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Strategies and Resources for Creating LGBTQ-Inclusive Classrooms

by Mara Sapon-Shevin - 2019

This chapter focuses on the necessity of strategies for challenging heteronormativity in teacher education classrooms and K12 classrooms. The chapter explores the silence about this topic that prevents teachers at all levels from engaging in open and effective discussion about how to organize schooling so that is supportive of students who are LGBTQ. It details specific strategies for combating discriminatory practices in school classrooms and teacher education programs and the emotions of teachers accompanying these; these strategies include the use of literature, film, music, and activities. The importance of addressing bullying as a systemic and structural issue rather than as a classroom-management or disciplinary concern is detailed.

I begin with four stories. They are all true.


What actually happened: One of the cafeteria workers at an urban elementary school said something to a second grader about her father. The little girl replied that she didn’t have a father—that she had two mothers. The woman said to her sternly, “That’s not possible—everyone has a father.” The worker kept insisting until the little girl was in tears. When the child’s teacher came to collect the class from the cafeteria, the worker said to the teacher, “April said she had no father, and I told her that was ridiculous.” The teacher said nothing, awkwardly gathered the children, and walked them back to their classroom, with April still in tears.

What could have happened: When the teacher came to gather the children to take them back to the classroom and heard what had happened, she could have said to the cafeteria worker, in front of April and all the other children, “Yes, April actually has two mothers, and they are both very active in the PTO. One of her moms is helping us build the sets for the school play, and her other mom is sewing the costumes.”


What actually happened: At a forum on diversity in a college of education, a lesbian graduate student who was raising young children with her partner told a story about what had happened at her daughter’s school. Her third-grade daughter had brought a photo of herself and her two moms for morning sharing, and the teacher had refused to allow her to show the photo. When the mother confronted the teacher about this the next day, the teacher said that sharing the photo might have led to too many awkward questions from the children, and so she didn’t think it was appropriate. After the mother shared the story at the teacher education forum and explained how upset she was, many of the teacher education students admitted that they wouldn’t know how to handle such a situation. Some of them assumed that the photo was somehow sexual, although in reality it was a photo of the girl and her two moms at the zoo in front of the monkey exhibit. I interrupted the conversation and said that teachers are often placed in unexpected and awkward situations when children share about their lives and that a young student of mine once shared that they had had to go to the emergency room the night before because, “Daddy hit Mommy so hard that he broke her arm.” Another faculty colleague responded, “Well, at least that’s a normal family.”

What could have happened: The teacher education students and their professors might have discussed the importance of naming and supporting students’ diverse families and also interrogated why they had jumped immediately to assumptions about the content of the photo . They might also have had a discussion of strategies for dealing with unexpected “teachable moments” in general and explored resources for teaching about diverse families specifically.


What actually happened: A seventh-grader at a middle school was being harassed by other students and called an “ugly dyke” because she had short hair and didn’t wear dresses. Other students shoved her in the hallway and menaced her with pretend penises made of rolled-up paper. The student and a friend went to the principal, shared what was happening, and asked for the administrator’s support in starting a Gay-Straight Alliance in the school. The principal said that the students were “way too young” for that and that if the targeted students just ignored the other students, it would stop.

What could have happened: The administrator could have taken the students seriously and offered their support for starting such a group. They might have identified a faculty advisor and promised that they would do everything they could to make the school safe and welcoming for all students. The administrator could have contacted GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Straight Educators’ Network) for information on making their school more inclusive.


What actually happened: A university teacher educator who teaches young pre-service teachers brought to class copies of a news report about the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming who was tied to a fence and left to die by two other young men. The teacher asked the students two questions: How will you explain this to children? What will you do as a teacher to make sure this never happens again? Although some of the students engaged with the questions, one student said ,“I don’t think my students are old enough to understand this topic, and I wouldn’t want to talk about sexuality with little children.” Another student explained, “My host teacher said we shouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole; it’s too risky, and we could really upset some parents.”

What could have happened: Students might have engaged in a deep conversation about their roles and responsibilities in shaping attitudes and understandings about sexual diversity. They might have discussed ways of addressing this situation which were age-appropriate for their students and acknowledged that they could have linked it to previous conversations about bullying and harassment. They could have started to develop strategies and plans, both proactive and reactive, to address equity and diversity issues around diverse sexualities and gender expression.

