Equity & Diversity

Teachers Are Divided on Teaching LGBTQ Topics

By Ileana Najarro — December 15, 2021 7 min read
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
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A little more than half of educators believe they should teach about LGBTQ topics, according to a recent Education Week poll. That’s even though surveys have found safety and academic benefits to LGBTQ youth when having access to inclusive curriculum at school.

There can be a number of reasons for the hesitation specifically to teach about things like LGBTQ history, and major court cases tied to LGBTQ identities, experts said. Teachers fear parental pushback; they face a dearth of curriculum options, and even when there are resources available, they may not know what to look for; they may not have received training on the subject; or they simply don’t want to get something wrong.

One estimate from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that close to 10 percent of the U.S. population of teens ages 13-17 are LGBTQ youth. At a time when these students’ identities are being targeted by legislation across the country—such as bathroom bills, laws limiting classroom discussions on gender and sex, banned books featuring same-sex couples—advocates say there is a need for students to engage in conversations in class that address the lived experiences of all students.

“This is an opportunity for us to really show students that not only do they belong, but how powerful they are to lean into who they are,” said a.t. furuya the senior youth programs manager at GLSEN, a national advocacy group for LGBTQ youth.

Hard to teach what you don’t know

The latest national EdWeek Research Center survey was administered between Nov. 17 and Dec. 1, with 1,343 district leaders, school leaders and teachers participating. Of these, a majority said they were willing to teach about politicized topics in the classroom such as race and racism (80 percent), climate change (80 percent), sex education (78 percent) and anti-Semitism (75 percent) in a grade-level and age-appropriate way.

But when it came to LGBTQ issues such as gender identity and expression, only 57 percent said yes. It was also the number one topic respondents said they believed parents didn’t want taught in the classroom and the topic where educators gave the lowest rating in terms of the quality of curriculum they had available to teach students about it.

Alex Parker, a 4th grade teacher at Cossitt Avenue Elementary School in La Grange, Illinois, has had discussions around LGBTQ topics in class after students brought up issues related to the community based on what they’ve come across in their lives. For instance, during Pride month students mentioned seeing rainbow flags and wanted to learn more about what it meant and how the LGBTQ community is accepted more broadly. Or when talking about the ways people can be discriminated against or mistreated because of aspects of their identity, students brought up how that can include who people choose to marry and how they see themselves, whether they are boys or girls, Parker said.

But he admits that a lot of educators didn’t receive a ton of training within teacher preparation programs on how to foster such conversations. In many cases teachers never learned about LGBTQ topics when they were students themselves.

That’s where groups like History UnErased come in. The education nonprofit provides K-12 schools with training and resources to teach LGBTQ-inclusive history.

Topics like women’s history, or African American history have been part of the mainstream curriculum much longer so it can be easier to find resources, said Kathleen Barker, program director and lead facilitator for History UnErased. The idea of LGBTQ history as a field to teach in K-12 is often seen as a newer idea.

But the materials are anything but new. The group’s resources, for instance, include a case study looking at one of the first United States court cases involving gender identity. It revolves around an individual born Thomasine Hall in England who came to colonial Virginia in the 1620s dressed as a male identifying as Thomas Hall, later dressing in female clothes and going by Thomasine again. The case dealt with how this individual identified as it impacted what gendered labor and pay they would get, ending with a judge ruling they must wear both female and male gendered clothing, Baker said.

Other resources from the group address how the various identities of those within the LGBTQ community intersect, a point that’s key to address when getting a full understanding of LGBTQ experiences, said furuya with GLSEN.

“When I first came out, it was like I existed separately as Asian and I existed separately as queer and trans and I was like, I don’t exist walking half of myself into a room and half of myself into another,” they said.

“When we talk about that inclusive curriculum, we’re talking about representation across differences. We’re talking about including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera [both gay liberation and trans rights activists]. We’re talking about incorporating people with disabilities and we’re also talking about undocumented LGBTQ+ people.”

External obstacles to address

When History UnErased does training, whether it’s with elementary educators, secondary educators, or even district leaders, the overwhelming concern they hear is potential pushback from parents, said Debra Fowler, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit.

So they offer informational sessions for parents at the request of school districts with the hope of mitigating any fear they may have in their perception of what LGBTQ academic content entails.

Brad Nelson, a high school social studies teacher at Axtell Community School in Nebraska, has found that in his community LGBTQ topics are something parents would rather teach about at home than have taught in school.

Earlier this year, a bill passed in Tennessee requiring that schools notify parents at least 30 days “prior to commencing instruction of a sexual orientation curriculum or gender identity curriculum” and must allow for parents to review the instructional materials and allow for students to be excused from parts or all of the curriculum without penalty.

When it comes to legislative hurdles or outright bans on LGBTQ inclusive efforts in schools such as student clubs, library books, participation in youth sports, and more, advocates have often seen the pushback come from outside of schools such as from politicians and parents, including parents not directly affiliated with a local school or district, said Barker with History UnErased.

For instance the picture book And Tango Makes Three published in 2005 about two male penguins who raise a chick together has, over the years, been one of the most consistently challenged books mostly by parents, Barker said.

“I think somehow this idea of presenting particularly younger students with someone’s idea of an alternative family is scary to a lot of parents, because they don’t know necessarily how to explain it,” she added.

While Barker and others recognize that parents have the right to have some control over what their students are learning and how they’re educated, sometimes ideas such as a parent not wanting their child to read a book can extend to a library removing the book entirely so no child can read it.

The importance of LGBT curriculum

While educators still work to try and address gaps in curriculum topics, the benefits of LGBTQ inclusive materials remain clear.

GLSEN’s latest biennial national school climate survey, conducted in 2019 with more than 16,700 students ages 13-21 participating, found that close to 60 percent of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 42.5 percent because of their gender expression and 37.4 percent because of their gender.

The survey found that students in schools with an LGBTQ inclusive curriculum were less likely to feel unsafe because of their identity, furuya with GLSEN said. They also experienced lower levels of victimization related to their sexual orientation and gender expression.

Yet only 19.4 percent of LGBTQ students said they were taught positive representations of LGBTQ people, history or events in their schools with 17 percent saying they were taught negative content about LGBTQ topics.

Overall, the survey found little change in LGBTQ-related curricular resources since the survey’s first installment back in 1999, furuya added.

At Terra Linda High School in San Rafael, Calif., David Tow, an AP English, honors philosophy and environmental leadership teacher, said he doesn’t shy away from topics that are politicized in the general culture because of the needs of his students.

“For the students that I work with, things like race and racism, climate change, anti-Semitism, LGBTQ+ issues are not theoretical, abstract social justice issues,” Tow said. “For most of my students, it describes their lived experience. In many ways, conversations around them are less controversial or politically charged for them than I think it is at the culture as a whole.”

LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, as furuya notes, is both helpful in terms of teaching acceptance among all students for those who have different identities, but it can also serve as a mirror to allow students learning who they are to better navigate that process.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Teachers Are Divided on Teaching LGBTQ Topics

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