Today on The Heinemann Podcast, how can teachers improve their practice around LGBTQ needs in the classroom? It’s October 11th, National Coming Out Day. A day for those who identify as LGBTQ to be visible. A day to say you matter, you’re not alone. How can educators make their classrooms a safer place for LGBTQ students and why is it important for both LGBTQ teachers and students to see schools as a safe place? Heinemann author Kate Roberts and Heinemann Fellow Jess Lifshitz talk more about the importance for our classrooms to be safe places.
See below for a transcript of our conversation:
Jess: I think that the hardest places for people to feel safe in are the places that historically and traditionally have not felt safe for students. Even though here we are in 2017, and we've made so much progress in terms of LGBT rights, and just inclusion, and acceptance, traditionally, schools have been places, I think, where a lot of us who are gay have experienced either harassment or just a feeling of being invisible.
I think the places where that has been the past experience are the places where we have to work the hardest to make kids today feel safe, and I also think that our students get so much from the direction that we head. If we're avoiding topics, students feel like the reason for that, they infer the reason, and so sometimes kids start to think that somebody's who gay or someone who's transgender is in some way not appropriate for school because they are left out of the curriculum. They're left out of the classroom. They're left out of the conversation, and so I think we run the risk of letting kids assume that there's something inappropriate about people who are part of the LGBT plus community.
I think as educators, we have to find ways. Even if it makes us uncomfortable we have to find ways to bring all humans into our classrooms and make sure everybody is seen. For kids who are LGBTQ and for kids who are just a part of this world.
Kate: Yeah, I think that it's easy sometimes if you're straight to not see the effect that the silence has on your colleagues and your students. It's easy, I think, to think that everything's fine. "Oh, I know this gay teacher down the hall, but he seems fine here. He seems really happy," or you don't think you have any gay students, so it's probably not an issue. I think it's hard for a teacher who doesn't identify as LGBTQ plus. It's hard to then have a sense of urgency around that if everything seems fine, if the issue doesn't sort of present itself to you, if you don't have a kind of critical moment of change in your view on the world.
What Jess and I, and so many other people who are not represented in this podcast can tell you is that they are not fine if the culture that they're working in, that they're living in, that they're learning in is one does not acknowledge and support the existence of gay people, of trans people, of bi people, of queer people in general. The smiles, and the nods, and the, "Oh, that's okays," it's not true. It's not okay. It's just that we are conditioned, and we are trained, and we have to for our own survival say that it's okay and make sure that everyone around us feels comfortable.
I think on the one hand it's like school is a front line for these issues, like Jess was saying, because it hasn't traditionally been a place where you can even mention the existence of LGBT people. I think it's also like we're here. We're in your classroom and they're not okay. I'm not saying … They aren't necessarily in crisis. I'm not pathologizing the queer kid or anything like that, but they're not cool with it. There's a thing. They're thinking about it. They're wondering where they fit, and the adults in the building have a responsibility to make that space one where kids feel like they can exist and they can fit.
I think what Jess said that's so beautiful is that it's not just about queer kids or queer teachers. The schools I am … I have the luxury, the privilege to see schools all over the country, and the schools that embrace LGBT identities, they tend to be schools that embrace lots of identities. Where lots of kids can feel safe, and welcomed, and a part of the community. Schools that don't, that will not have those books, or those topics, or anything be spoken in that way tend to be the places where there's more of a bullying culture. There's more of a us versus them culture in those kids and teachers, essentially.
Brett: Kate, you sort of referenced this a second ago, so I want to make it abundantly clear that the experiences we talk about in this podcast, certainly, we can't speak for every person out there in the world. We can only speak to our own personal experiences and how that's informed our thinking, so I just want to sort of put that out there. It's important that an educator hears this, or they're thinking about this, or it's been on their mind, and they think it feels daunting to sort of make those changes if they realize that they want to move forward and making those changes in their school or just in their classroom or with their students. What are some ways that an educator could make some steps and get started going down this path to sort of help a student see themselves?
Kate: The thing that comes to my mind is the best first step is just mention the existence of LGBTQ people. Just practice it. Little dips in. You mention someone that you know is gay. Be like, "They were gay." Mention gay issues that exist. You don't have to talk about it. You don't have to debate it. You don't have to put a book in necessarily, first step, but just mention that these issues exist.
