It’s the start of a new school year. I hope you’ve taken the time this summer to rest, recharge, and do some of your favorite things.
I was recently doing one of my favorite things—backpacking in the mountains—and I was confronted with a situation that gave me reason to reflect on the power of allyship.
My boyfriend and I were camping at a gorgeous cirque that is host to several rare species of conifers. Given the fragile nature of that ecosystem, signage is posted stating that campfires are not allowed; however, since the mountain lake is quite remote, rangers rarely make their way up to enforce the restriction.
Another group arrived shortly after us and we soon heard talk of roasting hot dogs and the ominous sound of an axe chopping wood. I debated whether to say something to the group, recognizing that they could very well be armed and that the situation could turn ugly. (Many members of the LGBTQ+ community, myself included, factor physical safety into decisions such as these.) Ultimately, I did say something, and the group agreed to comply, though they were probably cursing me under their breath all night long.
What does this have to do with allyship? In reflecting on what happened, I identified one key factor that kept the whole situation from going south: a woman in the group persuaded her friends that boiled hot dogs from the camp stove wouldn’t be so bad. Had I not had that unexpected ally, my guess is that the group would have laughed at me and continued to chop down invaluable trees.
Any act of allyship, no matter how small, will mean the world to your LGBTQ+ students.
As educators, we are constantly put into situations where we help individuals and groups work through sticky situations and interpersonal conflict. Ideally, we also look for opportunities to be proactive so that issues are less likely to occur in the first place. If you are reading this article, I imagine it is because you want to be a better ally to LGBTQ+ students. At a time when we can often feel powerless to effect any positive change, let me reassure you that any act of allyship, no matter how small, will mean the world to your LGBTQ+ students.
As you make plans for how you will promote safe, inclusive learning spaces, start at the center of your sphere of influence: the classroom. From there, once you are comfortable, you can expand your allyship outward into the greater school community.
1. Use actions and language to set a solid foundation in your classroom
Put yourself back in the shoes of a younger you on the first day of school. You probably felt many unknowns about the school year. Will I like this teacher? Will I make friends to sit by at lunch? Will I feel successful in my schoolwork? You entered the classroom on that first day seeking reassurance that you belonged and a sense of safety. Today, your students, especially your LGBTQ+ students, are seeking the same from you.
Being an ally is about both your words and your actions. Just posting a “Safe space” poster or sticker in your classroom is not enough; you have to intentionally foster belonging and safety.
To help students feel they belong, explicitly—and frequently—tell them that your classroom is a place where everyone is free to be who they truly are. Purposefully build in activities that allow students to express who they are and learn about the similarities and differences they have with others in the learning space. As you make curricular decisions, consider ways to include diverse perspectives in the books and topics you choose. NWEA writer Erin Ryan has curated a wonderful list of books with LGBTQ+ protagonists to get you started.
Through our words and actions, we can show students that we treat differences as assets, opportunities for us to learn from one another and gain a wider perspective.
The language you use is another part of fostering belonging. During introductions, invite students to share how they prefer to be addressed in the classroom. This can include their preferred names and pronouns. Not everyone will take you up on the pronouns part, and that’s OK. The point is to build a foundation of respect through the validation of each student’s identity, showing that each individual has equal value. In the weeks to come, hold yourself and others accountable for learning and using everyone’s preferred names and pronouns. This includes learning the proper pronunciation of names that are less familiar to you.
Think about how you refer to your students as a group as well. Many languages, English included, have the gender binary built into grammar and common vernacular. For example, we often say, “you guys” or “ladies and gentlemen” when addressing groups. This is problematic if there are individuals in the group who don’t identify with any of those words. Shift toward language that is more gender inclusive. In introductions, opt to use phrases such as, “Hello, folks,” “Welcome, everyone,” or even the very Southern “Hi, ya’ll.”
Being an ally is about both your words and your actions.
Recognize also that our language is biased and favors men. Instead of words such as “spokesman,” “forefathers,” and “fireman,” use the gender inclusive alternatives “spokesperson,” “ancestors,” and “firefighter.” Other words, like “sir” and “ma’am,” really don’t have great inclusive alternatives, so use them sparingly, if at all.
Get comfortable dropping the once politically correct “he or she” from your writing and using the more inclusive singular “they” instead.
Challenge your students and colleagues in all these areas, too. These subtle language shifts send a strong message about how you value the mindful use of words so no one ends up getting excluded.
2. Address negative comments both inside and outside your classroom
You’re going to encounter situations where someone makes an anti-LGBTQ+ comment. Perhaps it’ll happen in your classroom, but there’s also a good chance you’ll encounter these kinds of behaviors in other spaces around your school, such as the hallway, cafeteria, or playground. Negative comments undermine the sense of safety you are trying to promote. Your role as an ally is crucial in each of these spaces; if you do nothing, you send the tacit message that you approve of the insult or discriminatory remark.
To prepare for this ahead of time, think through various scenarios in your mind and prepare how you might respond. What will you say when someone calls a transgender student “it” as a joke? What will you do when a student calls another student a “sissy” or “homo”? The more you can work through these situations beforehand, the easier it will be to respond effectively in the moment, especially if the incident evokes a strong emotional response in you.
The HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program, which my colleague Kayla McLaughlin referred to in “Pride in our students, pride in ourselves: What you need to know to be an LGBTQ+ ally,” has some great resources for how to handle these types of comments. Whatever the outcome, I encourage you to follow up with the target of the remarks after the incident to ensure their well-being and connect them with additional support when necessary.
3. Elevate stories of members of the LGBTQ+ community
In the face of local- and state-level political pressure and legislation that are unsupportive of LGBTQ+ students and educators, many teachers currently feel that openly being an ally is riskier than ever. I get that. While I am always floored by allies’ capacity to endure alongside members of the LGBTQ+ community, I also understand that you have limits, too. In the end, only you can look at your context and decide whether the risks are worth the potential benefits.
If and when you are ready, continue to expand your allyship outward by helping decision makers—such as building- and district-level administrators, or even local politicians and policymakers—take into account how anti-LGBTQ+ policies impact real humans. It’s easy to lose sight of those impacts when there aren’t names and faces associated with them. In your ally role, you can alleviate this by elevating LGBTQ+ students’ and educators’ stories. Ideally, this means that you aren’t telling someone else’s story for them (especially not without their consent); rather, you’re leveraging your position to make space for others to share their stories.
Framing issues in terms of one person’s struggle can provide a clearer entry point for a productive conversation, as opposed to speaking about the struggles of an entire community. Consider the research collectively referred to by many as “Save the Darfur Puppy” as an example of this. As an ally, you have a unique perspective that can help decision makers not only understand problems more deeply, but also find human-centered solutions.
If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community, you have an opportunity to exhibit bravery and share your own experiences to help others gain perspective. For educators who are straight and cisgender, your place in the majority is vital to lift up those who are in the minority.
What are your next steps to promote safe, inclusive learning spaces? After you’ve had time to process the recommendations in this post, consider writing out your philosophy on being an ally. What do you believe? How do you want to be? That way, you can review it when you need inspiration or reminders. You can also share it with students and colleagues.
We often don’t know what we don’t know until it hits us in the face. If writing down your philosophy prompts you to uncover some key piece of learning you need to be a better ally, browse educator resources from GLSEN, Accredited Schools Online, and that Welcoming Schools website I mentioned earlier to explore ways to take action and find opportunities to learn more.
As a gay man who was often lacking an ally in his K–12 experiences, I am incredibly grateful that you are here, learning how to be a better advocate for LGBTQ+ students. Both the younger me and the current me thank you for being willing to learn and grow as you help others do the same.