Friday, March 23, 2012

Creating Safer Spaces for our LGBTQ students

The Huffington Post recently featured an article and video  focusing on bullying in schools.  We have all heard a lot about this, especially in the last year or so with the string of publicized youth suicides and the recent conviction of Duhran Ravi for the death of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers.  In the video students discuss what it can be like for them to live in an environment where they feel little support or are not sure who to turn to.  They also discuss how they would like a teacher to reach out to them and offer support.

While we may not all work with young people, it is very likely that we will work with LGBTQ people at some point in our careers.  This means that there are many people that we are working with that may have had a history of bullying, silence, or a lack of support systems.  As educators, in all kinds of environments, we may find ourselves in situations where we have to figure out what exactly we are responsible for, what we think we should do, and what the messages are that the students getting from the ways that we work with them.

So what could we do to go beyond our lesson plans to connect with the LGBTQ people that we are working with?  Here are a few ideas:

1 – Understand that we are role models.
                When we walk into a classroom or workshop many participants may see us as models for how to interact with sex and sexuality.  This means that the information that we deliver as well as how we deliver it is important.  There are many ways that we can send messages to people about what it ok and what is not.  As part of the It Gets Better Project, Sarah Siverman posted a video about what this can mean on a national level.  In a classroom, this can mean addressing issues of inclusivity and acceptance not only to talk about them, but to show that talking about these kinds of issues is important and deserves time.

2 – Know that we are walking into a culture with norms and history.
As was shown in the video from Cincinnati, we may be going into environments where norms and standards have been created, even if they have not been discussed.  I think that this is important to recognize because we, as educators, often feel pressure to create a “safe space” in our classrooms.   The reality is that this may not be possible.  We may walk into a space that, before we got there, was hostile to students.  There may be issues of bullying or harassment from students, other instructors, or administration.  These issues will continue to be a part of the environment when we are there, and will continue to be when we leave.  While this does not mean that we cannot make a difference (we can!), it means that we should be realistic about what we are capable of and work from there.  For instance, maybe we cannot change that there is bullying, but we can be there for someone who needs to talk about it, or a model that says that it is not acceptable.  This can help us move from the unrealistic pressure of creating a completely safe space, to a more realistic “safer space”.

3 – Consider the difference between tolerance and acceptance.
                I was once a part of an LGBTQ panel for high school students and the question was asked “Do you think that people are born gay, or do they decide to be?”  A lot of us were unsure and gave our personal answers, and then one panel participant said that while he was not sure about everyone, he did know that the idea of choosing to be gay would not be awful, because there are so many wonderful LGBTQ people that lead great lives.  He continued that many people claim that everyone is born the way that they are because there is legitimacy to that, but that the underlying argument is that being gay is so hard and so awful that no one would ever choose it, and that does a disservice to the LGBTQ community.  That completely changed the conversation because it was such a strong, passionate statement of love for the community that can sometimes be hard to come by in these conversations.  But it made the difference between having a conversation about “tolerating” people because they had to be what they were to accepting that what people are can be absolutely lovely.

4 – Don’t feel the weight of all the world’s injustices on your shoulders!
                We are not magicians, we are educators.  We cannot create a perfect place with perfect understanding through one swoop of the curriculum!  But we can realize that we can do our best and that we are working in many complicated systems.  I think that one of the worst obstacles to good work is guilt.  We are part of a large field making great changes and showing up for people that may not otherwise be heard.  The last thing we are trying to do, or to model, is more guilty feelings in people’s lives.  A lot of times just being there is making a huge difference.

Chelsea Williams-Varnum


  1. Chelsea, the ideas you offer are very helpful and well articulated. Being a sexuality educator can feel overwhelming, at times, particularly when the class sizes are large, the ability range is vast, the support for what we are doing is minimal, and our colleagues are not next door or within the building. As someone new to the field, I am reminded of an article by Bill Taverner,
    that was very helpful to me. It highlights the importance of being well prepared on many fronts as a sexuality educator, including having a strong grasp of content, networking with colleagues, writing and publishing, etc. The message that I most resonated with when I read it and still do today is his suggestion to “Network, network, network!” Networking has been key to my growth and development as a sexuality educator. As the only professional sexuality educator where I work, it is vital for me to stay in touch with colleagues through networking.

    Bill also emphasized nurturing and the ideas you offer in this blog are very nurturing of what we do. When I begin to feel overwhelmed and/or guilty the next time, I will remind myself of your words, “We are not magicians, we are educators … role models“ who “show up” and in incremental ways make monumental changes for the good of all people.

  2. Chelsea, thanks for your post. As an educator excited to teach sexuality, often times you want to dismiss the realities of sexuality education and unfortunately when you think about the realities it can often be overwhelming and depressing. Your ideas definitely spoke to normalizing this defeating feeling and presented a feeling of optimism that is sometimes difficult to find. The post also made me think about the idea of inclusive language and how powerful using simple terms as "partner" can allow a person to feel included. I also really appreciated the personal story of responding to "that" question. It sounded like a difficult situation that turned into a honest conversation.

  3. I really love the part about not having to be magicians Chelsea. Just reading these words helps me to feel a less of a load when teaching sexuality diverse information. I often feel this pressure and usually it's a point from activism and from being the "Knowledgeable" other. Also being realistic about the amount of change we can actually make. In the next 5 years there may not be an LGBT identified president, but that does not mean we can't work toward changing the political climate and paving the way. I believe we need to look at our work now as building the foundation blocks for communities including LGBT, allies, aware, and non-allies.

  4. Chelsea great post! As a middle school educator I am glad you brought up this topic and how to deal with LGBT issues on a simplistic level. Teachers think LGBT acceptance has to be some big production. It can be as simple as hanging a rainbow flag and letting students know your classroom is a safe place where the teacher accepts everyone and will protect against discrimination. Another easy suggestion to do in the classroom is to correct students language and turn ignorance into a teachable moment. By standing up and saying this language is not tolerated in this classroom can be more supportive than people think. Too many people ignore students using gay slurs which shows students it's not important to correct or comment on.

  5. Love the post, Chelsea! I think you really made a great point in that as sexuality educators, whether teaching in a classroom, running a workshop, or presenting ideas to a Fortune 500 company, providing acceptance, support, and education around LGBTQ issues is necessary. I work with lots of young people, some of who identify as LGBTQ, some who don't, but the underlying theme is the same regardless - bullying seems to be worse than ever for minority populations, and not just in terms of sexuality, sexual orientation, or gender expression. The difference between tolerance and acceptance is an important one. It isn't simply about teaching people to tolerate. It's about teaching everyone about each of our differences, and embracing one another because of them. Thanks for the post!

  6. I love that you bring up bullying and its impact on LBGT youth in particular. It seems to be a topic on a lot of people's minds lately. There is a new movie that was released in New York on March 30th called Bully that deals with these exact issues. I cannot wait to see it! I listened to a podcast talking about this movie and what it aims to achieve. This podcast highlighted the lack of attention many teachers and administrators give to students who are bullied. I think this is one way that students walk into a culture of teacher ignorance in schools.

    You mentioned that teachers can walk into an established culture within educational environments. Reversly, teachers assumptions and pre-judgements, whether about bullying or the LGBT community create either a supportive environment or a hostile environment for students dealing with the challenges of being an adolescent.

    Part of the way we can create safer spaces for youth as sex educators is to check our own attitudes about bullying, sexual orientation, race or class. If we are able to leave our biases and judgements at the door then we can create an open space for youth to share their real experiences and give educators the opportunity to help youth navigate those challenges.