Including U: Supporting LGBTQIA+ students in the classroom
An inclusive classroom. Most of us, instructors, aspire to have it. After all, we are happy to talk about our beloved subjects to any and all students.
The proficient and effective delivery of content is but one factor in how students learn in a classroom. Course climate has been identified to have crucial influence on student learning outcomes (e.g. Hall 1982). Course climate can be defined as the sum of the intellectual, social, emotional and physical environment in which our students learn (Ambrose et al 2010). When students perceive the course environment to be welcoming, supportive and appreciative, they are more likely to engage and achieve higher learning outcomes. On the other hand, if a student perceives the classroom to be a place where they are ignored or sidelined, their learning will suffer.
Inquiries into student experience have uncovered bias and microaggressions against a number of groups in higher education, including women (e.g. Hall 1982), students of color (e.g. Watson 2002), and members of the LGBTQIA+ community (e.g. Dugan et al 2012). Unfortunately, Boysen and colleagues (2009) also showed that not only do students notice many more instances of bias in the classroom than do instructors, but they also perceive the instructors’ response to such incidents as generally ineffective. This means that even well-meaning instructors often miss instances of bias in their classrooms, or handle them in a manner that leave the students with lingering feelings of hurt and despair.
According to Gallup, in the 2016 census 4.1% of the US population identified as LGBTQIA+, up from 3.5% in 2012. This trend is mirrored at Georgia Tech. According to Dr. Aby Parsons, Director of the LGBTQIA Resource Center, “we are not only seeing a growth nationally, but more and more students are coming out in high school. The number of students connected with the LGBTQIA Center has also grown exponentially since it’s opened. There are hundreds of LGBTQIA students on campus, so in a large class, it’s likely that you will have students from this community.”
What is it like to be an LGBTQIA student at Georgia Tech?
To explore the current state of affairs, I draw on the experiences and thoughts of members of the Georgia Tech Pride Alliance, who shared their experience with me at their group meeting. To protect their privacy, instead of their names, they are identified by their characteristic voices.
The students’ stories illustrate that classroom climate is best conceptualized not as good or bad, but as a continuum. DeSurra and Church (1994) in their groundbreaking work asked LGBTQIA+ students to classify their classroom experiences as marginalizing or centralizing in terms of welcoming the input and presence of LGBTQIA+ students. Furthermore, they asked the students whether they arrived to their conclusion based on explicit messages (such as marginalizing comments) or implicit perceptions (e.g. a lack of inclusive examples). Using this four-bracket model, let’s take a deep dive into what LGBTQIA+ students experience in our classrooms, followed by instructional strategies to create an inclusive classroom climate for members of this community.
At this end of the spectrum, we find classrooms where a student feels unwelcome and discriminated against. “Sometimes, the source of this is in the course materials.” – explains Dr. Parsons. “For example, there was this health textbook that explained sex and gender in a very 1980’s way, as if it’s all black or white. When trans students are in a biology class where sex and gender is discussed in a way that suggests that there is something wrong with them, or something is abnormal about them, that’s a binary thinking that erases trans identities; it’s a microaggression.” A soft-spoken student echoes Dr. Parsons’ view: “Biology classes can be very ignorant of certain LGBT things, regarding sex and gender and reproduction. They often ignore homosexuality. It’s really nice when professors mention that there are more than two sexes or maybe even make distinctions between sex and gender. They also often ignore asexuality; they use broad statements like ‘humans need to procreate’, and then asexual people feel like there’s something wrong with them.”
Beyond course materials, student-faculty interactions can also be a source of perceived threat to LGBTQIA+ students.
“Sometimes bringing queer issues up is not welcome.” – chimes in a baritone fit for radio. “In this class of mine, we were discussing the role of dating apps in modern society, and when I brought up how the role of dating apps in the queer community is different. I wound up getting weird looks from other students, and I felt entirely uncomfortable, because it was clear that this conversation was not meant to include members of the queer community.”
In the most severe cases, students find themselves in situations where they no longer feel safe in a classroom.
