By Timothy Bussey
This is the fourth and final post by PhD candidate Timothy Bussey on inclusive teaching and curriculum for LGBTQIA+ students. The following interview was conducted with a diverse group of UConn undergraduate students, who are all members of the LGBTQIA+ community. These students were selected based upon their high level of achievement and active participation in both the LGBTQIA+ and broader UConn campus community. The purpose of this edited interview is to support the voices of LGBTQIA+ undergraduate students, as they speak about what inclusive educational support they would like to see in classrooms here at UConn.
Timothy Bussey (Interviewer): In regards to your experiences here at UConn, what sort of inclusive measures for LGBTQIA+ students have you seen instructors implement in their class environments?
Matthew Brush (Interviewee): For me, one of the most important things a professor can do to establish their classroom as an inclusive space is having something in the syllabus. Those who take the time to outline and explain their policies on bullying, harassment, racism, sexism, etc. are actually letting students know what is expected of them. It is important to establish a classroom in which difference of opinion is welcomed but attacking people and perpetuating hateful ideologies is not. Also, establishing oneself as a safe person to talk to about problems that arise in class is important because it allows students to feel more comfortable approaching difficult conversations that can facilitate growth and learning.
Kyle Harrington (Interviewee): It’s important for professors to create an inclusive space from the moment students walk into their classroom. A few semesters ago, I had a professor hand out blank index cards on the first day of class and ask us to write our preferred name, pronouns, majors, and one thing we wanted her to know about us. She shared that in the past people have shared on the notecards that they were going through a personally challenging time, that they had a disability, that they had anxiety about participating in class, that they were trans, etc. She really carved out a welcoming space for students to advocate for themselves in a safe and private way, and right off the bat she established that she saw her students as multi-faceted and dynamic people.
TB: Why were some of these examples positive in terms of their support for LGBTQIA+ students?
MB: Establishing an environment in which students feel comfortable approaching professors is an essential aspect of feeling safe in the classroom. Because a teacher has the authority in the room, being unable to approach them with a personal concern or issue with the class can leave a student isolated and feeling like they have nowhere to go. By making oneself available to students, professors encourage students to approach them directly and have constructive conversations about how to make positive, effective changes to the environment to ensure everyone’s comfort. If you’re not comfortable in class, you’re not going to come to class or feel engaged in the work you are doing. In fact, you may even avoid it entirely.
Students can’t learn when they have anxiety about going to class or interacting with the professor, so it’s really important that professors acknowledge their role in, not only teaching, but in creating a space that students are actually able to learn in…learning in a classroom setting can be a pretty vulnerable process. There is a power dynamic in classrooms, because professors are sort of the gatekeepers of knowledge (and our grades and degrees). When professors go out of their way to relieve students from feeling some of that power dynamic, students actually feel safe enough to learn.
TB: What do you think the biggest issue facing LGBTQIA+ students in the average college classroom is?
MB: I think many LGBTQIA+ students simply struggle to be seen in a college classroom. Many of us have identities that people do not understand, if they’ve never met a trans person or if they have never educated themselves about the community.
All I have ever wanted from my professors is to have them see me as me and allow me the freedom to contribute to class discussions in a way that I felt comfortable. When you go your whole life not being seen by anyone but yourself and enter a classroom where that is perpetuated, it is very difficult to engage and participate.
KH: I think one of the biggest concerns for LGBTQIA+ students, especially trans and gnc [gender non-conforming] identified students, is erasure in the classroom. If a professor is not acknowledging the presence of trans students by not asking for everyone’s pronouns or preferred names, they are not creating space for those students to exist in their classroom comfortably. If a student uses ‘they’/‘them’ pronouns, goes by a different name than the name in the university system, and the professor does not carve out that space for students to share that information, then they send the message that they aren’t thinking about the possibility of trans students being in their classroom. This puts students in a challenging position of needing to advocate for themselves if they want their identity to be respected, but also having to navigate the possibility and fear that their professor is not an ally to the community.
TB: In what ways do you think this issue affects the support for and the success of LGBTQIA+ students?
MB: I think some professors make students feel invisible without realizing it and find themselves at a loss with how to support LGBTQIA+ students.
Invisiblizing students doesn’t have to look like ignoring them or not calling on them in class, but it can also include teaching only about issues pertinent to cisgender, heterosexual people, or distancing oneself from difficult conversations about other facets of our identities. Students who feel invisible feel unsupported and unheard, which often results in a lack of focus, interest, and ultimately, success.
Nobody should feel invisible in a classroom where all ideas are equally valued.
KH: Students will be successful and engaged in the classroom when they feel like their presence in the classroom is valued and respected, and part of feeling valued and respected is having your identity acknowledged and respected. Trans and gnc students, especially, often experience anxiety navigating the world, because in many ways the world has not carved out spaces for us to comfortably exist in. Let the classroom be a space where students don’t have to worry about whether or not they belong or will be respected. I’ve done my absolute best in classes where I knew, walking in the door, that I could let some of my guard down and actually be myself and have that be welcomed.
TB: How do you think instructors at the collegiate level can help address this issue and better support their LGBTQIA+ students?
