Making a Difference in Your LGBTQ Students’ Lives

by Guest Contributors

Post submitted by HRC Youth Ambassador Gia Parr

This week, Human Rights Campaign Youth Ambassador Gia Parr sat down with NEA member and kindergarten teacher Kelly McMahon to discuss LGBTQ youth inclusivity and how educators can make their classrooms and schools a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ young people.

Hi everyone! I’m Gia Parr (she/her/hers), a high school senior, LGBTQ activist and HRC Youth Ambassador!

Gia Parr, HRC Youth Ambassador

I had a unique experience coming out to my middle school as transgender a few days prior to the start of eighth grade. I credit my feeling of safety and overall wellness in middle school to the welcoming environment my teachers created for me. Little things teachers did, from checking in and asking, “How are you doing?” to asking me what actions and options made me feel the most comfortable as I was just starting my transition really made all the difference for me.

But sometimes, the little things teachers did made all the difference in the wrong way. I had a teacher who didn’t know I was transgender express anti-LGBTQ views openly in class, and as a result I felt I had to have my guard up whenever I was in his class, that I couldn’t be myself and that I had to be “stealth.”

What I hope educators can take away from my story, and my interview with the amazing Kelly McMahon (she/her/hers) below, is that students struggle -- all students struggle in one way or another, but for students with intersecting identities like myself, as a mixed-race Black and transgender student, we need educators to look out for us and maybe check up on us once in a while.

GP: I have sat in many classrooms, some where I have felt accepted and others where I didn't feel safe or comfortable. How have you addressed safety for LGBTQ students and created visibility of LGBTQ identities in your classroom? How do you think your actions have positively impacted students?

KM: I make sure my students are accepted for who they are. We hold conversations about accepting and caring for each other for who we are, as we are all special human beings. When comments arise from our youngest students (as they lack filters), I make sure to use those incidents as learning opportunities. I have frequent conversations with parents and the school guidance counselor in addition to the student to ensure the child feels safe, loved, respected and valued by everyone. This approach has allowed students and parents to be empowered to communicate the needs and issues that need to be addressed by me. This approach has allowed my kindergarten and first grade students to stick up for their classmates who identify as LGBTQ, have LGBTQ parents/guardians or express their gender in unique ways when students outside of our classroom make a harmful comment or bully the individual.

GP: I’m so glad to hear about your multi-faceted approach to LGBTQ student safety! Some of my past teachers didn’t know much about the transgender community, which made me feel like I had to become the educator and teach them. What educational resources have you used to learn about and guide your advocacy around LGBTQ inclusion in the classroom? Are there particular resources you recommend for teachers?

KM: Rethinking Schools, Teaching Tolerance, HRC’s Welcoming Schools and NEA resources have guided my learning as they provide a plethora of professional learning opportunities for elementary educators to create inclusive learning environments and develop a level of being comfortable to advocate for LGBTQ inclusion in the classroom. . I have watched numerous documentaries as well to learn more about the experiences of LGBTQ individuals throughout childhood. Having personal one-on-one conversations with members of the LGBTQ community have provided the most powerful learning I have experienced.

GP: It’s important for teachers to know that there are so many resources and organizations out there to help them when they’re getting started — they’re not alone. As we know, not everyone is knowledgeable around LGBTQ identities and sometimes teachers even feel uncomfortable talking about LGBTQ inclusion in the classroom because they fear resistance or pushback. How have you navigated resistance or the potential for pushback?

KM: I share the experiences of LGBTQ students that occurred at the early childhood level to help my colleagues develop empathy and a sense of urgency to create a safe space for LGBTQ students. Many LGBTQ people share that they knew they were LGBTQ in early elementary school but didn't seek support from an adult out of fear of being rejected. Utilizing statistics to educate my colleagues about the importance of us engaging in creating inclusive classroom communities to help our students to not become a statistic is another strategy I have found useful. Making it known that my classroom is always student-centered and inclusive of all students and challenging my colleagues and parents that express concerns has addressed any resistance to creating an LGBTQ inclusive classroom. I find that people who have never had training on LGBTQ inclusion tend to sexualize these terms rather than understanding these are identities that our students have. I believe it is the ethical obligation of every educator to address harmful biases and to create inclusive learning environments for each student to thrive.

GP: What are the top three actions you wish all teachers would do starting today to ensure that LGBTQ students feel safe and affirmed in the classroom?

KM: Familiarize yourself with laws that protect and provide support for LGBTQ students. Use this information to advocate for district policies and practices that are enumerated and explicitly include protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Engage in one-on-one conversations with LGBTQ students or former students about their experiences going through your classroom and school district. Brainstorm together how you can improve your inclusive practices.

Name and call out all the microaggressions and discriminatory comments and actions. Use them as teachable moments — an opportunity to highlight the harm the individual may have caused by their actions rather than the individual’s intentions.

GP: Being LGBTQ is just one aspect of an LGBTQ student’s identities. How do you address intersectionality as it relates to the safety and inclusion of LGBTQ students at your school? How do you think your approach has positively impacted your students and/or your classroom climate?

KM: As an early childhood educator, creating a classroom culture where all students are loved and respected for who they are, as well as ensuring safety for all, is key. My students know asking questions to understand and learn is important. I let my students know when they have used hateful, discriminatory language or displayed micro-aggressions and explain how their actions caused harm to their classmates and our classroom. I teach my students to speak up for themselves and others when they aren't being treated kindly. My approach has allowed LGBTQ students, students with LGBTQ parents/guardians or students who express their gender in unique ways to be true to who they are, feel safe and be happy in school. My students also feel empowered and obligated to call out the mistreatment of their LGBTQ students, students of color or students who are experiencing bullying or feeling isolated.

For more information about the Youth Ambassador Initiative.

For more information about Project THRIVE.

Fore more information about HRC’s Welcoming Schools.

For more resources from the Youth Well-Being Team.