“I have a professor who, when no one answers their question, just calls a name off the roster, and the name on the Georgia Tech roster is my dead name [i.e. legal name], but my presentation doesn’t match my name, and when I answer, people look at me weird. But [answering is tied to] participation points, so if I don’t respond, I don’t get the points. So sometimes I answer, sometimes I don’t. That’s an unfortunately common thing. It’s just really bad to have to choose between being safe and being who you are and getting those points in class.” – explains a student with melancholy.
Transgender and gender-nonconforming students face perhaps the most instances of explicit marginalization within the LGBTQIA+ community. Besides explicit bias, a likely culprit for their experience is the fact that understanding the transgender experience is incredibly difficult and often deeply inaccessible to those who do not experience it directly (Pryor 2015). Ball State University’s Safe Zone Project has developed an immersive exercise to allow non-trans folk to empathize with the situation our trans students find themselves in, by taking the experience and perspective of a trans person (click here for tool).
Another challenge trans students frequently encounter is constant misgendering and incorrect use of pronouns. This struck a chord with the GT students immediately:
“None of the students in my class cared to gender me properly” – shares a velvet voice. “I had a professor who insisted on he or she – I did not confront them about that, but I did write very passive-aggressive comments on their evaluation.” – adds a chirpy figure. They continue: “I was just talking to someone who said: ‘I don’t get they or them pronouns.’ And I was like: ‘What do you mean? You just say they or them.’ ” Chirpy’s mic drop is fuel to fire: “Or when they say, ‘I just don’t understand people who want to use they/them pronouns. Why can’t they just pick a gender?’ ” – bursts in a playful tone, leaving the audience roaring with laughter. A fiery soprano piles on: “Yeah, or when they say: ‘Oh, it’s not grammatically correct. And then they proceed to say: look, someone left their book bag there.’ ” The light-hearted teasing turns serious again when the student who shared the story about roster calls summarizes their position: “It’s really not that hard to say they or them. I think people sometimes have to be convinced of that. If you don’t know my gender, it’s worse if you misgender me rather than calling me they.” Then, after a beat of pause, they add: “These seem like such small things, but they make a huge difference to us.”
The issues GT students identify as problematic and explicitly marginalizing reverberate across the nation and have been identified as areas of concern in the literature, as well. But what are some examples of implicit marginalization?
These environments exclude certain groups of people in subtle and indirect ways (Ambrose et al. 2010). While each small instance of marginalization can be managed on its own, the some of many “micro-inequities” (Hall 1982), or microaggressions, can have a debilitating effect on learning.
When it comes to LGBTQIA+ students, “A big microaggression is the invisibility: when your community is never mentioned, never represented.” – explains Dr. Parsons. “This may seem very minor, but it makes a huge deal to the students. For example, heteronormative assumptions are very pervasive: they often hear things like ‘If you are a woman, then you’ll get a husband…’ ” – her voice trails off.
Students confirm Dr. Parsons’ claim: “[People claim that] it doesn’t matter what we do in our bedrooms, so it’s fine if we assume everyone is cisgender and heterosexual.” – asserts a student with a voice like an oboe. Playful Tone picks up the thread: “It’s interesting to see how heterosexual people don’t even notice how many times they reference gender or sexuality, in random examples, stories, analogies. In one of my classes, a professor said, this electron model is inaccurate because if these were male and female, they would only produce male or female offspring – and I thought: you didn’t have to use that example. So people don’t realize how much they casually bring this up. But if they do, it should be okay to bring up queer issues, too.”
To demonstrate what it’s like for LGBTQIA+ folks to live and function in a world of heteronormativity, the University of Southern California developed an exercise, available here. The tool guides the reader through a flipped world, where the norm is homosexuality.
Lack of inclusion can appear in how instructors address students, as well. A popular meme summarizes gender-neutral alternatives to “Ladies and Gentlemen”.
GT students found language classes especially challenging, from a point of inclusion.
