Diversity in the Classroom, Part 2

As society moves toward greater understanding and acceptance of diversity, many teachers are faced with a challenge: how can I include more diversity in my classroom? This Diversity in the Classroom blog series examines some historically marginalized groups and provides guidance on telling their stories and histories in the classroom.

Today’s post focuses on LGBTQ+ identities. This acronym stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer.” The plus sign is often used to indicate that there are even more identities under this umbrella—asexual, pansexual, and nonbinary just to name a few. LGBTQ+ includes many different experiences around gender and attraction—how can you cover it? Why cover it at all?

Representation Matters

Regardless of the opinions of teachers and parents, LGBTQ+ students exist and are in your classroom. Some may already use one or more of these labels to identify themselves, while others may discover this about themselves as they get older. Reading books featuring LGBTQ+ characters and learning about LGBTQ+ historical figures will help these students understand themselves. Be sure to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ students to share their experiences while also not expecting their experiences to be the same as those they read about or expecting them to be “experts” on these experiences.

Teaching LGBTQ+ stories and history also benefits students who are not LGBTQ+. It helps them develop empathy for people who are different from them and they can learn to be good allies.

Where can I find LGBTQ+ books and authors?

Many great resources exist to help you find LGBTQ+ books and authors.

  • Your school or local library: librarians can show you what LGBTQ+ books the library carries. If your library doesn’t have a book, you can always request it to show that there is demand for LGBTQ+ stories.
  • Goodreads: This popular social networking site for readers allows people to create “shelves,” or lists, of books using any categories they want. Many reviewers have shelves for LGBTQ+ books. Some break this down further by having separate lists for each letter in the acronym. Look through these lists to find books you may want to teach.
  • LGBTQ+ book clubs: Some online book clubs focus exclusively on LGBTQ+ books. Check their blogs or website to see what they’re reading.

How do I know if a book represents LGBTQ+ people respectfully?

Representation matters, but bad or disrespectful representation may send harmful messages to students. Take these steps to make sure the books you’re teaching provide good representation.

  • Read reviews written by LGBTQ+ people. If a book is about a lesbian, read what lesbians think about it. If it’s about a transgender girl, read what transgender girls and women think about it. Many of these reviews will state whether the representation is good or bad. Additionally, many online publications run by LGBTQ+ people post book reviews that you can read.
  • Search the book on social media to see what people are saying about it.
  • Ask LGBTQ+ friends and family if they’ve read or heard of the book and what they think about it

LGBTQ+ terminology changes so much. How can I make sure I don’t accidentally use harmful words? What if the books I teach use outdated language?

Many terms are used within the LGBTQ+ community and new language comes about as people are freer to explore their identities. Some LGBTQ+ people have reclaimed words once widely used as slurs while others are uncomfortable with those terms. 

  • If you aren’t sure about a term, look it up online or ask a friend or family member who may use that term themselves. 
  • If a controversial term appears in a book you want to teach, introduce students to the context of that term. Is it said as an insult to the main character or does the main character use it as an identifier? Does the book take place a few generations ago when people used those terms more casually?
  • Emphasize that students should not use controversial terms to describe someone else unless they have that person’s permission. For example, if someone identifies as “queer,” and tells you to describe them with that word, then use it.

How can I teach LGBTQ+ history?

  • Place historical figures in their context. Help students understand that people in the past thought about their gender and attractions to other people differently than we do today. 
  • Explain that not all historical figures explicitly labeled themselves as anything because they didn’t have the same language we use today and it was not always safe to be explicit about their identities, but their behavior and relationships may allow some room for speculation.
  • Be cautious when using identities we have today to describe people from the past.
  • Use whatever terminology that historical figure used for themselves, even if that word is outdated or inaccurate today. 

What if my school/state doesn’t allow me to teach LGBTQ+ content?

You may not be able to add books and historical figures to the curriculum, but you can be an ally to students by being a safe person to talk to and advocating for them. 

  • Do your research and recommend LGBTQ+ books to students who have come out to you. 
  • Network with other supportive teachers in your school. 
  • Talk with your principal and local board of education about including LGBTQ+ content in the curriculum. 
  • Look up the publisher of the curriculum materials you use in your classroom and see if you can contact them to request that they include LGBTQ+ content.

By following these tips, you can ensure not only that your classroom teaches LGBTQ+ stories, but also that those stories affirm and teach students about themselves and others.