MB: Educate, educate, educate—as you do best! It is essential that professors and other professionals educate both themselves and their students about LGBTQIA+ identities and issues. Professors should take note to include a diverse range of gender and sexual identities and experiences in their class conversations, syllabi, and class expectations. Representation is extremely important, and just showing that you know about the community and the likely LGBTQIA+ presence in your classroom shows that you care. If you need more education, that’s okay too, and it is important to seek out information that will help you better equip your students to learn and navigate difference in the world.
KH: Really, I just want to emphasize how important it is for professors to carve out that space for all of their students. If a student is excited about learning and wants to take their class, there should be space for that student to exist comfortably in the classroom. Use inclusive language, and educate yourself, your colleagues, and your students. Be approachable.
TB: In regards to LGBTQIA+ inclusion and diversity in the college classroom, what is one thing that you wish every instructor was aware of, and why?
MB: I wish every professor knew that gender is not a binary. While I fit a certain mold of what it means to look like a ‘boy’/‘man,’ my gender identity is much more complicated than that. I did not transition to fit into a box when I had felt my whole life I had been pushed into another. I transitioned to feel liberated from the boxes imposed on me and feel much more comfortable having an identity that feels mine than one that has been prescribed to me. I wish professors knew that everyone has a unique gender identity and experience with their gender, and that is a beautiful thing to bring to a discussion in a college classroom. All of our experiences can bring something unique to the table.
KH: I wish professors were aware of how difficult it can be to approach them with concerns, especially identity-related concerns that really put students in a vulnerable spot. Recognize that sometimes students want to come talk to you, but their anxiety gets in the way. It can be really difficult to advocate for yourself as an LGBTQIA+ identified student, especially when you don’t know if your professor is an ally. So, if you start to notice that any of your students change their behavior or expression, that other students in the class are using a different name or pronouns for them, or if you notice that they aren’t handing in work or speaking in class anymore, then reach out to them and express your concern. Inquire about how they are doing in an inviting but private way. It’s honestly a huge sigh of relief when a professor opens that door and invites you to advocate for yourself.
TB: As a student, what would you recommend for instructors who are struggling with proactively supporting students of diverse genders and sexualities in their classrooms?
MB: I would recommend reading some personal narratives of trans people and really try to empathize with some of their experiences. One of my favorites is Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness. I think it can be hard to connect to people whose lived experience you have no knowledge of, so making an effort to empathize with many of these difficult challenges is really important. In the classroom, I would also recommend allowing students to take the lead. If you are unsure of how to address a student, you can talk to them privately about how they would like to be called/addressed in class without embarrassing or calling them out on the first day or in front of their peers. Only a student can tell you how they would like to be treated, and it is always better to ask than assume.
KH: Strive to be that professor who queer students tell their friends to take classes with, because they felt so safe and valued and respected in that class. Incorporate preferred name, pronouns, and something you want to know about me in your first day of class practice, and include your pronouns on your syllabi and in your email signature to set that example for students. This also lets students know that you see them and that you are willing to go out of your way to create space for them in the classroom.
TB: Is there anything else that you would like to say to instructors who may be interested in fostering inclusive educational support for their LGBTQIA+ students?
MB: Being trans has been one of the most challenging but enriching experiences of my life. It has completely shaped my worldview and has made me into the person today. Though not all trans people like to talk about their identities publicly, I enjoy sharing my experience because I feel that our own histories can help us gain a more holistic, loving view of the world. I strongly believe that professors can (and should try) to learn as much from their students as their students learn from them.
KH: I think it’s important to know that this information is not just relevant to humanities professors. A lot of times, professors teaching STEM courses are so content and research driven that they aren’t recognizing their students as human beings. At one point, I was a biology major and loved my classes, but I ultimately changed my major, because of the ways in which I was made to feel like I was just another number. LGBTQIA+ students exist in your classroom whether you know it or not. Just by acknowledging that, educating yourself, and carving out that space for them in your class, you are increasing the chances of those students succeeding. Making your students feel included in your classroom is much easier than you’d think, and it can be a profoundly powerful learning experience for both you and your students.
Note: The concept for this interview began as an informal discussion between the interviewer and the discussants. Afterwards, these questions were electronically sent to the interviewees. Their responses were gathered, edited, and assembled by the interview to fit into the collaborative format presented above. I would like to thank each of them for their participation in this conversation about LGBTQIA+ student educational support.
About the interviewees: Matthew G Brush is a graduating senior in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Human Rights. He has been a peer educator on campus since his freshman year and has created and facilitated a workshop called “Trans[cending] Difference” to help students, staff, and faculty gain insight into and empathy for LGBTQIA+ identities and experiences. He also has worked with the Women’s Center and Rainbow Center on campus and will be pursuing a career in community outreach and education.
Kyle Harrington is a senior, graduating with a major in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and a minor in Political Science. Throughout their time at UConn, they’ve integrated their passion for social justice into their work as a student staff member of the Rainbow Center, as a Peer Facilitator for the Violence Against Women Prevention Program, and in their work with the Office of Institutional Equity. After graduation, Kyle looks forward to further exploring their academic interests at the intersection of gender studies and political science, as well as continuing their work with the Title IX Team in the Office of Institutional Equity.