the information with others unless their safety would require you to do so. Allow the student to come out to others in their own way and in their own time.
- Keep biases in check. Coming out is a critical moment for youth who are still navigating their identities in the world. The student may remember your conversation for a long time to come. Do not use the time to warn them of how their identity will influence their life or to push cultural norms around sexuality or gender.
- Know the resources. Assess why the student is coming to you—if they trust you and want to involve you in their coming out process, listening may be most appropriate. But if the student is anxious or in crisis, be ready to provide a referral to a counselor, hotline, GSA or an LGBTQ community center—if the student is interested.
Note: This guidance applies if you are responding to students coming out to you. If a student discloses trauma or is considering harming themselves or others, follow your school's crisis response protocol.
- Take inventory of your response. Remember, the student who just came out to you is the same person they were ten minutes ago. If you find yourself seeing them differently, notice this and process your own reaction without allowing it to color your actions or response. Make your unwavering support evident without making the news into a big deal.
- Follow the student’s lead on language. Use their terms. For instance, if a student uses the word “queer” do not tell them to use “homosexual.” Refrain from using any slurs or potentially hurtful slang.
- Tell the student it could be a phase.
- Tell them you “don’t care” about who they are and how they identify.
- Ask if they’ve been sexually assaulted.
- Inquire about past heterosexual experiences.
- Tell the student the information would best be kept to themselves.
- Tell them to wait to come out until they are sure.
- Inform the student they are choosing a more difficult path.
- Respond with silence, with blankness or by dismissing what the student has said.
- Question their certainty.
- Tell this information to their family, friends or coworkers. Unless the student has told you something that requires you to act as a mandatory reporter, honor their privacy at all times.