These four stories can shape our conversation about what we need to do both in teacher education and within our K–12 classrooms to ensure that all students are safe and accepted, regardless of their gender identities, gender roles, or sexual identities. How do we get from what actually happened to what could and should happen? And what are the obstacles?


It has been argued that students can only grow and be transformed when they are made uncomfortable with their own knowledge and forced to confront information and situations which de-center or unsettle their beliefs and assumptions. Zembylas (2015) wrote that a pedagogy of discomfort “is grounded upon the idea that discomforting feelings are valuable in challenging dominant beliefs, social habits and normative practices that sustain social inequities and thus create openings for individual and social transformation” (p. 170). For Zembylas, then, a critical component of a pedagogy of discomfort is "that students and teachers are invited to embrace their vulnerability and ambiguity of self and therefore their dependability on others” (p. 170). Creating such discomfort must be balanced with educators’ ethical responsibilities to their students to create enough “safety” for learning to take place (Zembylas, 2010). Boler (1999) and others have challenged the idea that it is possible to create truly “safe spaces” for learning or that anyone can make another person “feel safe.” Others have talked about the need to redefine “safe spaces” as “brave spaces,” in that classroom environments should be places where students explore challenging topics and engage in authentic (and sometimes painful) discussions while simultaneously being asked to be courageous and brave in their learning (Arao & Klemens, 2013).

Discussions of the need for creating a pedagogy of discomfort, however, must be deepened in several ways (Boler &  Zembylas, 2003; Zembylas & Papamichael, 2017). First, since teachers generally teach groups of students, it is unreasonable to assume that all students will experience identical levels of discomfort in any particular pedagogical moment. Given students’ different backgrounds, histories, and personal identities, one cannot think of a lesson as a “treatment” that will have the same (educational) effect on all who receive it. Arao and Klemens (2013) discussed how they stopped engaging in an antiracism activity in which privileged students stepped forward when specific statements were made because it was often painful for students of color to see their marginalization reinscribed and sometimes occasioned angry, unproductive resistance from White students, thus rendering it ineffective as a positive teachable moment. Even when one knows students’ identities, it is not predictable who will be triggered in frightening and immobilizing ways and who will experience only a minimal challenge to their current belief systems. One might guess that a discussion of gay-bashing, for example, might trigger both a closeted gay student and a fundamentalist Christian student whose religion teaches her that gay people are sinners who will go to Hell, but the extent and nature of those reactions is unpredictable. A pedagogy of discomfort may disrupt hegemonic perspectives in productive ways for members of dominant, privileged groups at the same time that it is deeply painful and not productive for members of targeted groups.

Similarly, we cannot talk about a pedagogy of discomfort without recognizing the level of discomfort of the teacher as well as that of the students (Boler, 2004). In their discussion of teaching about sexuality in South Africa, Finn and Reygan (2015) explored the role of emotions in teachers’ approaches to teaching about sexual and gender diversity in schools. They found that teachers experienced considerable discomfort with the topic and, through their negative affect, “unconsciously and unreflexively perpetuated heterosexism and homophobia in their classroom teaching and school settings“ (p. 101). Walker and Palacios (2016) explained that a pedagogy of discomfort can shut down a pedagogical moment and may lead instead to a pedagogy of guilt, which they deemed unproductive. They urged a move beyond guilt and discomfort to a more Freirian “Pedagogy of Hope“ (p. 183). Having teachers enact a curriculum that makes them uncomfortable with students who are also uncomfortable is a kind of perfect storm; problematic emotions on both sides of the teaching/learning relationship may make it very difficult to disrupt hegemonic beliefs and practices and teach students to be critical thinkers and allies.


Without oversimplifying, the answer to the question about the challenge of critical pedagogy can be summed up in one word: fear. Addressing gender and sexual diversity in classrooms taps into deep emotions and feelings in both teachers and students, thus complicating classroom climate, pedagogy, and curricular decisions. At least three kinds of immobilizing fear and their intersections can make this teaching difficult: (a) fear of “getting in trouble,” (b) fear of self-revelation and exposure, and (c) fear of getting it wrong.

