How to make your school safe and welcoming for queer students

(This post was written for the Peace Blog maintained by the Education for Peace Initiative run by the Prajnya Trust. It first appeared under the title ‘Teachers as Allies: Unlearning heterosexism in Indian Schools’.)

On March 8, when the International Women’s Day was being observed in various educational institutions all over India, the headmistress of Kamala Girls School in Kolkata forced 10 of her students to sign a confessional letter saying that they are lesbians. It was her way of putting an end to close physical contact between them which she considered as undesirable behaviour, and “bringing these girls on the right course.” The headmistress has been widely criticized for this callous and insensitive approach. What would you do in her place?

This blog post assumes that you are an educator eager to make your school safe and welcoming for all students, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While the guidelines below are adapted from the Gay-Straight Student Alliance Handbook written for Canadian K-12 teachers, administrators and counsellors, the intention here is to distill ideas and strategies that can help you translate your concern into action within the Indian context.

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Authored by Kristopher Wells, this book was published in 2006 by the Canadian Teachers’ Foundation (CTF). It is in keeping with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Criminal Code of Canada, and CTF’s Policy on Anti-Homophobia and Anti-Heterosexism. The purpose of this educational resource is to provide a critical framework that can be used to initiate and sustain Gay-Straight Student Alliances (GSAs) in Canadian high schools.

The nomenclature appears a bit misleading because these school-based groups run by students and supported by teachers are meant to create safe, caring and inclusive spaces for not only gay students and their straight allies but for all bisexual, gay, lesbian, trans-identified and two-spirited individuals (BGLTT) and their allies.

Creating a GSA is part of instituting a broader human rights and social justice culture in a school. Violence against BGLTT students can take the form of name-calling, shunning, stalking, hate speech, bullying, physical assaults, and the avoidance of discussions about BGLTT issues. Such victimization can lead to low self-esteem, isolation, depression, disruptive behaviour, increased sexual activity, drug and alcohol abuse, internalized homophobia, and even suicide.

GSAs are built on trust and confidentiality. No assumptions are to be made about a student’s or teacher’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Members meet, socialize and support one another. They may be BGLTT students or teachers, or may have BGLTT friends or family members they want to be allies to. GSAs play a special role because BGLTT people are often denied affirmation in settings wherein heterosexuality is assumed to be the norm or the only possible reality.

The peer support available through a GSA is most significant for students who come from families that do not accept them for who they are. Being part of a GSA helps BGLTT students make new friends, feel safer at school, have their identities affirmed, and experience improved relationships at home and school. GSAs enable students to feel more comfortable in challenging traditional gender and sexual stereotypes and expectations. These students might also begin to think critically about classism, racism, and other kinds of privilege.

As the author points out, “GSAs should not be understood as a one-size-fits-all approach that will provide a ‘magic cure’ for homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism in schools. Rather, GSAs can be more accurately understood as one vital part of a systemic approach to reducing bullying and improving student safety and acceptance of differences.”

I am convinced that GSAs can be extremely beneficial for the healthy social, emotional and cognitive development of BGLTT students. I do not know of any Indian school that has a GSA but I would be delighted to hear from you if you are aware of any.

Meanwhile, let us look at what can be done in our schools despite the legal and cultural constraints. The aim here is to care for the education, health and safety needs of BGLTT students, with the long-term goal of developing school policies that respect and celebrate diversity.

1. Use BGLTT-affirming signs and symbols such as the rainbow flag in your school.

2. Organize screenings of BGLTT-themed movies.

3. Invite guest speakers from the BGLTT community or their allies. These could be actors, athletes, doctors, writers, artists, etc.

4. Network with local BGLTT community groups and organizations.

5. Visit your school library and suggest potential BGLTT resources for students.

6. Create a bulletin board display about BGLTT history. For example: Pride Month

7. Invite BGLTT school alumni to speak to your students.

8. Ask students to think about what an ideal school for BGLTT students would look and sound like, and how students and teachers would treat each other there.

9. Ensure that classroom materials contain positive images and accurate information reflecting the accomplishments and contributions of BGLTT people.

10. Never reveal a BGLTT student’s sexual orientation or gender identity to a parent or colleague without the express consent of that student.