I think the erasure of gay identities and queer identities is the most insidious part of homophobia. It's just this deafening silence. I don't know about you, Jess, but for me growing up, I literally didn't know that gay people existed until much, much later than I should've. I think that's still sort of true in some places.
Jess: I agree. I think of myself now as a grownup and as a mom walking into my daughter's classroom for the first time, and unfortunately, I think because of the world we still live in, I assume I'm not welcome until I'm proven otherwise. I think especially walking into schools, or religious institutions, because of the history there I assume … I wish I didn't, but I assume bad until I'm proven otherwise. The things, to me, that are visible even are really important.
My daughter's in preschool so there's not a ton of context [inaudible 00:06:37] other than the alphabet, but books. Just having images that represent all sorts of families. I actually think in elementary school some of the easiest ways to start working LGBT issues into the classroom is through family diversity. Just talking about families with two moms or two dads. That's part of a larger conversation about families who live with Grandma, or families who are with an aunt or uncle. Seeing books that represent all families is a big deal.
I also think the forms and papers that we send home are a really easy place to start. I'm often surprised how many forms my wife and I have to cross out where it says father and put in mother. Nobody's meaning to exclude us, they just aren't thinking about it. I think the thinking about it comes first, and then making changes that are visible like just listing family members instead of saying Mom and Dad. Even parent one and parent two is making assumptions. Just giving space to list family members that are important.
The communication that we send home, the way we title letters to say, "Dear families," or, "Dear Caregivers," instead of Moms and Dads. Being aware around holidays like Mother's Day. Luckily, Father's Day falls in the summer, so it's not as a big of a concern. Those kinds of visible signs, I think are a really good place to start. I think, for me, putting the books in my room that showed gay characters came first, and then eventually I actually started to use the books. It's almost like when you get a new fish and you have to acclimate it to the tank first. I had to let the books hang out a little bit until I was like, "Okay. I'm going to read this one out loud," or I'm going to say the word gay and lesbian, instead of just referring to a family with two moms or two dads. I think those little steps add up.
I think the single biggest motivating factor is when you do finally jump in and you watch the kids none reaction. That kids are so much more willing to just go with it than we are as adults. I think the place … You'll never feel totally ready. I don't feel ready. Still, I get nervous when I read a new book that I know has a gay or transgender character in it, but just to jump in a little bit at a time and just watch the kids, and then follow them where they lead us.
Brett: Kate, you do a lot of work with middle schoolers and high school as well, and I know certainly that's where more questions are starting to arise, but it's also sort of an opportunity where as those questions are coming up more from students … It can sometimes be questions that you're not really sure how to read those questions. You're not necessarily sure, "Are they asking me because they're curious for themselves or is it just sort of a middle schooler being a middle schooler? Sometimes it's difficult to know how to read that situation.
Kate: I think what's interesting about that for me is that it is one big, huge ray of hope I have for our world around this issue in schools, but just in our human communities. Because when I started this job to go to sort of a new school every day and there are lots and lots of times where I'm entering into classrooms as the surprise guest.
For the listeners who don't know, I, for lack of a better, more nuanced phrase, I look sort of gay. People can see me and they will think, "Hmm, I bet she is." I'm visibly gay or I have cues. I have short hair. I'm striving for a kind of Rachel Maddow kind of thing. At the beginning of my career when I would go into new classrooms … I can tell you, this was 17 years ago, 12 years ago, kids would erupt. I would walk in and they would yell and go, "Oh, my God." Yell jokes. It was like a huge wall of a reaction that would meet me.
I developed over the years ways to just meet that with a kind of steadiness and then some love and humor, and by the end of 45 minutes usually, kids will be like, "[inaudible 00:11:10], Ms. Roberts." I wasn't the weird lesbian in the room. I was Ms. Roberts. The thing that I see more than anything else now going into middle schools and high schools is that kids … I still feel like they notice me. I still feel seen, and noted, and, "Oh, I know what that is," but it is vastly different. I have kids come up to me just openly be like, "I like your hair." It was unheard of a few years ago.
I'll say that if you're a teacher who isn't sure how to talk about these issues, like Jess said, I'll echo it, the kids are ready to talk about this. They are ready. They want to. They are interested, but not in a crazy, "Oh, my gosh," way. Just in a, "I'm interested. This is our world. We know that there are different kinds of people." I don't have kids ask me that many questions anymore. Really, it's the kindergartners that are like, "Are you a boy or a girl?" That's the question I get that I have to field.