The fear of negative repercussions for either teaching while being gay/lesbian/transgender or teaching about LGBTQ issues is not without foundation: The extent to which teachers are supported in addressing sexual diversity issues in their classrooms varies widely. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that “it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions , or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin”; it is unclear, however, whether “sex” covers sexual orientation and gender identity issues. The Trump administration’s Justice Department has filed a court brief arguing that these laws do not protect LGBT people (Fitzsimons, 2019). Several recent court cases by the 7th and 2nd U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals have decided that Title VII does extend to sexual orientation and gender identity; however it remains legal in 28 states to fire a person based on their sexual identity (DeCiccio, 2018). Stacey Bailey, an art teacher in Arlington, TX, was fired for showing a photo of herself and her wife (dressed in Halloween costumes) to her class. No male teacher would have been fired for showing a Halloween photo of himself and his wife (unless the photo were somehow pornographic), but Stacey and her wife were dressed as chickens (Gaydos, 2018).

And a North Carolina elementary school teacher, Omar Currie, resigned after his reading of the children’s book King and King (deHaan & Niijland, 2003) to his third-grade class led to heated controversy. Currie decided to read the book, which is about a prince who finds his Prince Charming, after a boy in his class was targeted for “feminine” behavior and called a “girl” and “gay” in derogatory ways. Despite the fact this teacher was being supportive of a student in his class and responsive to the need to educate students about diversity and had been given the book by the vice principal, he had to resign his position. Although the teacher’s decision to read the story was later upheld by a review committee, the school's principal ordered all teachers to inform parents in advance about books they read to their students. This problematic and unreasonable requirement diminishes teachers’ abilities to use their own best judgment in making classroom teaching decisions. Further, it is difficult to imagine that such a requirement was applied to all books being read in the classrooms. The fear felt by LGBTQ teachers is not an abstract paranoia or internalized oppression, but a reasonable reaction to the possibilities of being reprimanded or fired.

Issues of teacher identity also affect the challenges of enacting thoughtful teaching in this area. Each of us comes to teaching with our own gender and sexual identities, although these can be understood, always, as partial and shifting. How do we name ourselves in our teaching, and what pedagogical decisions do we make about what to say and when (Gregory, 2004; Rollins, 2004;  Sapon-Shevin, 2004). And how do our own identities engender strong emotions that may make teaching challenging?

Those who identify as heterosexual rarely feel a need to “come out" to their students; it is hard to imagine a woman teacher saying, “I just wanted to let all of you know that I am heterosexual and married to a man, and we live together and have two children.” Heteronormativity is so powerful that unless we explicitly say otherwise, we are assumed to be “straight.” But for teachers who identify as LGBTQ, the decisions are more complex. What are we modeling if we are open about our sexuality? What level of explicitness is appropriate to the students we teach? How will our own openness and revelations affect the possibilities for student discussion and openness? Will we create “safer” spaces for exploration, or limit what is possible because it has become “too” personal?

I share here several times and ways in which I have wrestled with this dilemma.

Vignette One: While I was teaching a graduate teacher education course, a class member enacted a gay stereotype as part of an activity; he mimicked a limp-wristed, mincing walk and a falsetto voice. I challenged the students on the stereotype and asked them what effect they thought such a depiction might have on the safety of our classroom community and the ability of class members to be honest about themselves. Students responded that there was no problem, that I was making a big deal out of nothing, and that it "didn’t mean anything.” At the break, the student who had enacted the stereotype approached me and apologized if he had “hurt my feelings.” I reiterated that this was a broader issue of classroom safety and community. He replied, “Oh, it’s okay. We know everyone in here, and no one in this class is gay.” I asked him if he was confident that he knew the sexual identities and histories of all 35 students well enough to say that and pointed out that even if he was right, his behavior was still problematic.

But I wrestled, at that moment, with how his learning would be expanded or constricted if I had shared my own sexual identity and history. Would that reinforce his idea that I was offended because it was “personal,” or would it cause him to interrogate his assumptions and how erroneous and dangerous they might be?

