Supporting LGBTQIA+ Diversity in Your College Classroom

As an instructor of record for the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program here at the University of Connecticut, a great deal of my work in the classroom centers itself within conversations about privilege and marginalization, especially as they pertain to persons of diverse genders and sexualities. Through some conversations with colleagues and friends (both at UConn and elsewhere), the question of how to best support students of diverse genders and sexualities often comes up as a topic of conversation.

With that being said, I hope to address some practical ways that instructors at the collegiate level can better support their students, particularly those who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community. In this entry, I provide some tips and strategies that can impact your pedagogy to be more inclusive for students within this community, and I’ll also list some additional resources that you, as an instructor, may find useful for diversity and inclusion initiatives in your class environment.

Timothy R. Bussey, M.A. (they/them) is a Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. They are also an instructor of record for the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Program and a lecturer for the Rainbow Center as well. Their research interests involve LGBTQ+ politics, support for LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion in educational spaces, and queer military history.
  • Consider how to learn about being an affirmative and proactive ally to the LGBTQIA+ community.

Recent data has shown that faculty support for LGBTQIA+ students is of critical importance for the success of this demographic. Moreover, extending one’s ally-ship into the class environment, curricular decisions, and formal interactions with students both affirms students of diverse genders and sexualities in addition to supporting them in academic endeavors as well. In regards to becoming an affirmative and proactive ally, instructors shouldn’t expect to be perfect but should instead challenge themselves to listen to their students and the LGBTQIA+ community in order to identify how to best support them on their campus and in their classroom. For instructors who are interested in learning more about ally-ship, searching for a Safe Zone training, such as the one offered through the UConn Rainbow Center, would be ideal. However, other resources are available for educators hoping to become allies to their LGBTQIA+ students, and organizations like GLSEN (i.e. the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) have specific ally resources available for middle and high school educators, though some of these resources prove useful at the collegiate level too.

  • Be sure to respect your students’ identities, particularly their gender identification.

Respecting both students’ perspectives and identities is critical to fostering a collaborative educational space where students feel like they can contribute, and most instructors at the collegiate level would likely agree that this mutual respect is an important foundation to lay for the class environment. All of this work is undermined if we, as instructors, fail to extend respect to our students. This respect is equally important for students of diverse genders who may be uniquely impacted by the lack of support for their identity. In my own teaching, I have seen the ways in which proactive support and respect for students of diverse genders can foster a healthy, productive, and engaging class environment. While tough conversations may result from an open embrace of gender diversity in the classroom, it has been my experience that taking such measures fosters a greater sense of class community for the term. When respecting your students’ gender identifications, you may want to take proactive measures to circumvent cisnormative practices (i.e. assuming pronouns based on the names on your roster and/or assuming that they are the names that students use on a day to day basis). Several conversations about how to ensure respect for gender diversity may have already been started outside of your classroom, given recent events. For those who are just now considering this as a practice in their own teaching, I would recommend Sherry Zane’s (2016) Faculty Focus article, “Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom,” for some best practices regarding how to initialize this mutual respect.

  • Think of ways to showcase diversity on the basis of gender and sexuality in your own curriculum.

From my own perspective, I would say that one shouldn’t treat LGBTQIA+ issues as a ‘special topic’ nested within a course. While it can be very affirming to see that an instructor has dedicated a class or a week of material to something LGBTQIA+ themed, it may be more useful to instead consider the ways that you can integrate it in a more streamlined manner into your instruction and pedagogy. Of course, it should also be acknowledged that each of us, as instructors, have to begin with where we are comfortable.

With that being taken into consideration, it may prove useful to have just a few lectures, lessons, or discussions that integrate LGBTQIA+ themed material, especially when someone is just delving into creating a more inclusive and diverse curricular decision. Inclusive curriculum around LGBTQIA+ issues may also be able to foster greater faculty-student support as well. GLSEN reports that middle and high schoolers in an environment with inclusive curriculum were about 25% more likely to have positive or helpful conversations about LGBT issues with their instructors. In short, striving for inclusivity doesn’t necessarily mean that everything can change all at once, nor should it. Instead, we should consider ways that we can make forward progress for more inclusive and diverse curriculum, which can better foster productive faculty-student relations.

  • Understand the law and your obligation under the law to ensure a safe, productive, and inclusive class environment for transgender students.

As instructors at the collegiate level, we are quite familiar with different obligations that we have to our students and campus community. From reporting instances of sexual violence to ensuring that our classrooms are free from sex discrimination, we are familiar with many aspects of Title IX. However, it may be less common for some of our faculty to fully understand what Title IX means for students of diverse genders. In May 2016, the Department of Education sent out a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, which provided significant guidance for educators across the country. Essentially, this letter speaks to what we, as educators of publicly funded institutions, should be doing to support transgender students. It is our responsibility as instructors to understand what the law mandates, particularly in regards to this interpretation of Title IX. Under this guidance for Title IX compliance, the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter clarified that educational institutions should: 1) provide a safe and nondiscriminatory educational environment; 2) respect the gender identity, name, and pronouns of transgender students; 3) allow transgender students access to sex-segregated facilities (i.e. bathrooms, locker rooms, etc.) that match the gender with which they identify; and 4) maintain the privacy of a student’s gender identity (i.e. not ‘outing’ them as transgender to other persons, amongst other things).

On February 22, 2017, the Department of Education, under the direction of the Trump administration, rescinded this significant guidance via a new ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, though they stated that all schools should still ensure the support of their students.

Governor Malloy, in a letter and executive order on February 23, 2017, mandated that the state-provided guidance for Title IX in Connecticut would currently remain compliant with the significant guidance present in the May 2016 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter. In short, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are following the law, as it pertains to ensuring that our classrooms and campus community are free from sex discrimination.

 If an instructor is in need of assistance in determining how to best do this, they should contact their school or university’s Title IX Coordinator for further clarification in ensuring compliance with Title IX, as it relates to transgender inclusion.