Historically, PreK-12 schools in the United States have not been designed to serve students of gender or sexual minorities. From laws regulating bathroom use to a severe lack of representation and support, many schools do not support, engage, validate, or even recognize LGBTQ students or teachers. According to a 2017 national survey of LGBTQ students from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), these barriers often translate to lower educational outcomes and graduation rates, and higher rates of anxiety and depression among LGBTQ youth.
When polled, only one in five LGBTQ students reported that they were taught positive representations of LGBTQ people, history, or events in their classes. More than half (64.8 percent) of students reported that they did not have access to information about LGBTQ-related topics in their school library, through the internet on school computers, or in their textbooks or other assigned readings. At the same time, more than a quarter of students (25.9 percent) said their administration was very or somewhat unsupportive of LGBTQ students, and 42.3 percent said they would be somewhat or very uncomfortable talking with a teacher. Because the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) does not report on gender and sexuality in schools, self-reported data from the GLSEN survey is the most robust information available.
While headlines have focused largely on bathroom bills (see: Gavin Grimm Case) and high bullying rates, these disproportionate outcomes have just as much to do with the amount and quality of representation and support LGBTQ students have in the classroom and in the curriculum. Inclusive instructional materials are also gaining attention among LGBTQ youth and education advocates as a way to address some of the challenges these students face.
State leaders are taking action as well, both to support and prevent inclusion. By the end of 2019, four states—California, New Jersey, Colorado, and Illinois—have mandates requiring LGBTQ inclusion in preK–12 curricula. The state legislature in New York has made recent movement in the same direction.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, six states—Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina—maintain education laws forbidding teachers from portraying LGBTQ people or identities in a positive light, if at all. These laws, known as “no promo homo” (NPH) laws, are in stark contrast with the five states working toward statutorily-mandated inclusion. Teachers in states with NPH laws may still work toward engaging and supporting their queer and trans students, but their work necessarily looks different than in states with supportive legislation.
Despite this, the picture for LGBTQ students is not all bad, especially compared to just a few years ago, when there was hardly a vocabulary for or recognition of this problem among the majority of education leaders. In those locations where resources from GLSEN, Teaching Tolerance, and others are less well-known, many individual teachers and librarians have taken the work on themselves, creating their own resources. Queer inclusion has grown in recognition around the country, with signs of more districts considering inclusive curricula than ever before. Evidence for the movement towards inclusive curricula ranges from the existence of books on the subject to Twitter chats for sharing ideas. In the remainder of this profile, we will explore what inclusive teaching and learning look like in practice and what barriers exist for teachers in doing this work.
Inclusive Student Learning
Inclusion as an approach, while crucial, presents a unique challenge for queer students. In order to create an inclusive classroom that meets the needs of all students, schools must be able to identify and quantify those students’ needs. To do that, those students must be visible. If schools can’t identify the students they’re trying to serve, they likely can’t identify the supports they need. But queer students are often not public about the process of coming to terms with their identities, especially at a young age. What’s more, they exist across all other human demographics, and therefore can’t be lumped together under one group that looks or sounds the same. Because of issues around data collection of LGBTQ folks—including safety concerns when self-reporting; changing identities; and institutional bias—many queer students are unaccounted for in student data.
For these reasons, much of the existing data on LGBTQ students, such as GLSEN’s, is self-reported. Their survey of 23,000 students aged 13 to 21 found that 95 percent of students reported hearing discriminatory remarks frequently at school, 63 percent reported hearing those remarks from teachers or staff, and 17 percent of students were prohibited from discussing or writing about LGBTQ topics in school assignments. Not only then are students told the challenges queer people face are invalid, but they hear this message from the school policies that govern them, the teachers who educate them, and the material they’re taught.
Recognizing the power of inclusive learning materials to address this problem, some states are exploring solutions through gender-inclusive history and social science curricula. Gender-inclusive, in this sense, is a broad term for curricula and other learning materials that teach about the lived experiences of a wide range of LGBTQ people and identities. This can be either content focused specifically on LGBTQ people and identities, or non-LGBTQ focused content, such as biology and English Language Arts. For example, an inclusive biology class might use non-gendered language or examine the assumptions that we make when classifying genetic phenomena into categories such as “natural” and “unnatural.” A biology course that goes beyond simple inclusion to affirming and validating might explore the bias behind what are often regarded as objective, scientific discoveries, that shapes the ways we conceptualize DNA and genetic makeup. A common misconception about queer and trans inclusion is that it is only reserved for certain academic areas and not others. In reality, every subject, topic, and conversation can be made inclusive and affirming. Indeed every subject matter is shaped by gender and sexuality biases, regardless of our awareness of that fact.
When California passed its inclusive history-social science framework in 2016, it was the first state to do so, attempting to guide the creation of new textbooks that cover LGBTQ people and people with disabilities. The vote came five years after the state’s passage of the FAIR Education Act, in 2011, and textbooks were implemented for the first time during the 2019-202 school year. Not only was the publishing process arduous, but the content creation itself required multiple committees of history experts, educators, and advocates to debate the exact content and wording that ultimately went to a vote. The resulting content is groundbreakingly comprehensive, and now published in textbooks used throughout the state. (However, unfortunately for other states looking to adopt similar legislation, the materials in California are proprietary and therefore not available to other states looking to implement a similar curriculum.)