Vignette Two: I was teaching an undergraduate class about oppression, including racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, and homophobia/heterosexism. I explained that we stand in multiple positions relative to power and privilege and that intersectionality also makes understanding oppression more complex. I discussed the need to learn about various oppressions so that students could be better allies in the struggle for social justice. I pointed to the chart and shared that as a White person I was in the “power” group, but that as a Jew, I had been the target of anti-Semitism. I shared that my class background gave me economic power and that my status as “temporarily able-bodied” meant that I didn’t experience some of the challenges that folks with disabilities do. As I reached the portion of the chart that identified “homophobia/heterosexism: oppression based on actual or assumed sexual orientation,” I hesitated, wondering whether or how to name myself. If I named myself as “queer” or a ”lesbian,” would I be making my sexual orientation the dominant text for the group in a distracting way, or would it provide a powerful moment of honesty and self-disclosure that could open up a richer space for discussion?

And what about teachers who identify as heterosexual? Are they free from accusations of inappropriate behavior, and do they feel that they are legitimately entitled to teach about LGBTQ topics? In eight states, there are laws that prohibit teachers from including LGBTQ topics in the schools, in counseling sessions and in library resources (Stoltzfus, 2015).

Heterosexual teachers who might be supportive of LGBTQ teaching may, nonetheless, fear that they will be perceived and labeled as “gay” and endanger their own careers (Kissen, 2002). And what about teachers who actively resist even stated mandates to include LGBTQ curriculum or enact policies of inclusion? What about teachers who are angry and upset that they are asked to teach something they strongly oppose? An Indiana teacher resigned after refusing to follow his school district’s policy that required he call transgender students by their preferred names. John Kluge, an orchestra teacher in Indianapolis, said that it was against his religious convictions as a Christian to “encourage” transgender identity and that the requirement was an infringement of his First Amendment rights (Rosenberg & Balingit, 2018).

For both teachers committed to an LGBTQ-inclusive agenda and those strongly resistant to it, emotions can get in the way. Boler & Zembulas (2011) said that an educator’s own discomforts inhibit educational exchange with students, prevent the educator from taking risks, and eclipse the educator’s very capacity to see, for example, his or her own attachments to particular outcomes  And Walker and Palacios (2016) warned:

There is a fine line between discomfort that stretches and moves us and discomfort that paralyses us. Discomfort can quash a pedagogical moment when: (1) It produces overwhelming guilt, which results in defensiveness and shutting down; (2) It produces shame and self-consciousness so that a student is overcome with a fear of "getting it wrong," making things worse, or committing some sort of social justice faux pas so they stay silent; or when (3) Whereby a student may feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair in the face of learning about so much injustice and suffering in the world. (p. 184)

Finally, even for those enthusiastic about LGBTQ-inclusive teaching, there may be huge knowledge gaps: How do I do this? What is age-appropriate? What’s the difference between teaching about sexual diversities and being seen as “promoting” a particular position? When I teach future teachers about the importance of this content, the dominant narrative (regardless of students’ personal identities) is, “Will I get in trouble for this?” (Letts & Sears, 1999; Miller, 2016).


There are many barriers to enacting an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in both teacher education programs and K–12 classrooms. As Miller’s work in this collection attests, few teacher education programs have provided any instruction in how to engage in teaching about gender and sexual diversity, and even those that mention gay and lesbian students generally limit that conversation to the need to eliminate bullying.

Regardless of the level of instruction, whether one is teaching college students or first-graders, many of the obstacles are similar. First is the assumption that all of the students in our teacher education classrooms or our K–12 schools are heterosexual and have heterosexual parents. This assumption becomes expressed in powerful and invisible hegemonic norms. Teachers who ask their female students if they have a boyfriend, or who do not include curriculum about LGBTQ individuals, reinforce that everyone is “straight” unless named otherwise. Third, enacting counterhegemonic practices can also seem dangerous or too noticeable. Explicit references to LGBTQ persons or issues are often read as pushy or too prominent. One is caught between “invisibility” and “hypervisibility.”

This section provides specific strategies for challenging heteronormativity in both teacher education programs and K–12 classrooms. Many of the general principles—attention to language and curriculum—are similar, although the specifics will, of course, vary depending on the age of the students.


Perhaps one of the most basic requirements for creating LGBTQ-inclusive classrooms is close attention to language. What students hear and what they are taught to say when discussing gender and sexuality are key components of establishing and maintaining a learning environment that is conducive to student comfort and growth. I have divided this section into three parts: (a) What teachers say; (b) How teachers can respond when students use problematic language; and (c) What teachers can say when other adults (colleagues and parents) use problematic language.