“In language classes, I [find that often] there’s no attempt to find an alternative to gendered terms. It’s a difficult problem, because sometimes concepts are different in other countries, but on the other hand [it’s difficult] when I have to describe myself, and the closest thing I can say is: I am not male, I am also not female.” – reflects Oboe. In response, Soft-Spoken argues that in certain situations, they are simply unable to solve this for themselves: “Someone who actually knows the language is going to have an easier time than me knowing what to say. I mean they could google it, look at the literature. I can’t do that, I can’t search for non-gendered terms in Japanese, I don’t know the language, and even the alphabet is different. Professors can. Frankly, worst case scenario, you could make something up and say: ‘Okay, this is not the real term, but it’ll do for now.’ Something that’s more than just ‘don’t worry about it’ or ‘describe one of your classmates instead’. Because that’s pretty frustrating.”
Dr. Parsons points out another issue LGBTQIA+ students often face: when a campus tragedy occurs in their community, instructors often go about class as if nothing happened. “I hear from faculty that I didn’t want to talk to my students about it, because I don’t know what to say. Students, they can’t believe it’s business as usual and the professor just says: ‘okay folks, let’s study for this test’ ” – she explains. “Instructors can feel overwhelmed, when they don’t know how to have this conversation. I think it’s okay not to know what to say. It’s okay not to solve their students’ problems. You can just say: ‘I know that there are a lot of people that are affected by what happened. I’m struggling with it too. I don’t even know what the right thing is to say, maybe there is no right thing to say. But I want you to know that I support you and if you need someone to talk to, I’m happy to get you connected to those resources. Come see me, we’ll figure it out.’ ”
Fiery Soprano describes this from the student perspective: “Getting accommodations is so hard. Last semester, with all this trauma, half of us were affected. We didn’t plan for this to happen. I was lucky to have some teachers who said: ‘Let me know if you need anything’, but you don’t always get that. I had to explain in detail that I wish I didn’t have to explain why I needed that extra time.”
What classrooms do LGBTQIA+ folks feel more included in?
An environment that is implicitly centralizing is one where alternative perspectives are validated, but the burden of raising such perspectives is still on the student. In other words, the instructor does not initiate conversation about LGBTQIA+ issues; however, if someone offers such a comment, their position is respected and welcomed. Circling back to the example of Radio Baritone, when he brought up queer dating apps, the instructor could have built on his contribution in a productive and validating way, enabling all students to learn something new.
A twist on this situation is when even though instructors don’t intentionally incorporate LGBTQIA+ issues into the class, they nevertheless address instances of bias in the classroom. Dr. Parsons offers an example:”Suppose someone is using ‘gay’ as a slur. [In this case, an instructor can say:] You know, when you say, ‘That’s so gay’, that’s problematic, because you are equating gay with something negative. What’s another word you could use? Frustrating, annoying might be appropriate alternatives. And then you move on.”
According to DeSurra and Church’s survey (1994), most classrooms in higher education institutions could be characterized as implicitly centralizing.
In explicitly centralizing classrooms, marginalized perspectives are intentionally and overtly integrated into the classroom (Ambrose et al. 2010). Instructors in such classrooms often use multiple ways to signal to their students, that their perspectives and presence is fully welcome.
“One way for professors to signal to their students that they are okay and want to do something is to put their pronouns in their signatures.” – suggests Soft-Spoken. “Professor Shepler, my first-year Chemistry teacher did that and it blew my mind. It just made me feel like, if need be, she can be a resource for me. It’s a nice, simple, easy way to show that you care.”
Dr. Parsons reinforces the power of such signals: “Faculty and staff can put their pronouns in their email signature, their syllabi, on their business card. That signals to students when you’re emailing them, that you understand what that means. You can also encourage them, when they email you, to put their name and pronouns in their email, so you know how to address them properly.”
Fiery Soprano takes this argument to a new level: “Asking students to share their pronouns not only communicates that it is okay to be queer in this space, but it also makes it clear from the beginning that homophobia and transphobia are unwelcome.” She continues:
“Safe Space training [is also effective]. I trust the teacher a little bit more, if they went through Safe Space training. You can put it on your syllabus.” Dr. Parsons is of the same opinion: “You can put the Safe Space logo on your faculty bio page, like some folks from the Communications Center did. In addition to putting it up in your office, or on your door, it’s another way to signal that you are thinking about this. You can just request the Safe Space graphic from me.”
