If you’re an educator, you already know the importance of a safe, comfortable environment to the learning process. The bullying faced by LGBTQ and non-gender-conforming students has been making headlines for a handful of years now, particularly in the wake of the death of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi. But did you know that as recently as 2009, almost nine in ten LGBTQ students experienced bullying during school hours as elementary or high schoolers? Or that one in three students, when surveyed, reported skipping school during the previous month in order to avoid verbal abuse or the threat of direct violence during school hours? These statistics come from a survey of school climates completed over the course of ten years by the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN); frighteningly, the study showed little to no change in the prevalence of bullying between 1999 and 2009, despite the major strides the LGBTQ community has made toward full legal equality and inclusion in mainstream media during that decade. Older studies suggest that students in elementary, middle, and high schools hear homophobic slurs about twenty-six times a day. Of course, for some of these kids, the bullying doesn’t stop at the end of the school day; students living in unsupportive households face even more difficulty.

Obviously, being bullied makes it much harder for students to learn– so LGBTQ bullying is, at its heart, an issue of civil rights. In the United States, all children and teenagers have the right to a free education through the end of high school. If a queer-identified or trans* student isn’t safe from threats of violence or abusive language in the classroom and winds up skipping class to avoid bullying, then zie/she/he cannot possibly receive an education fully equal to that of hir/zir/her/his straight and/or cisgendered peers. Northampton’s Pride and Joy stands in solidarity with anyone working toward the end of bullying and the rise of fully equitable education for LGBTQ youth, and we’re here to serve as a community resource for students and teachers alike.

So what can YOU do to help create an inclusive classroom? Here are some ideas from the staff at Northampton’s Pride & Joy!

  • Display a safe space sticker on the door to your classroom or office, and make sure students struggling with bullies know they can come to you for support, advice, and/or assistance (you can find one at NHPJ).
  • Educate yourself on how gender, sexuality, and identity develop and function. Especially if you work with younger kids, you may find that some students who seek your guidance don’t yet have the vocabulary to talk about what makes them feel “different” from their peers. The previous link takes you to a detailed overview from the American Psychological Association aimed specifically at educators. It’s also a good idea to pick up some academic books on sexuality and gender in whatever age group you teach. We have a great book on our shelves called The New Gay Teenager that examines empowerment among LGBTQ teenagers and might give you a whole new perspective on the potential positive impacts of growing up as part of a sexual minority.
  • Keep a library in your classroom for your students, filled with books whose content reflects and encourages an inclusive environment. If you work with kindergarten or elementary schoolers the picture books, My Princess Boy, And Tango Makes Three, and Daddy, Poppa, and Me all make great choices! If you teach middle or high school, the young adult novel Annie On My Mind will likely resonate with many of your romantically minded students, and Alison Bechdel’s coming of age graphic memoir, Fun Home, might be a good option for mature, literary-minded high school seniors. Because LGBTQ representation on television leaves something to be desired even now, especially on shows aimed at kids and teens, for many young people, our first time relating to an LGBTQ character in art, literature, or the media comes from reading novels and memoirs. It’s also a great idea to keep a couple nonfiction resource books around to lend out to students who may need them. It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller (founders of the It Gets Better Project) makes a wonderful read for teenagers struggling to find acceptance. Kelly Huegel’s GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teen is another excellent resource. These are all books we carry at Northampton’s Pride & Joy, among many, many others. We can also provide more specialized recommendations, and special order books for you if you want a specific title not already in the shop. Also: we’re always taking recommendations from customers for books we should be carrying, so if you have any titles you think belong on our shelves, please let us know!
  • Whenever you can, and in whatever way you can, express your respect for people of all identities, sexualities, and genders in front of your students. This doesn’t always need to be direct and verbal; it can be as simple as decorating your classroom with posters, magnets, and stickers that celebrate diversity and inclusiveness. Some shy students won’t come to a teacher for help with sensitive topics like gender and sexuality unless they’re absolutely certain they’ll be treated with respect and compassion, and even then, many may never tell you what they’re struggling with personally (or even that they’re struggling). The presence of a rainbow flag, an “End Bullying” bracelet or t-shirt, or a sticker reading “Different is not another word for wrong” or “Teach tolerance!” may help your LGBTQ students feel less alone, even if they don’t tell you so directly.
  • Get involved with your school’s gay-straight alliance, or spearhead the formation of one at your school. You can also register your GSA with Northampton’s Pride & Joy, so your students feel encouraged to visit our shop as a resource for community and literature (we’ll do guided tours of the store for GSAs, as well as special private shopping hours just for your group, upon request). Our store also offers a 10% discount for students in GSAs that have registered with us.

Hopefully these tips will prove useful. We hope you’ll come visit us sometime for more individualized recommendations for your classroom. If you have any additional tips for educators working toward LGBTQ-inclusive schools, or if you’re a student who wants to offer another perspective, please feel free to share in the comments! We welcome the opportunity to hear your thoughts on this important and timely issue.