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Speak Up: How to Help Our LGBTQ+ Students

Setting aside mercenary concerns to “get a good job” and “major in something lucrative,” students often find that the purpose of higher education is more complex than they realize. Independent (perhaps for the first time) and making contact with a diverse community of peers, college offers every student an opportunity to explore, develop, and clarify their identity. A course of study is, thus, not only the path one takes to a degree; it also carves out a space in which fledgling adults define who they are, embracing and rejecting constructs of race, gender, political leaning, and religious doctrine.

This is no less true for LGBTQ+ students. On college campuses, young people often have their first brushes with gay history, activism, and gender fluidity. Historically speaking, they are likely to enter their first serious relationships or build a (primarily) non-hetero group of friends.

As instructors and administrators, it is our duty to facilitate the development of all students. To do so, here are a few tips for encouraging gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans and queer people on college campuses.

  1. Educate Yourself

A classroom cannot function unless everyone is made to feel welcome and necessary. This is an instructor’s first responsibility: to set a tone that is both intellectually challenging and socially inclusive. Before setting that tone, though, instructors should recognize that student populations are more diverse than they once were and bring with them a wide variety of needs. Progressive educators may view this change as an opportunity to re-examine and enlarge their pedagogies. When attending conferences for professional development, make it a point to visit any panels about LGBTQ+ history or LGBTQ+-inclusive classrooms. Join the Consortium of Higher Education Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Professionals and visit The Safe Zone Project for additional resources.

Non-progressive educators, on the other hand, ought to examine their own biases. Any discomfort with a student’s identity (whether racial, ethnic, political, religious, or—in this case—LGBTQ+) impedes communication between student and teacher. There is no sense in bemoaning these trends toward the diverse. Instead: adapt and grow to meet new challenges.

  1. Put It in Your Syllabus

Although college campuses are often seen as liberal bastions of “wokeness,” the truth is somewhat more complex. In the 21st century, LGBTQ+ students—particularly those that identify as transgender—face instances of harassment, assault, and discrimination, both on campus and online.

LGBTQ+ students must know that, in spite of the various threats they receive, you are their ally. This can be professionally communicated in your syllabus. In a strongly worded note, announce that you will not tolerate discrimination or bullying of any kind. Move on to list on-and-off campus resources for ALL students (providing links when appropriate). Furthermore, include a note about personal pronouns, encouraging students to share their preferences (he/she/they/ze/per) with you.

  1. Make Mistakes—Like a Human

For some instructors, the notion of gender and sexuality as non-binary can mean a steep learning curve. Having navigated intolerance, LGBTQ+ students are very aware of this and appreciate your efforts to get it right. Should you trip over a student’s preferred pronoun (“she” instead of “he”) or confuse one orientation with another (“gay” instead of “bi”), wait until class is over and apologize to the student—briefly and in private. If you notice a student or colleague getting it wrong, gently correct them. The key adverbs here are briefly and gently. In announcing yourself as an LGBTQ+ ally, do not (1) scold others or (2) make the student feel awkward. People skills help.

Pronouns, in my opinion, deserve the same respect and sensitivity that we show to FERPA guidelines, students’ medical excuses, and confessions made during office hours. Dismissing someone’s gender identity (through refusal or eye-rolling) only alienates them from the learning process. When we fail to take these requests seriously, we work against student success.

  1. Form a Task Force

As Kristen Renn outlines in her article, “LGBTQ+ Students on Campus: Issues and Opportunities for Higher Education Leaders,” there is no need to wait around for government-mandated change:

“Conduct an audit of gender inclusion in policies and a process mapping exercise to illuminate additional policy obstacles to transgender inclusion. For example, walk through the process of a student changing their name and gender on institutional documents or obtaining trans-inclusive healthcare. There may be some simple adjustments in administrative processes that would eliminate substantial obstacles for individual students.”

If your institution does not have policies related to discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, or gender inclusion that specifically address LGBTQ+ students, draft them! If on-campus Counseling or Health Services neglect to offer LGBTQ+-specific resources, enact change! An LGBTQ+-oriented task force, comprised of students, faculty, and administrators, can recommend LGBTQ+ programming, professional development for staff, and campus-wide education efforts. According to Renn: “Engaging stakeholders from multiple communities increases the likelihood that the institution will stay ahead of emergent matters of equity and inclusion.”

  1. Diversify Your Staff

Certainly, a diverse student population deserves to be mirrored in a diverse faculty. As grand and necessary as straight and cis allies are to LGBTQ+ communities, certain deficits may only be noticed by LGBTQ+ staff members. It is, of course, reductive to assume that only lesbians can address the needs of lesbian students; however, when students are struggling with issues they perceive as “gay,” they may find it easier to confide in teachers whose identities resonate with their own.

Furthermore, hiring LGBTQ+ instructors and administrators ensures that LGBTQ+ concerns will not be easily dismissed.

  1. Diversify Your Curriculum!

Along with hiring LGBTQ+ teachers, why not let them (and their straight colleagues) teach LGBTQ+ lessons? Even as college campuses become browner, gayer, and more diverse, the required reading remains overwhelmingly white and patriarchal. Setting aside subjects like math—is there a gay trapezoid?—instructors across the disciplines should take Stonewall’s 50th anniversary as an opportunity to see their field through multiple, intersecting lenses.

Remember: without an instructor’s influence, many people will never engage with LGBTQ+ history, culture, or authorship. It’s important to make the contributions of non-hetero luminaries visible in the classroom. This autumn, I’m scheduled to teach a film course and—between Hitchcock, Welles, and Kubrick—I’ve made it a goal to represent directors who are female or African-American or LGBTQ+. Rather than lionizing the great white males in a field, we might all consider assigning texts that will embolden our minority students and complicate the majority’s perspective. Seeing one’s own experience or history reflected in the required curriculum is a surefire way to promote student engagement and success.

These are just a few of the first steps instructors and administrators—working in concert—can take to guarantee a safe and productive learning environment for their LGBTQ+ students. In considering the differences that keep LGBTQ+ students alienated from the college community-at-large, we can advocate for serious changes to programming, diversity education, and campus support. Taking our charge seriously, we can live up to our primary responsibility as educators: aiding and supporting students of all kinds, as they become—increasingly—themselves.

About the Author

Professor Ray Dademo is an adjunct professor of English at Rutgers University, Montclair State University, and Middlesex County College. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and a BA in English from Fordham University. His pedagogy involves the use of cinematic literacy as an entry point for composition studies. He has recently co-authored an article for the CEA Critic, titled "Narrating the Moviegoing Experience: Reframing Film for First-Year Composition.

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