11. Refer a BGLTT student to a school counsellor or administrator if you suspect that the student may be suicidal or is being subjected to abuse.

12. See to it that BGLTT students have access to counselling services that are free from efforts to change their sexual orientation or gender identity through the use of referral to aversion, reparative or conversion therapies.

13. Have an action plan for homophobic, biphobic and transphobic incidents.

14. Explore the possibility of professional development programmes to address the diversity of BGLTT issues in classrooms, and the school at large.

15. Collaborate with the drama teacher or drama club to produce a BGLTT-themed play or musical.

16. Keep your eyes open for teachable moments in your curriculum that can open up discussion around BGLTT experiences and issues. For example, a unit on the Holocaust could be an opportunity to talk about the persecution of lesbian women and gay men in Nazi Germany.

17. Understand that people vary in their attitudes towards the disclosure of sexual orientation and gender identity. Non-disclosure does not necessarily indicate shame, denial, or a lack of pride in a student’s BGLTT identity.

18. Model inclusive and gender-neutral language. For example, when a student calls another student a ‘faggot’, use this opportunity to talk about the inappropriateness of derogatory remarks and the history behind such words.

19. Use the pronouns and words that students use to describe themselves.

20. Acknowledge students’ cultural and faith-specific values, attitudes and beliefs.

21. Make it absolutely clear that harassment or discrimination will not be tolerated.

22. Do not pressurize students to label themselves or others.

23. Survey the school’s bathroom and locker room facilities to check if they are inclusive of trans-identified students. For example, are there designated gender-neutral bathrooms or changing rooms?

24. Never assume that all BGLTT students are sexually active, or have an increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections.

25. Examine your beliefs and recognize your comfort level with different forms of sexuality and gender expression.

26. Create a safe space where all students can feel valued, comfortable, and welcome to talk about their identities, experiences, hopes, dreams and fears. Be non-judgemental, and give your students a patient hearing.

Doing this work all by yourself is going to be terribly challenging, so talk to others at your school and bring them on board. It might be important to dispel the misconception that a formal GSA or a similar informal group in a school is a dating club focused on sexual activity.

You might meet with resistance from colleagues, parents, and students. You might even be labelled as being BGLTT, regardless of your own sexual orientation or gender identity. However, you will certainly find many ways of being an ally if you are serious and committed.

Glossary of Terms

Ally: A person, regardless of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, who supports and stands up for the human and civil rights of BGLTT people

Bisexual: A person who is physically and emotionally attracted to both males and females

Gay: A person who is physically and emotionally attracted to someone of the same sex. The word ‘gay’ can refer to both males and females but is commonly used to identify only males.

Heterosexism: The assumption that everyone is heterosexual, and that this sexual orientation is superior.

Heterosexual: A person who is physically and emotionally attracted to someone of the opposite sex. Also commonly referred to as straight.

Homophobia: Fear and/or hatred of homosexuality in others, often exhibited by prejuduce, discrimination, bullying, or acts of violence

Lesbian: A female who is attracted physically and emotionally to other females

BGLTT: Acronym for bisexual, gay, lesbian, trans-identified, transsexual, and two-spirited identities

Transgender/Trans-identified: A person whose gender identity, outward appearance, expression and/or anatomy does not fit into conventional expectations of male or female. Often used as an umbrella term to represent a wide range of gender variant or gender non-conforming identities and behaviours.

Transphobia: The irrational fear and/or hatred of people whose actual or perceived gender identity/expression departs from stereotypical gender roles and expectations.

Transsexual: A person who experiences intense personal and emotional discomfort with their assigned birth gender. Some transsexuals may undergo treatments to physically alter their body and gender expression to correspond with what they feel their true gender is.

Two-spirited: Some Aboriginal people identify themselves as two-spirited rather than as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans-identified. Historically, in many Aboriginal cultures, two-spirited persons were respected elders and medicine people. Before colonization, they were often accorded special status based upon their unique abilities to understand both male and female perspectives.

Note: This glossary has been reproduced verbatim from the book. The acronym ‘BGLTT’ seems to exclude individuals who identify as intersex, asexual, and in a variety of other ways. Today, the word ‘queer’ is more widely used by persons who do not buy into heterosexism.

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