By Amber Leventry, The Next Family
Back to school time is filled with the excitement of new backpacks, teachers and reunions with friends. But for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender parents and students that excitement can be accompanied by anxiety and fear. New schools, classmates and teachers may also mean coming out again to unknowing peers. This may happen in stride for some LGBTQ parents and students; others have legitimate concerns as another school year begins.
The goal for all students, however, is to provide them with a safe, productive, and supportive learning environment. The climate around LGBTQ issues may not always be the sunniest, but even in school districts where progress needs to be made, these goals are something all parents and students deserve and should expect. Here are ways you can advocate for yourself and your child as you begin another school year.
Before your child enters the classroom, schedule a time to sit down with their teacher(s) or school administrators to be sure everyone is comfortable and informed about your family’s structure and identity. Give the teacher the opportunity to ask you questions. Understanding breeds knowledge, and sometimes it is our job to inform others. As long as conversations are mutually beneficial and respectful, open lines of communication are necessary.
Talk to your child, too. Ask them what they need to feel safe and supported in the classroom and relay that information to their teacher(s). This may include the use of their preferred name, pronouns, or the allowance of a specific friend to be with them during transitions to reduce the possibility of harassment.
Revisit these conversations and check-in frequently. And listen. Your child and their teacher(s) have first-hand knowledge of their school day; be sure you are giving them the opportunity to talk to you too. Everyone must be on the same page for your child to feel safe and comfortable to tackle a new school year.
Even the most well-intentioned teachers may not know how to support students of LGBTQ parents or LGBTQ students. There are many resources available and they will find wonderfully helpful information through Welcoming Schools, a Human Rights Campaign project, or The Stonewall National Education Project. Both sites offer professional development tools, lessons, and ways to make sure all students feel safe and important in the classroom.
Another valuable organization is Trans Student Educational Resources, which is a youth-led group focusing on creating a more trans-friendly education system. And Gender Spectrum is a great resource to learn how to create “gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens.”
Your state may also have local programs dedicated to educating teachers on the important ways to embrace diversity.
Ignorance cannot be an excuse; material is available. Show your child’s teachers where to find it.
And then expect them to use the resources. If necessary, use the school’s mission statement as an argument to provide your child with a safe and inclusive learning space. Amanda Rodhenburg, Director of Advocacy at Outright Vermont gave examples when looking at two different elementary schools’ mission statements. One stated they “strive to develop cultural competency in our students.” Rodhenburg stated, “If a teacher were reluctant to be inclusive about non-hetero families, I would tie the necessity to that very line.”
Another school listed goals that every child should be supported in school, home, and their community. Rodhenburg, “Again, I would tie the imperative for inclusivity to the goal of students being supported in school and at home. Y’all came up with that directive, now you have to stick with it.”
Dr. Molly Fechter-Leggett, clinical psychologist, also reminds parents to use the school’s guidance counselor as an ally and professional trained in LGBTQ issues to help families and students overcome feelings of exclusion. Dr. Fechter-Leggett says, “Counselors are the go-to allies for many kids who transition. If there are barriers with teachers, counselors can often work to help educate them about the social and emotional aspects of the child’s experience.”
Posters, Safe Space stickers, inclusion of LGBTQ history into the classroom curriculum validate a child’s need for a safe learning space. Learning that a great author or famous scientist identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is also very empowering to a child who has parents with these identities or who may be LGBTQ themselves.
The quality and quantity of books with LBGTQ characters and themes are increasing every day. Be sure your school’s teachers know about them and expect them to be available to your child. Check here for a list of books for all ages.
Find or Create Community
Joining or creating a community of other like-minded students builds confidence and safe places for your child at school. It also increases visibility and improves the school’s climate towards diversity. The Gay-Straight Alliance Network (GSA Network) and the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) are national organizations with local chapters. If your child’s school doesn’t have a Gay-Straight Alliance, encourage them to start one.
Safety is Non-Negotiable
If you find out your child is being bullied by another student, the first step may be to talk to their teacher or the school administration. Contacting your local LGBTQ resource center may be helpful too. Workers at these centers and youth advocacy leaders can help educate your child’s teacher(s) on the best way to create a cultural shift in the classroom to help prevent future situations.
If the bullying or harassment is coming from a teacher or school administrator, it may be necessary to contact your state’s Human Rights Commission to report discrimination. More of your rights can be found at GLAD.org.
Bottom line: Safety is non-negotiable. You have every right to speak up and to be heard.
All of the fun and exciting aspects of a new school year should not be overshadowed by ignorance. You, your family, and your child deserve the same respect and opportunities as every other family and student. It may take a little more work and time in some cases, but the benefits of a happy and confident student are well worth the extra energy.
Good luck parents!