What Teachers Say

As the authority figure in the classroom, teachers have the opportunity to provide powerful role models for ways of talking about gender and gender diversity (Sapon-Shevin, 2013). Though it may be overlooked because it is not a scripted part of the classroom curriculum, the way teachers talk about themselves and their partners/families matters. When heterosexual teachers refer easily to “my wife” or “my husband,” they re-inscribe compulsory heteronormativity. Teachers who identify as heterosexual and are in relationships can speak, instead, about their “partner” as a way of disrupting student assumptions. And teachers who are involved in same-sex relationships can also refer to their partners and might also name their partners in their casual conversations with students; a woman teacher who identifies as lesbian, for example, might say, “My partner Rachel and I took our nephew to the new Disney movie this weekend.” To the extent that teachers share their experiences and plans with their students in informal conversation, what teachers say can have a normalizing effect on what students understand about gender roles and relationships. The male teacher who shares with the class the cookies he baked and the female teacher who talks about working on her motorcycle over the weekend can shift students’ perceptions. These conversational tidbits need not be foregrounded or highlighted but can simply be part of what gets said.

Teachers at all levels can provide multiple opportunities for students to engage in projects that cross traditional gender divides. One female fourth-grade teacher taught her entire class to do counted cross-stitch, and they each made samplers as gifts. Because it was framed as an exciting craft opportunity for all, there was complete buy-in from all students. Similarly, a male fifth-grade teacher led the entire class in building rockets that they then launched on the playground. He assumed competence for all students and didn’t in any way suggest that girls wouldn’t be interested or would need help with the tools from boys. Chipping away at gender roles is an important step in challenging heteronormativity.

With older students and adults, similar assumptions about who will do what in a classroom or who will be interested in specific topics should be carefully interrogated. It should not be assumed that only those who identify as women will be interested in studying women’s history or that LGBTQ history should be of concern only to students who identify with those labels.

How Teachers Can Respond When Students Use Problematic Language

When students use language about gender and gender diversity in inappropriate or unkind ways, the emphasis should be on education rather than punishment. Reprimanding a student who says, “That’s so gay,” by saying, “That’s not a nice thing to say, and we don’t use that kind of language in our classroom,” does little to help the student to understand the meaning and significance of using the word “gay” in a derogatory manner. And punishment may simply drive the behavior underground, so that the lesson learned is, “Don’t say the word 'gay' in front of the teacher, or you’ll get in trouble,” rather than in any way altering students’ understanding of the importance of their thinking or language.

The curriculum from Welcoming Schools (https://welcomingschools.org/) makes concrete suggestions about what teachers should say when students use inappropriate language or ask questions about gender and gender diversity. These responses can also help students to learn what they themselves can say when they hear classmates making similar remarks. They suggest the following simple responses to gender exclusion or put-downs:

“Why does Martin like pink?”

There doesn’t [sic] have to be boy colors or girl colors. Colors are colors. All people like different colors.

Do you think it’s wrong for boys to wear pink? Why’s that?

Why do you like blue, or green, (or whatever color that child likes)? Why don’t you like pink?

Did you know that pink used to be considered a boys' color and blue was the girls' color?

“Why is her hair so short? She looks like a boy.”

Girls and women can have hair in many different styles and so can boys or men.

Hair is hair. That is how she likes it.

Why does it matter if a girl’s hair is short or a boy’s hair is long?

(Welcoming Schools, n.d.)

Even very young students can also be helped to develop things that they can say to one another. A preschool teacher taught students to say, “My gender doesn’t define me.” The sophistication of that language was embraced by the children, who felt that they now had something to say when a classmate said, “You can’t play in the block corner, it’s just for boys,” or, “Boys can’t wear skirts.”

Older students can be engaged in more sophisticated ways about the language they hear and use but, again, with an emphasis on education rather than punishment. At a time when almost all students have access to electronic social media, the potential for students to tease, bully, and harass their classmates outside the surveillance of their teachers is extensive. Therefore, any teacher response that simply stops the behavior in public spaces is unlikely to significantly alter more private interpersonal language and behavior. At the high school and college levels, bullying and harassment are likely to occur on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.), and so education, rather than surveillance and punishment, becomes even more critical.