The other thing is I think that because there aren't lots of spaces to have these discussions yet, middle schoolers typically won't ask me anything because they don't want to be rude. I'm there to teach. I'm there to talk about reading, and writing, and I think the dream I have the space in schools to be able to have these conversations. Many schools have straight-gay alliances, and LGBTQ clubs, and all that, but more schools than not don't have those spaces to talk.
Brett: Jess, you mentioned before that on the letters that we're sending home to parents, and that's a really easy place to just sort of say partner or choose different things and not just always have to be the default mother and father. Certainly, that also extends further throughout the years when we use pronouns. Pronouns are just a simple, everyday use. There's different contexts for how we can use pronouns, but let's talk a little bit about pronouns and why that's important. Sometimes when that conversation comes up it gets a bad rep for trying to be too politically correct, but when you strip away that talking point there's actually a good reason why talking about pronouns is important.
Jess: Yeah, I always think about it, I think, simply to say, for me to imagine going around and having everybody use he as the pronoun to describe me. I identify as female. I prefer the she pronoun, and everyone around me kept saying, "He did that," it would feel really frustrating. It would feel like I needed to scream and tell them, "You're wrong. That's not who I am." I think we do that to kids all the time.
I think especially in elementary school kids might not have the language to say, "That feels wrong," or they do have that language and they've tried to use that language and they've been told to stop it. That they are a boy or they are a girl, and stop saying that you're not. Where I come is that any time that I can avoid asking children to choose a gender or choose a pronoun, I'm going to avoid it.
Little things like I used to have a boys' bathroom pass and a girls' bathrooms pass. I don't know maybe bathroom passes is not a thing after elementary school, but I feel like it's kind of a-
Kate: Oh, no. You have a pass. There are rules. There are rules.
Jess: We had a boys' and a girls' bathroom pass, and it wasn't until I heard someone who is transgender telling the story of what it was like for him in school always feeling like when he had to make a choice that raised anxiety because he felt like, "Either, I make a choice that feels wrong for me or I make a choice that gets me made fun of by the people around me." How simple is it to take away a boys' and a girls' bathroom pass and have bathroom pass number one and bathroom pass number two? Really, it doesn't matter to me if they're both boys, or girls, or someone who identifies as neither out of the room at the same time.
Also, the way I think there are a lot of classrooms who are still lining up boys' line and girls' line, and to get rid of that. Also take away ladies and gentleman, and say folks instead. All those little changes feel so small and are actually … They take some practice to become habit, but they're actually really easy changes to make that are not at all politically charged. They're not at all controversial, but we can make those changes. I think about how many moments of anxiety are we all of a sudden removing for kids who don't feel like they fit into that traditional gender binary.
It took me a long time to understand that, but then I imagine my own discomfort of walking into a men's bathroom and it would feel so wrong for me. I think about kids who have to do that every day, and when we can, to take away that need to choose or the ability to respect someone's pronouns, it might be a little uncomfortable for us for a little bit, but then I think about how much discomfort we're alleviating for a child, and then it feels really important.
Kate: I think that idea of discomfort is such a big one. You know what I mean? Right now in our world, it's not comfortable for anybody sometimes. There are going to be times as an educator … I'm uncomfortable all the time. Do you know what I mean? That's just me as a person, but also, when talking about issues around identity. I feel like I make mistakes. I have intentions that don't go the way I want. I get too scared to make a brave move forward. I wonder if I've gone too far. I think there's a way that you have to understand and sort of accept that we are going to have to feel uncomfortable sometimes in order to move forward. We're going to have to make mistakes.
Listening to you, Jess, I know that I have this verbal tick that I have not yet been able to erase where I say guys all the time. That's my … "Hey, guys. Hey, guys." I do it to my kids. I do it to everybody. There's a mistake I make, right? I still make it. I made it today. I'm still going to move forward trying to be a little bit better tomorrow to think about it, to reflect on it, and if I never fix that one, okay, but I'm going to keep at it. I think if we can have that attitude more about some of these issues and understand that it's going to be uncomfortable, but that since we're in schools our charge really is to help our kids feel as comfortable as possible.
Jess: That's where I would also, as a gay educator, I would appeal to our straight allies that we need you. That it is uncomfortable, I think, for any of us to talk about things that traditionally have not been talked about in schools. For a gay educator to start bringing in issues of LGBT people and talking about current events even, as a gay educator, there's an added layer of vulnerability because I think if a parent is upset it can quickly then switch over to, "Well, she's got an agenda." It is so much easier for me, as a gay educator, to read books with transgender characters if I know that the straight teacher across the hall is also reading those books because then all the sudden it's not that one gay classroom teacher who's reading these books or having these conversations.
