A few semesters ago I had a student in my classroom who asked to be referred to with the pronouns “they,” “them” and “their.” Although I had had some experience with non-binary people in my personal life, I had never before had a student who openly identified in this way. As someone who strives for inclusivity in the classroom, I began to think more than ever about how to create a learning environment that makes all my students feel safe and supported.
As a Spanish teacher, a language with grammatical gender, this can be a bit challenging when working with a non-binary student. How do I practice gender-neutral communication in order to respect my student’s gender identity? Also, the materials I use in the classroom do not always represent non-heterosexual relationships and are often written with only cisgender people in mind. How do I include other perspectives so that my LGBTQ students don’t feel excluded?
In order to find out more, I interviewed my student, who is also very active at my university’s LGBT resource center and asked for advice.
Ways to support LGBTQ+ and non-binary students
Find Your School Resources
Find out if your school has a support network (resource center, student organization, etc.) designed to help LGBTQ students. What are the resources on campus for these students? Is there any faculty training offered for learning more about supporting them? If not-- encourage your school to start one! For example, a video on “safe space”.
Include Yourself in the Process
Add YOUR gender pronouns to your email signature. This is a simple but straightforward gesture to establish allyship to LGBTQ students. Additionally, many trans and gender non-conforming students will email their professors in advance to let them know about pronouns and name changes – always respect these requests and never disregard them.
Consider Your Language Use
English does not have gendered nouns or adjectives but does have gendered third-person pronouns. Be conscious of this and again, always respect your students’ gender pronouns. If you are teaching in a language with grammatical gender, mention and acknowledge the challenge of gendered language for nonbinary people and do some research about how gender non-conforming people may be adapting the language for their needs.
Use Examples that Represent Everyone
Use LGBTQ people and families in practical, general examples and in neutral contexts. For example, when teaching family vocabulary in my Spanish class I will always include examples of same-sex relationships even if the textbook does not. When writing a test or preparing an in-class activity you can easily include examples of LGBT people when referring to general topics.
Avoid Grouping Students by Gender
I have often heard of teachers playing language learning games in the classroom and forming teams based on gender. When asking a student to choose either the “boys” or the “girls” team you could be making someone very uncomfortable.
Never Make Assumptions
My student told me that they have had points taken off in Spanish classes for using masculine adjectives despite being out as nonbinary because they present as more feminine. They said “this was frustrating, but there are other instances in which what could be seen as an error has a more personal explanation (black vs. Black, women vs. womyn) and so forth. Clarification is a good idea in these cases, as is open-mindedness if a student wants to explain their perspective.”
Content and Context Matter
Be conscious of the content and sources presented to students. No matter what the subject, it is important to offer various perspectives and to provide resources written by scholars of different genders, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds.
Communicating is Key
Lastly, don’t be unwilling to engage in difficult conversations for fear of saying the wrong thing. If you DO say the “wrong thing” it is best to recognize your misstatements and commit to educating yourself about these topics.