Harassment does not go away on its own, and ignoring negative behaviors and language implies that the teacher finds the behavior acceptable. Even imperfect responses that evidence that the teacher heard what was said and is displeased are a vast improvement over silence, which can be read as collusion. Teachers can model that harassment and teasing are not okay ("Remember, we don’t use put-downs in this class”) and that any language that interferes with the classroom's feeling safe for any student is unacceptable.

When prejudicial or offensive comments are made in public, whole-class spaces, the teacher’s response should not be privatized. That is, if a student in class remarks, “I think gays are ruining our country,” or, “I wouldn’t want my child to have a transgender teacher,” talking privately to the student who made the comment may leave the rest of the class feeling that “nothing happened.” While one might want to also talk privately to the student who made the comment and, perhaps, any student/s who felt specifically targeted, the comment should be addressed with the whole group either immediately or soon thereafter. Although it may feel awkward and imperfect, teachers can say, “That comment is really problematic,” or, “I think that is offensive, and some people in our own class may feel particularly targeted.” One would not want to invite the “out” gay student to respond to a homophobic slur, but the teacher should name the class norms about language (which must, of course, have been established) and address the ways in which such comments damage the learning community for all. When teachers feel caught off-guard, as often happens, a minimal response might be the following: “Something just got said that really troubles me. I’m not sure how exactly how to respond, but I am going to think about it and get back to you.” And at the next class, the teacher might say, “Something got said during our last class that really troubled me. I thought about it all day/night/weekend, and here’s what I’m thinking.” Such modeling on the part of the teacher is evidence that language does matter, and that harassing or bullying language will not be given a pass.

What Teachers Can Say When Other Adults (Colleagues and Parents) Use Problematic Language

Challenging other adults who make derogatory remarks or use problematic language is, of course, more challenging because of power dynamics. It is easier to correct and teach students than peers. The basic principle—educating rather than punishing—still applies. One specific response will not be appropriate in all circumstances, but having a large toolbox of possible responses allows you to make strategic decisions based on the situation and your relationship to the person commenting. Some possible responses:

Comment: “Gays are ruining our country, and our children aren’t safe around them.”


Asking further questions: “I’m wondering what your experiences have been that would lead you to say that?”

Providing information related to the comment: “It’s actually a dangerous myth that gays and lesbians are likely child abusers."

Sharing a story: “You know, that hasn’t been my experience,” followed by sharing information.

Comment: “I don’t think boys should be allowed to play with girls’ toys,” or, “If we let children cross gender roles, they will grow up very confused.”


“Actually, I think that it’s our role as teachers to let children experience a wide range of activities.”

“The research actually shows that children who are allowed to figure out who they are with support and appreciation grow up with more self-confidence and a better sense of self.”

Comment: “I don’t want my son/daughter being exposed to this kind of thinking/learning to

knit/dressing up in boys’/girls’ clothes/studying about lesbian writers/learning about the Gay Pride movement.”


“Tell me more about your concerns.”

“We’ve actually found that learning to knit has been enjoyable for all our students, and it helps them to focus at other times during the day.”

“We read a variety of authors as part of our literacy program, and we include writers of many different backgrounds.”

“In our history class we study many social movements and how they relate to one another. This includes the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, the movement on behalf of people with disabilities, and Gay Pride.”

Comment: “I shouldn’t have to refer to students using the pronoun 'they.' It’s not grammatical, and it’s confusing,“ or, “No one can tell me what to say—I have my First Amendment rights.”


“I know it will take some getting used to, but students have a right to be referred to by their chosen pronoun.”

“Did you know that the singular, gender-neutral 'they' has been added to the Associated Press stylebook that’s used by most major news and magazine writers?“ (See Lee Airton’s No Big Deal pronoun campaign for excellent teaching materials at https://nbdcampaign.ca/).

The most important strategy is to practice responses until they feel easier and more natural; the difference between “I would definitely say something“ and “I know what I would say” is huge. Becoming an ally for social justice takes ongoing, committed practice.


Unfortunately, often the only context in which LGBTQ youth are mentioned in teacher education training is as part of discussions of the negative effects of bullying. It is common for educators to cite statistics about the high suicide rates among LGBTQ students, who are constructed as having horrible lives that put them at risk of self-harm (https//www.glsen.org/).