It's what we do as a school because we believe that all people deserve to be represented and that it is our responsibility to help kids learn about all people who exist in this world so they're better equipped when they go out and interact with them. I think we all feel that discomfort. I can say as a gay educator I feel it in a different way because every time I open my mouth somewhere in my head is that idea that this could come back and someone could say I'm pushing my own agenda or it's because I'm gay that I'm having these conversations. I guess my plea is twofold. One, to straight educators to step up as allies and start having those uncomfortable conversations too.
Then also, I would say to any administrator listening that I need that verbal support that, "I know you worry about being the gay classroom teacher, and I want you to know that I've got your back." I think for administrators also, to have conversations where they're talking about LGBTQ issues makes every teacher feel like, "Oh, it's okay for me to then go ahead and do it in my classroom." I think that discomfort is something we all feel, and I think that's what we always talk about when we say use your privilege for good. If you don't have to worry about the attack of, "She's pushing an agenda," it's just a smidge easier for you to have those conversations. I think we all need to sort of lean into that discomfort to make it easier on everyone.
Kate: We can't do it without our straight colleagues because there are laws in most states that say that we can be fired. We cannot be hired. There is not protection in many places for us for our jobs. A thread that Jess and I are on, we're hearing stories from queer teachers around the country who viably feel like their jobs are threatened if they're out to their colleagues. Not even kids. We're not even at that level of reading a book with a queer character in it. We're talking about just saying, "Yeah, I've got a boyfriend or I've got a girlfriend," or, "I'm this person. This is who I am." If we don't have the relationships, the support of straight colleagues it's going to be really hard to move this conversation forward.
In my own classroom, my kids were calling each other names. Using the F-word quite a bit, and I was really upset by it but I didn't know how to talk about it. It wasn't until the teacher who taught next to me next door … Shout out to Carlos Ramiro wherever you are. I think you're a principal somewhere in New York. He came out at lunch and one day and said, "I'm hearing the boys say this and it's driving me nuts. We've got to do something." He said, "I'm the one who has to do it. You can't do it. I've got to do it." I just wept because it was true. I desperately needed him. I couldn't do it on my own, but then once he did it I could step up too and kind of be like, "Yeah. Yeah."
I really struggle with the chicken or the egg question of what comes first, action or thought? It's a marriage that I have to sometimes try some things to figure out what I think about them or how it feels, but I also have to do a lot of just my own sort of changing of perception. I've certainly had that for myself with lots of different issues in my adult life. Just starting to look around you and notice stuff, like the pronoun thing. Look at the forms and look at what caregivers are being called. Without it, without deciding to look, and see, and note … Without torturing yourself with guilt, without being angry at everything, but just kind of saying, "Oh, I see that now." Then I think it opens up the possibility for being able to make changes.
Jess: I think no matter how small we start, we will always be encouraged by the children we're working with because they will push us forward. They will push us forward into things that might seem really scary to us, but when we sort of lock arms with our kids and walk into it, we're not alone anymore and we can follow their lead because in everything I've seen, kids are significantly braver than adults are. If we keep following them, I think we will end up in a better place and that this generation of kids will grow up to sort of fix some of the messes that we've left behind. I think in some ways it's a really scary time, and in other ways, it's a really hopeful time that this could be our chance to do better in the future.
Kate: The hope also, but small things make a big difference. I think sometimes when you enter into this stuff you feel like, "Oh, I have to change the policies of the blah." As a gay kid growing up, I didn't have much to hang onto, but the tiny things, they probably save my life. Nancy McKeon on The Facts of Life probably saved my life. Just seeing someone who might … She's not, but she might, she could be something that I think I am. That tiny glimpse, that tiny confirmation, "You're okay. You exist. You're here. You're not alone." That made the difference for me, and so you don't have to run the straight-gay alliance in your school to save a kid's life. You can just say that we exist. You can just bring books onto your bookshelf. You can just change the language on home letters and that could be the difference for a child that's in your care.
You can follow them Kate on Twitter @TeachKate and Jess has a blog which you can find at https://crawlingoutoftheclassroom.wordpress.com. Kate Roberts has a new book out with Heinemann in the spring of 2018.