Equity & Diversity Explainer

These LGBTQ+ Terms Can Help Create A Safe School for Students

By Brooke Schultz — May 24, 2024 8 min read
Hands holding different colored placards with the letters LGBTQ+
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LGBTQ+ students are increasingly caught in the middle of politics and public education, with an onslaught of legislation that puts limits on classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity and transgender girls’ participation in school sports.

In some communities, the dynamic has put students with stigmatized identities in a precarious situation; reading about instances of bullying and legislation that can feel like an attack on their identity has a severe impact on LGBTQ+ teens’ mental health.

But school environments that are welcoming and affirming for all students, including LGBTQ+ students, are important, experts on school climate say. For LGBTQ+ students, that can include having teachers and peers who respect their names and pronouns, seeing representation of LGBTQ+ issues in the curriculum, and supportive student groups—lower their risk of suicide significantly, according to research.

However, in many conservative-leaning states, there are legal limits to what some schools and educators can do when it comes to things like restroom access and sports participation.

School districts with policies that support transgender and gender non-conforming students are facing legal challenges brought by parents and conservative advocacy groups that often argue that schools can’t interfere with their parental rights to raise their children. In some cases, the issue can be particularly sensitive when school district policies require staff not to disclose students’ chosen names and pronouns to parents. Other states allow teachers to disregard students’ requested names or pronouns.

Whatever the limitations, it’s important for educators to find ways to make schools a safe, supportive environment, said C. Scott Miller, co-chair of the National Education Association’s LGBTQ+ Caucus and California classroom teacher.

“We want our LGBTQ+ kids in school,” he said. “We need to do a better job keeping kids safe.”

One place to start is becoming familiar with terminology used in the LGBTQ+ student community. But, Miller noted, terms are fluid and evolving.

The term “queer” for instance has long had a negative connotation and has been used as a slur, he said. But younger generations have reclaimed it, and commonly use it to describe their identity now.

“It’s even hard for people who are doing this work to keep up with it,” he said. “Language in the LGBTQ+ community changes about every two years, if not faster. Just get your phone, or Google, or a dictionary and try to figure it out and ask supportive questions.”

Here are the key terms to know.

Gender dysphoria, identity, expression, expansive

Sex refers to biological characteristics, such as reproductive anatomy and hormones, which can be changed or legally altered on official government-issued documents. Gender identity is a person’s sense of their gender, which may or may not align with a person’s sex. Gender expression is how one presents a gender identity, through dress, appearance, and mannerisms. Sometimes, that aligns with a person’s sex.

That means there is sometimes a difference in someone’s sex and their gender expression. People whose gender identity matches their birth sex are cisgender.

When someone experiences gender dysphoria, they feel there’s a mismatch between sex and gender identity, said Matt Rice, a New Jersey classroom educator with a doctorate in education from Baylor University, who has coauthored research on gender and sexuality. Gender dysphoria is a medical diagnosis from the diagnostics and statistics manual from the American Psychiatric Association, he added.

Transgender people are those whose gender identity and/or expression differs from their birth sex. It’s essential to respect someone’s pronouns and names that are part of their transgender identity, not the name or pronouns of their birth sex.

People who are nonbinary have a gender identity and gender expression that may not neatly fit into the binary of male and female, said Miller. Nonbinary people may refer to themselves as being gender expansive or gender nonconforming, which is more commonly referred to as gender-fluid now.

Gender expansive is an emerging umbrella term about gender identity, said Adrian Martin, a professor whose research has focused on gender and sexuality in the college of education at New Jersey City University, for individuals who are more flexible with their gender identity or expression.

Pronouns

Pronouns are the words that take the place of a noun, including proper names. In English, pronouns are often gendered, like she/her or he/him. They/them is a common pronoun used by nonbinary people. There are also neopronouns, which are gender-neutral and can look like xe/xyr, ze/hir/hirs, and more. Sometimes, people use a combination of pronouns.

“Those are ways people are using language to kind of challenge our binary assumptions about gender,” said Heather McEntarfer, a professor at the State University of New York-Fredonia in New York whose research has looked at gender and sexuality.