New York state's implementation of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA, 2012) provides an excellent example. DASA requires that all teachers and staff complete training on harassment and bullying; however, most of the requirements for DASA center on regulatory procedures for reporting bullying and articulating clear consequences for inappropriate behavior (including suspension and expulsion).

While the law also mandates that all schools must conduct training about oppressive behavior based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, dis/ability, class, language, size/weight, and physical appearance, there is little evidence that most schools have moved beyond the implementation of the regulatory/disciplinary procedures; there is often no one in the school who is qualified or empowered to undertake the diversity training which is required to address the root systems of bullying rather than deal with the visible, negative behavior (Payne & Smith, 2015).

The ultimate goal for all students is that they become effective allies in the face of discrimination and prejudicial behavior. Not only must they become vigilant and hyperaware of what discrimination based on gender and sexuality looks like, but they must have the skills to effectively interrupt or challenge such behavior. If differences are rendered invisible, or we are encouraged not to name them, then we cannot teach our students to become attentive to oppression based on specific differences such as disability, size, gender, or race and to develop targeted ways of challenging prejudice and discrimination (Sapon-Shevin, 2017).


Beyond responding to language and conversation about gender and gender and sexuality diversity, there is much that can be done proactively. Establishing a supportive and welcoming community and teaching directly about issues of gender and sexual diversity all set the stage for more positive outcomes (Kumashiro,2002;  Manion, 2018; Sapon-Shevin, 2013).

When teaching students in K–12, it can be important to inform parents/guardians about what you are doing and why: “We are going to be doing a unit on families in our kindergarten classroom, and because we want our children to be knowledgeable and comfortable about lots of kinds of families, we will be talking about and reading books about many kinds of families.“ It is important that such sharing be done with reference to all goals and that it not be perceived as either asking permission or putting up a red flag that something problematic or dangerous is happening. For older students, information to parents/guardians might mention which state standards or core competencies are being addressed by a particular unit, but this must be done for every unit and not just for those that might be deemed controversial.


Recognition of and information on gender and sexual diversity can be included within every content area and at every educational level.

Language Arts. The easiest and most “normalizing” strategy for introducing LGBTQ topics is through literature. There have been excellent books written about people who identify as LGBTQ, about families that are diverse (two moms, two dads), and about young people who identify or live outside of traditional gender roles. There are also many books about issues of discrimination and bullying, written at every reading level from pre-school through adult.

Students can also be engaged in tasks which hone their skills as careful observers of discrimination and advocates for equality and justice. A third-grade teacher had her students explore how toys were divided into “girls’ toys” and “boys’ toys”; older students studied the controversies that arose when Target stores removed the gender labels on toy aisles and wrote letters of support to the company for its decision.

Math. Mathematics instruction is not gender-neutral or devoid of gender stereotypes. Word problems can be modified so that they include situations that push against gender stereotypes: “Jason and Tyrone are baking cookies for the annual school fundraiser. The recipe lists ingredients and measurements to make one dozen cookies, but they want to make 6 dozen. Modify the recipe accordingly.” The excellent resource Open Minds to Equality by Schniedewind and Davidson (2014) includes many activities related to all subject matters that can be used to explore diversity, prejudice, discrimination and pathways to equality.

Social Studies. Teachers at all levels can make sure that their teaching of history is not “straight-washed,” that is, that it acknowledges the lives and accomplishments of people who identify as LGBTQ. Discussions of discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes can be broadened to include the life experiences of LGBTQ people. Discussions of the Civil Rights movement, for example, should go beyond Martin Luther King, Jr., to include the role of Bayard Rustin, a key strategist and speechwriter who was marginalized because of his gay identity.

The amazing resource Americans Who Tell the Truth (https://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/) can be used to learn about the lives of writers Alice Walker and James Baldwin, playwright Eve Ensler, poet Walt Whitman, and others. Older students can not only explore the accomplishments of these artists and activists, but can also interrogate the information they have and have not been taught.


When Leslea Newman wrote Heather has Two Moms (1989) 25 years ago, she broke new ground with the first children’s book to address lesbian parenting. The book sparked intense backlash and was the ninth most frequently banned book in the 1990s. North Carolina Senator Bob Smith read from the book on the floor of the Senate in an attempt to stop federal aid to school districts that “carried programs that promoted homosexuality” (WBUR).

