Pride in our students, pride in ourselves: What you need to know to be an LGBTQ+ ally

June 1 marks the beginning of Pride Month, a time in which LGBTQ+ people and the allies who support us celebrate the beauty and resiliency of our community.

The history of Pride is rooted in activism, beginning over 50 years ago on a fateful night at New York City’s Stonewall Inn. During the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, a group of LGBTQ+ patrons fought back against a discriminatory police raid in an event that became known as the Stonewall Uprising. This seminal moment in LGBTQ+ history served as a catalyst for the modern-day fight for LGBTQ+ equality in all walks of life.

And make no mistake, that fight is far from over. Even now, when marriage equality has been the law of the land for nearly seven years and we have a 2020 decision by the Supreme Court that makes it illegal in all 50 states to discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, an increasing number of states are still seeking to heavily restrict or outright ban discussion—and books—on LGBTQ+ topics from our nation’s schools. Even more states are targeting the rights of transgender and nonbinary minors by restricting access to gender-affirming care, despite unanimous agreement from the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the Human Rights Campaign that gender-affirming care is both medically advisable and often lifesaving for those who receive it.

Put simply, our nation’s LGBTQ+ youth, along with LGBTQ+ educators and our allies, find themselves in a conflict they did not start—one that does immeasurable damage to their health and well-being.

The LGBTQ+ community by the numbers

According to a recent Gallup poll, approximately 7.1% of the overall U.S. population identifies as LGBTQ+. For millennials (those born 1981–1996), that number jumps to 10.5%, and it jumps to a whopping 20.8% for Generation Z (those born 1997–2003).

[I]t’s only comparatively recently that LGBTQ+ people have been able to come of age in a time of positive mainstream LGBTQ+ media representation, marriage equality, and explicit legal protection barring anti-LGBTQ+ workplace discrimination.

Of key importance: This dramatic increase in size is not unique to these two younger generations. As the data from Gallup clearly shows, it’s a trend observable across every generation. What we’re seeing in the younger generations is that they are more likely to self-identify as LGBTQ+. This makes sense, as it’s only comparatively recently that LGBTQ+ people have been able to come of age in a time of positive mainstream LGBTQ+ media representation, marriage equality, and explicit legal protection barring anti-LGBTQ+ workplace discrimination.

So, we know that one in five people between the ages of 19 and 26 identifies as LGBTQ+, and we also know that the younger the generation, the higher the likelihood that people will self-identify as LGBTQ+. This leads us to the million-dollar question: What does that data suggest about the millions of people under the age of 18 who are currently enrolled in K–12 schools across the United States—that is, our students? Short answer: Many of them are being denied the basic human dignity of having their selves and experiences valued or even acknowledged.

A mental health crisis

Due to bullying and lack of acceptance, LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to experience depression and other negative mental health outcomes compared to their non-LGBTQ+ peers, a statistic that has grown even more dire since the start of the pandemic. According to 2021 data from the Trevor Project, an organization that seeks to prevent suicide in LGBTQ+ young people, “42% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.”

The Trevor Project data also highlights the role of intersectionality (which my colleague Teresa Krastel covered in a previous blog post) in understanding student experiences. For example, LGBTQ+ youth of color, who often experience racism in addition to homophobia and/or transphobia, attempt suicide at higher rates than their white LGBTQ+ peers. The fact that efforts to ban topics such as race and the history of race relations from classrooms have gone hand in hand with anti-LGBTQ+ policies serves only to compound this issue.

Our LGBTQ+ students have a right to see themselves reflected in classrooms and curricula. Nobody deserves an empty mirror.

Finally, it’s important to call out that the rampant anti-LGBTQ+ legislation sweeping the country isn’t just affecting our LGBTQ+ students. It’s also impacting LGBTQ+ educators who feel they must choose not only between living authentically and having a job, but also between honoring student privacy and fulfilling a legal obligation to disclose student sexual orientation and/or gender identity to parents and guardians who may not be supportive.

What you can do right now

Maybe you want to make your classroom and lesson plans more inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities but are unsure of how to start. Maybe you work in a district that limits your ability to talk openly about LGBTQ+ topics and identities, but you want to support your LGBTQ+ students and colleagues as best you can. Maybe you’re both an educator and a member of the LGBTQ+ community who’s feeling isolated and overwhelmed. If any of those sound like you, here are some concrete actions you can take:

  1. Look for the gaps in your own understanding, and then seek to fill them. This is especially important for allies, but it also applies to educators who are LGBTQ+, as it’s highly unlikely that any one of us is an expert on all the vast, multifaceted identities and experiences within our community. If you’re straight, make a point to learn more about those who are gay, lesbian, bi- or pansexual, asexual, etc. If you’re cisgender, make a point to learn more about people who are transgender and nonbinary. If you’re white, make a point to learn more about LGBTQ+ people of color. If you don’t have a disability, make a point to learn more about LGBTQ+ people who do.
  2. Remember that when it comes to allyship, impact outweighs intent. It’s possible to do or say something with good intentions and still end up harming the person or people you’re trying to help. When that happens, take ownership of your part in the situation, apologize, and promise to do better moving forward. Allyship is a journey, not a destination; there’s no graduation ceremony during which an LGBTQ+ person will hand you a diploma and say, “Congratulations, you have succeeded in becoming an ally and don’t need to do any more self-work.” (Side note: This applies to all types of allyship, not just allyship for the LGBTQ+ community.) Choosing to be an ally is just that: a choice, one that must be made over and over in the spirit of continuous self-improvement. With that in mind, consider choosing to read this helpful guide for allies from the Human Rights Campaign.
  3. If you’re fortunate enough to work in a district that is affirming of LGBTQ+ identities, make sure your classroomand curriculumis openly inclusive of LGBTQ+ students. GLSEN (pronounced “glisten”) is a teacher-founded organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ youth and has an abundance of resources for educators, including tips for supporting trans and gender-nonconforming students. There’s also PBS Learning Media, which has a wealth of classroom and professional development materials that center on LGBTQ+ history and identities, as well as other subjects. Finally, check out the Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools program.
  4. If you’re an LGBTQ+ educator, know that you matter. A lot. Your presence can make a huge difference for LGBTQ+ students in your classroom. Know your rights, and know that you are not alone. Take care of your mental health by cultivating a sense of community with other LGBTQ+ educators. If you’d like to explore therapy but are unsure where to start, read about how to find an LGBTQ+ inclusive therapist. For more immediate support, you can call the LGBT National Hotline or the Trans Lifeline.

As the renowned poet and essayist Adrienne Rich so eloquently stated, “When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you’re not in it, there’s a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” Our LGBTQ+ students have a right to see themselves reflected in classrooms and curricula. Nobody deserves an empty mirror.

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