Using Inclusive Virtual Backgrounds is Essential to the Success of LGBTQ and other Marginalized Youth

by HRC staff

Four colorful zoom backgrounds

Post submitted by Dr. Vincent “Vinnie” Pompei, Director of the Youth Well-Being Program and Andi Salinas, Manager of the Youth Well-Being Program

As schools turn to using online platforms to accommodate social distancing, a number of LGBTQ youth have lost their only outlets to fully be themselves. Face-to-face time with affirming peers and educators is critically important for LGBTQ students, and too many are now forced to remain home on a daily basis with families or caregivers who are either unsupportive or unaware of their LGBTQ identity.

According to HRC’s LGBTQ Youth Report, 67% of LGBTQ youth hear their families make negative comments about LGBTQ people, leaving many with fear of family rejection or even physical violence. In fact, as stated in HRC’s Youth Report, only 21% of LGBTQ youth are out to their families about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Now more than ever, it is important for K-12 educators to show their support for marginalized students even while brick and mortar classrooms are closed. When students feel safe and connected to their learning, research shows that both attendance and academic achievement improve. With the use of technology, many educators have created welcoming and affirming virtual backgrounds for their classrooms and offices, ensuring that each student knows they are welcome and validated for who they are.

Throughout my life, I’ve struggled to focus in class whenever I felt unsafe or invisible. As a Black Dominican-American transgender teen, learning in an online environment that is visibly welcoming and validating has greatly improved my ability to focus during class time. I wish all educators would create an inclusive virtual background to help all students feel affirmed and supported in their online classrooms.

Ashton Mota, High School Student and HRC Youth Ambassador

Taylor Lifka, a high school English teacher, created her own virtual background for her classroom with several inclusive posters showing support for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ students, immigrant students and much more. When faced with a request from her district to take the posters down, she refused, resulting in Lifka being placed on administrative leave.

Lifka refused to compromise on her beliefs, stating, “I believe that Black Lives Matter. I believe in safe and affirming spaces for my LGBTQ+ students. I believe that no woman should ever apologize for being loud and strong. I believe in the lives of my undocumented students, and there is no room for compromise on validating our individual identities.”

Animated classroom with a woman pointing to wall with posters, including a black lives matter poster and rainbow flag

Lifka was quickly reinstated after constructive dialogue with her district, and received an outpouring of support from community members. Though the experience may have been overwhelming, to Lifka, the “experience will forever be worth it, as it has sparked much needed conversation in my community - led almost exclusively by students and community members. While I momentarily held the mic, it was the voices of my students and community members I lifted; they are the change our nation desperately needs.”

HRC also spoke with school counselors Erika Zamora and Michelle Ferrer about using inclusive backgrounds in their virtual offices. According to HRC’s LGBTQ Youth Report, only 27% of LGBTQ youth feel comfortable talking with their school counselor about issues related to their LGBTQ identity. Zamora notes, “now more than ever our students need to know that their schools are a safe space. We need to show our students that we are inclusive and they can count on us to be there for them.” If students aren’t feeling affirmed in their homes, schools can offer another chance for students to feel safe in a different environment.

Animated zoom background with a little woman standing in front of a desk

For those looking to create an affirming virtual background, Ferrer describes her process.

“We utilized Unsplash to find a background we liked and then uploaded it into Google Slides to make the changes necessary. An online tool called Remove.bg was used to delete backgrounds or images we wanted to remove. Once it reflected our beliefs we made it into a PDF and shared with other colleagues.”

Animated desk background with pinned pieces of materials, including a trans flag

The National Education Association (NEA) provides free digital graphics or posters that educators can use in their virtual backgrounds or print and display in physical locations once schools open back up. The NEA also produced an LGBTQ safe space poster that can easily be added to virtual classroom backgrounds. Additionally, the American Counseling Association produced an LGBTQ safe space poster and tip-sheet on creating LGBTQ-inclusive environments.

In June, HRC created Zoom backgrounds available for download featuring various pride flags as well as the HRC equal sign logo.

During these uncertain times, it is critically important to show continued support for LGBTQ and other marginalized students. School professionals can make a difference in the lives of each of their students by demonstrating that their virtual spaces are safe for all.

If you are an educator or youth-serving professional and are using an inclusive virtual background, let HRC know by tagging @HRC on Twitter, @HumanRightsCampaign on Instagram or HumanRightsCampaign on Facebook, or by using the #VirtualInclusion. We will repost some of our favorites in the hopes of inspiring more educators and other youth-serving professionals to create their own inclusive virtual backgrounds. Together, we can show each student that we care and make it easier for all of them to thrive.