Since that time, many children’s books are available about gay and lesbian parents, transgender children, children who are gender-creative or gender non-conforming, and children experiencing gender- and sexuality-based bullying (Herthel, J., & Jennings, J., 2014; Sullivan, A. L., 2016). The organization Welcoming Schools has numerous book lists that range from those for preschoolers to those for middle and high school youth that I encourage readers to explore. Some of the recommended books are Red: A Crayon’s Story (Hall, 2015), Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (Baldacchino, 2014), The Flower Girl Wore Celery (Gordon, 2016) The Purim Superhero (Kushner, 2013), What Makes a Baby (Silverberg, 2013), and Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU (Silverberg, 2015). The number of young adult books with relevant themes has also expanded; see this post for a list of “10 Great Young Adult Books with LGBTQ Themes,” (Clemens, 2015). Children’s books can be well utilized in teacher education classes as well; future teachers can be asked to develop curriculum and to explore how they would link books with LGBTQ topics to state and national standards and how they could situate such teaching within broader topics and curricular practices such as story time.


Both instructional and popular media films can be included in the curriculum in order to raise and discuss issues of gender and sexual diversity. Produced to be shown to young children, the film and discussion guide for That’s a Family! A film for kids about family diversity (Chasnoff, Ben-Dov, & Yacker, 2000) portrays a wide variety of families, including those that are adoptive, single-parent, separated and divorced, and gay and lesbian. The film features real children talking about their families, and for each section there are key vocabulary words and questions for discussion and journal-writing. The discussion questions that accompany the film are particularly compelling, as they are designed to normalize gay and lesbian families and show how they are more like than different from other families. The discussion guide also prompts discussions about how one might react when hearing put-downs about classmates who have gay parents.

Other noteworthy films that prompt discussion about LGBTQ issues in K–12 classrooms include Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up (Chasnoff & Chen, 2009) and It’s STILL Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in Schools (Chen & Chasnoff, 2007). Recent Hollywood movies with LGBTQ themes can also provoke lively discussions about the ways in which sexual diversity is responded to in schools and within families, including Love, Simon (Bowen, Godfrey, Klausner, Shahbazian, & Berlanti, 2018), The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Clark, Turtletaub, Frugiuele, Montepare, & Akhavan, 2018), and Boy, Erased (Edgerton, Golin, & Kohansky Roberts, 2018). Documentaries about the history of the Stonewall uprising and other historical events can also be used with older students and young adults. While it is certainly essential to teach about the ways in which LGBTQ people have been and continue to be oppressed, it is essential to include books and films with positive portrayals of LGBTQ individuals and in which being gay is not a death sentence.


Many organizations now provide excellent resources for addressing LGBTQ issues in schools and educating those who work with children and youth. The organizations Gender Spectrum (https://www.genderspectrum.org) and Welcoming Schools have extensive resources that are accessible and useful, as does Teaching Tolerance (https://www.teachingtolerance.org.). Educators and advocates who blog about this topic also provide important information; examples are Elizabeth J. Meyer (https://www.elizabethjmeyer.com/), Lee Airton (https://.www.leeairton.com/), and Graciela Slesaransky-Poe (2012), who blogs for the Equity Alliance provide some excellent examples.

Making our schools and society accepting and inclusive for all requires a serious critique of the heteronormativity of our own preparation as educators and our current teaching. Implementing the suggestions outlined here models a commitment to socially just schools that honor and support all teachers and LGBTQ students. This is difficult and challenging emotional work. We must move forward with hope, courage, and solidarity, seeking out allies who can support this important work and challenge us to do even better.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 13, 2019, p. 1-22
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23068, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:42:58 AM

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About the Author
  • Mara Sapon-Shevin
    Syracuse University
    MARA SAPON-SHEVIN is Professor of Inclusive Education at Syracuse University. Her areas of interest include social justice education, inclusion, teacher education, bullying, and using the arts to counter oppression and injustice. Publications include Condition Critical: Key Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Education (with Diana Lawrence-Brown, 2013) and Because We Can Change the World: A Practical Guide to Creating Cooperative, Inclusive Classroom Communities (2004). Mara is an activist with commitments to justice for women, Palestinians, and the LGBTQ community.
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