Miller said that the NEA LGBTQ+ Caucus, which provides professional support for LGBTQ+ educators and works with staff to ensure programming is not biased against LGBTQ+ staff and students, recommends that educators, at the beginning of the year, ask students in a nonthreatening way—through a questionnaire or survey—what pronouns they use.

Something that often comes up, the educators said, is the use of a plural pronoun for a singular person. But it’s commonplace already, McEntarfer said.

“You just use ‘them’ the way we’ve actually been using they/them as a singular pronoun,” she said. “It goes back to Shakespeare.”

Still, if it feels unusual to use they/them or a neopronoun, McEntarfer said on her walk to class, she’ll practice in her head saying a student’s name and their pronouns in a sentence to commit it to memory.

Emilly Osterling, co-chair of the NEA’s LGBTQ+ Caucus and a teacher in North Carolina, said when in doubt, just use the student’s name.

And if you make a mistake, own it, Osterling said.

“There’s a difference between making a common mistake, versus deliberately calling someone by a name or pronouns that they don’t want you to use,” Miller added. “That’s called discrimination. If you make a mistake—and people will—the best thing to do is own it, apologize, correct yourself, and move on.”

Deadnaming

A student who is transgender or nonbinary may change their name, and sometimes will refer to the name given at birth as a “deadname,” Rice said. Referring to a student by a deadname can be harmful, especially if it’s a “deliberate attempt to deny their agency in identifying themselves,” he said.

“We also do this when people get married. They will sometimes take another last name. Does it take a minute at first when your friend is married to remember their new last name? Sure. But we do it for them because we love and care about them,” he said.

There are some complexities when a state attendance system uses legal names. Sometimes names can be easily changed in the system. In other states, especially those with Parents’ Bill of Rights legislation, that may not be as simple. Legislation in a number of states requires educators to tell a parent if a student has asked to go by a different name or pronoun, and gives parents the ability to reject their child’s identity.

Educators should strive to be proactive, Osterling said. They can leave notes in plans for substitute teachers who might not be in the classroom with students every day if there’s a discrepancy between legal names and names.

Gender-affirming care

Gender-affirming care is an umbrella term for actions taken to help an individual more correctly align their gender identity and gender expression. Gender-affirming care can be social and medical, said Rice. But in children, a large portion of it is social, he said.

Some youth can use puberty blockers, which delay estrogen and testosterone hormones, to address gender dysphoria, but rarely undergo surgery as part of their transition. Nonetheless, some states block gender-affirming care for minors.

That means using the name and pronouns they’re comfortable with and the outfits they prefer. Their identity is affirmed when people validate that identity reflective of how they see themselves, he said.

There’s a misconception that students are transitioning in schools, with no one knowing, and educators assisting, Miller said. It’s not true, he said. Educators aren’t giving puberty blockers or injections, he said.

“We can’t even give kids Chapstick,” he said. “We can barely give them a Band-Aid.”

Still, it’s the basis of legislation in states nationwide that prohibits students from changing their pronouns or names without parents being notified. Proponents of the legislation say parents must be informed about what’s going on with their children, while opponents fear that it could endanger children in unsupportive homes.

Some parents have sued districts where educators have allegedly supported social transitioning without telling parents.

Outing

When a person chooses to tell others about their gender identity or sexual orientation, that is called “coming out,” said Rice. If someone else reveals information about an individual’s gender history or orientation without their permission, that is considered outing.

Students share things with teachers often, Osterling said. It’s important to be mindful and respectful of that information unless the student is threatening to harm themselves or someone else, she said.

Unfortunately, she added, educators don’t always understand what outing is.

“If you tell another teacher, ‘So-and-so came in and told me they were queer,’ that child is at risk; now this teacher who knows that might not be a supportive educator and could do something that could be irreparable,” she said.

LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum

In the 1990s, academics were thinking about what an LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum might look like, Martin said. The thought has gained more traction in the last 10 to 15 years. In 2012, California became the first state to mandate that LGBTQ+ topics be taught, and several other states have followed suit.

In essence, an LGBTQ+ curriculum means reflecting LGBTQ+ people’s experiences in history and English literature and their contributions to other disciplines.

“How do we include diverse representations of individuals and communities in the curriculum? That is important to our students, so that there is representation of the diversity of the human experience,” he said.

For more LGBTQ+ terms and resources, go to GLAAD’s glossary.

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