Updating and checking course materials for instances of bias, and eliminating stereotypes is another way to make students feel included. Often, these require virtually no effort on the part of the instructor, but gain enormous importance for members of a marginalized community. For example, in Economics, game theory is commonly introduced with the two-player game referred to as the “Battle of Sexes”:
Imagine a couple that agreed to meet this evening, but cannot recall if they will be attending the opera or a football match. The husband would prefer to go to the football game. The wife would rather go to the opera. Both would prefer to go to the same place rather than different ones. If they cannot communicate, where should they go?
It takes but a minute to replace “husband” and “wife” with gender-neutral names, or a generic term like “partner”. With a simple stroke, we have an exercise that is no longer heteronormative or sexist.
Some GT instructors take inclusivity a step further and make it their mission to infuse their curriculum with examples and perspectives representing the LGBTQIA+ community.
“In German class, our professor went out of her way to lay out all the non-binary pronouns in German, which is otherwise a fairly gendered language. I mean, there are non-binary folks in every language, and they all call themselves something, so I think it’s really great that she did that.” – shares a deep rasp. Their comment inspires Chirpy: “Yes, I’m in French, and in the chapter discussing family there is a line about same-sex marriage being legal in France. This was already cool, but then my professor went out of his way to say how they are treated just the same as heterosexual marriages, they have the same benefits, especially in taxes, they can adopt children the same. None of us in the class had to say anything, but just hearing him say it, that made me feel very included, that he is acknowledging that non-heterosexual people exist.” Language classes, however, were not the only platform where students found inclusive professors: “My statistics professor made a conscious effort to make examples that were non-gendered.” – recalls Soft-Spoken.
Dr. Parsons agrees: “Incorporating LGBTQIA+ or other diversity things into the curriculum [is easy, in any class]. You can say, ‘hey, we’re looking at this engineering case study today, let’s look at an example of a gender inclusive building. Or, ‘we’re gonna read a journal article about LGBT-specific projects’. In the sciences, or in biomedical engineering, it might be looking at problems like HIV. Incorporate these topics into your curriculum. They can be in your case studies, examples, suggested further readings, homework assignments…” She pauses for a beat before she drives her point home: “It makes a huge difference. So much so that students will nominate these [inclusive] professors for Lavender Awards. They don’t have to be experts on LGBT issues, but the acknowledgement of diversity issues, whether directly or indirectly, is important.”
How can instructors make their classrooms inclusive to LGBTQIA+ students?
Instructors can choose from a palette of things depending on their time constraints and familiarity with LGBTQIA+ issues. It is perhaps most effective if we apply the “plus-one” principle from Universal Design for Learning (Rose et al. 2006), and pick one strategy at a time, making classrooms more inclusive as an iterative process. Options include (but are not limited to):
- Put your pronouns in your email signature or syllabus.
- Encourage students to share their pronouns or preferred names.
- Include a clause on your syllabus about your intent to create an inclusive space.
- Avoid roll calls or use students’ last names to call on them.
- Educate yourself: complete the Safe Space Training or other workshops offered by the LGBTQIA Resource Center.
- Check if your course materials are up-to-date and inclusive.
- Use examples that represent LGBTQIA+ folks.
- Offer extra credit for participating in topic-related LGBTQIA+ events.
- Address significant events with compassion.
- Mentor LGBTQIA+ students.
There is ample evidence that employing such strategies will make a significant difference in the learning outcomes of LGBTQIA+ students. To alleviate any lingering uncertainties, Soft-Spoken offers one final piece of encouragement:
“It’s okay to not get it perfect. What matters is trying. Because by trying, it will get better.”
My sincerest thanks to the students from the GT Pride Alliance, who were willing to share their perspectives and stories for the benefit of all. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Aby Parsons for her expert, caring suggestions, and to Dr. Kate Williams for reviewing the manuscript.
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