In order to be inclusive of gender and sexual minorities, student-facing materials must incorporate LGBTQ characters, identities, and histories. They should present accurate and impartial information to students not only about what queer and transgender identities are, but how they determine privilege and oppression, and what implicit biases help sustain this oppression. Inclusive content can be that which is specifically about LGBTQ people, and that which isn’t, but includes queer and gender-diverse examples, names, stories, and images.
There are specific steps teachers and school administrators can take to intentionally create more inclusive learning environments. As more states move toward inclusive curricula, the need for comparable educator support is growing rapidly. Three of the biggest challenges to inclusion in schools is preparing teachers to teach inclusive content and create inclusive learning environments; providing them the resources to do so; and supporting them in these efforts.
Inclusive Teaching Practices
In recent years there has been a growing push among PreK-12 educators toward culturally responsive teaching (CRT), or teaching which recognizes students’ particular strengths in the classroom and leverages them to make learning experiences more relevant and effective. Countering the notion that teachers should cover only what is in the assigned texts regardless of students or context, CRT seeks to explore narratives beyond those that have historically been told in textbooks. It aims to offer a variety of perspectives, experiences, and lenses to students for understanding content.
With the push toward CRT has come a wider understanding of the value of representation among educators, in the classroom and in the curriculum, as well as growing popularity of the concept of windows and mirrors. Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita of education at The Ohio State University, first developed this idea in 1990. She suggested that curricula should both offer students a window to lives and experiences different from theirs and hold up a mirror so they can see themselves reflected in the material. The latter is particularly important for students who belong to one or more minority groups: by no coincidence, students of color, those with disabilities, and LGBTQ students seldom see themselves reflected or represented in preK–12 curriculum.
The growing support for cultural competence and representation is situated between this single-narrative paradigm—wherein existing curricula teaches through the lens of only one identity—and current knowledge of what it takes for students to succeed. We know that students must feel a sense of safety, respect, and belonging in schools in order to learn. We know validation from teachers and space to develop inquiry into students’ own identities is critical to their social-emotional development. And yet, many schools are falling short of meeting these needs by either failing to address them, or by addressing basic safety instead of pedagogy, rather than both.
Northwestern University professor Sally Nuamah argues in her book How Girls Achieve that educating young girls takes more than simply forging paths in schools that are not designed for them. Rather, it takes active and intentional un-teaching of harmful lessons ingrained in them long before they ever arrived in the classroom. It takes teaching specific skills—such as strategy and transgression—to prepare them to navigate a world that relies on their lack of these skills. This idea should also be applied to teaching and learning for LGBTQ students. Queer students as a group face similar challenges in regard to the the lack of representation they see in curricula and the unconscious bias with which they are often taught. Teaching and engaging them requires teachers and school leaders alike to actively unlearn tired stereotypes and interrogate their own understanding of what is normal and given.
A video where Professor Sally Numah disucusses her book How Girls Achieve
The term “inclusive learning environments” has grown more popular in recent years alongside the push for LGBTQ acceptance in schools and the movement toward culturally responsive teaching. “Inclusive,” in this sense, refers to classrooms or other learning environments in which educators, librarians, and school staff recognize their own levels of privilege as starting points for difficult conversations. It also requires that educators are willing and prepared to use affirming language and support a variety of narratives that challenge students to open lines of inquiry into cultural assumptions.
When it comes to queer and trans students specifically, an inclusive learning environment is one in which educators take steps to understand straight and cisgender privilege, how it overlaps with other types of privilege, and what dynamic it creates in a classroom. It is one in which educators are open to learning about different identities, so they have context and language to talk about them. It is also one in which educators have the time, space, and school support to understand LGBTQ history, at least at a basic level, and how it informs current understandings of queer identities.
While this all might sound like a heavy load to put on teachers who are already notoriously short on time and resources, the barrier of entry to inclusion work is low. For example, educators can start by making small but intentional changes to the way they address groups of students, by using gender-neutral phrases such as “folks,” “everyone,” or “y’all” instead of “boys and girls,” “ladies and gentlemen,” or “you guys.” This type of change is minimal but meaningful, and signals to students who do not identify as male or female, or are questioning their own gender identity, that they belong. It also models and normalizes inclusive language for all students, regardless of identity. For smaller content changes such as this, having editable materials, rather than textbooks, can be especially useful.
Inclusive professional learning materials are those that prepare educators to create learning environments in which inclusion is normal and expected. Such resources could be texts on relevant and contextual queer history; an explanation of some of the challenges that queer and trans people face more broadly; or simply information on language, pronouns, and why they matter. Ideally, these resources recognize nuance and diversity within queer communities and engage teachers around intentionally anti-racist queer inclusion. For early and elementary educators, this might look like resources that explain the importance of including black and brown same-sex families in a lesson on family trees. For secondary teachers, it might look like adding to the class library foundational writings by black and brown authors, such as Audre Lorde or Gloria Anzaldúa. Exposure to a diversity of queer ideas and narratives is critical both for students who may see themselves represented in these stories, and for students who do not, to disrupt the single-story narrative.
The disproportionate educational outcomes that LGBTQ students face are the results of many compounding factors, including but not limited to a lack of representation and support in school. Inclusive materials remain a critical part of the effort to address these challenges, and indeed the focus of an increasing number of efforts. While teaching and learning are intrinsically tied, it is important to recognize the different needs between student- and teacher-facing materials. Inclusive curriculum laws and policies should be thought of as a bellwether for the need for inclusive professional learning, because without adequately preparing teachers, inclusive content will do very little to create more inclusive learning environments.