By Gabrielle Samson, Featured Contributor
The first adult I came out to was my grade 8 teacher. As a 13-year-old middle schooler, I knew my teacher was accepting of queer identities, and I was lucky to feel comfortable sharing something personal without fear of judgement. I didn’t have other accepting adults in my life at the time and felt stuck carrying such a heavy secret. My experience coming out to my teacher helped me eliminate shame and accept myself as bisexual. And looking back, it’s clear my experience was vital to me coming to terms with my sexuality. Millions of kids, just like the 13-year-old me, are experiencing that very dilemma right now. But unfortunately, not all will have a trusted adult to share their feelings with.
Contrary to popular belief, kids of all ages can develop an awareness and understanding of their identity. For example, research on transgender people highlights an early period of self-discovery, with kids having an understanding of their gender by 18 to 24 months. According to a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, most children notice their sexual orientation by the age of 9 or 10. Puberty especially can play a role in discovering attraction, with most queer people self-identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual by the age of 16. While the timeframe for self-discovery varies for each person, it’s clear that children are capable of having a significant understanding of LGBTQ+ identities. Because most children and youth in the LGBTQ+ community discover their sexual orientation or gender identity at school age, teachers can play a vital role in a queer person’s life.
LGBTQ+ students are most in need of support as they develop their sense of self. However, many will face risks not experienced by cisgender, heterosexual students: queer kids are at a higher risk of experiencing bullying, violence, discrimination and mental health problems. A study from the University of Alberta found that 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ students experienced harassment or assault. The same study found that 60% of students with at least one queer parent felt unsafe at school. Queer students felt unsafe in common areas like locker rooms, washrooms and hallways in particular, showing their high vulnerability to stress. These statistics are alarming, considering that only 3.4% of cisgender, heterosexual students felt unsafe in schools compared to 50% of LGBTQ+ students. Facing higher rates of bullying and discrimination, queer students were also found to be less likely to complete high school and pursue post-secondary education. Rates of suicidality are higher among queer students, especially considering many may not have a support system at home.
With such a vulnerable population, lack of support can quite literally be fatal.
Most teachers want to support their students. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, only a handful know how to go about bringing this support into the classroom. On top of the lack of training in schools, stigma and backlash can create worsened barriers for teachers to reach their queer students. Fortunately, there are resources to lighten these barriers and make classrooms more queer-friendly.
Here is a list of tips and a resources list that teachers can use to make their classrooms safe and inclusive spaces:
- Trust your students. When they come out to you, remember that they are trusting you with information that took them significant trust, vulnerability and confidence to disclose. Thank them for trusting you, and extend the same trust in return. It’s okay if students change their minds later on, and it is not your responsibility to know for sure how they will identify. What’s most important is you validate their discovery and respect the label they share with you.
- Refer students to groups like the Gay-Straight-Alliance at your school. This can be an effective way for queer students to find solidarity and develop a community.
- Try to gain knowledge on the labels in the 2SLGBTQIA+ spectrum. It’s important to educate both yourself and your students on the different gender identities and sexual orientations so you can be better equipped if the topic comes up. Check out PFLAG’s list of terms to learn more!
- Stick up for your LGBTQ+ students. Let your students know that queerphobia is not tolerated and explain why. Integrate opportunities for your students to learn about the history of queer people and discrimination so they understand why respecting vulnerable groups is important. It’s also worthwhile to let students know your door is open if they would like to share their experience with queerphobia, discrimination, and bullying.
- Ensure access to LGBTQ+ friendly content and resources around the classroom. Spotlight content from queer creators and educators. Offer educational tools from queer authors and educators to help diversify your students’ learning and show support. And when introducing a topic, consider spotlighting a few historical queer figures so your students feel represented. Here’s a list of suggestions to get started!
LGBTQ+ books to share with your students (Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 3)
- Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman
- Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
- When Aidan Becomes a Brother by Kyle Lukoff
- My Footprints by Bao Phi
- And Tango Makes Three by Henry Cole
- The Family Book by Todd Parr
- I am Jazz by Jazz Jennings
- Love Makes a Family by Sophia Beer
- It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identities by Theresa Thorn
LGBTQ+ books to share with your students (Grade 4-8)
- Drama by Raina Telgemeir
- Gay and Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle For LGBT Rights by Jerome Pohlen
- Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow
- The House of Hades by Rick Riordan
- The Misfits by James Howe
- The Pants Project by Cat Clarke
- Zenobia July by Lisa Barker
LGBTQ+ books to share with your students (Grade 9-12)
- Simon vs, the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
- If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio
- It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
- Boy Erased by Garrard Conley
LGBTQ+ books for educators to influence their curriculum
- He Continues to Make a Difference, Approach to Teaching LGBT Literature by William Banks and John Pruitt
- Expanding the Circle by John Hawley
- Sister Outsider: A Collection of Essays and Speeches by Audrey Lorde by Cheryl Clarke
- We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation by Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown
- Transgender History: the Roots of Today’s Revolution by Susan Stryker
- Ready, Set, Respect! by GLSEN (Elementary School Toolkit)
Resources for 2SLGBTQIA+ students
Trans Lifeline (1-877-330-6366): Trans Lifeline offers peer support to trans people in need of mental health resources. The hotline and website connect trans people with appropriate services. The hotline is run by trans/non-binary peers and is open anonymously for trans, non-binary or gender-questioning folks for crisis and non-urgent matters.
The Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (613-400-1875): The Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity is a one-stop-shop for gender minorities in need of mental health support and resources. The centre offers workshops and events to support children and youth with sexual education and mental health support.
Justice Trans: Justice Trans is a not-for-profit that helps offer services and justice to the trans community in Canada. The service is available via an app or website and offers up-to-date legal advice regarding trans rights in Canada. This is a great resource for trans, two-spirit, non-binary and gender non-conforming Canadian teens in need of legal services and information (such as name changes).
Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868): Kids Help Phone is a 24/7 confidential service available to Canadian youth online, over text or over the phone. Students can text TALK to 686868 at any time to connect with a crisis responder and discuss LGBTQ+ issues with a representative. Kids Help Phone responders are specifically trained to discuss LGBTQ+ issues and support queer children and teens.
Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN): NYSHN is an organization led by Indigenous youth that offers information about sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice for other Indigenous youth. The service is an LGBTQ+ affirming resource that links youth with 2SLGBTQIA+ partners that help Indigenous youth fight homophobia and transphobia.
LGBT Youth Line (416-962-2232 // / 1-800-268-9688): The Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans youth line is available Ontario-wide for peer support. The service line is open Sunday through Friday, from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and is run by and for queer youth. The website also offers a live chat feature and a list of services and resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirit, queer and questioning youth in Ontario.
Friends of Ruby (416-359-0237): Friends of Ruby is a counselling service available to LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 16-29 who are in need of queer-affirming services. Formerly known as Egale Youth OUTreach, Friends of Ruby offers drop-in programs, counselling services, and housing support for queer youth based in downtown Toronto. The service is available online from anywhere in the country.
LGBTQ Rights in Schools by CCLA and CCLET: The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has created a guide for students, teachers and allies that details LGBTQ rights in schools. This is especially important for understanding protections against discrimination and harassment and offers guidance and education for educators and students.
My Gay Straight Alliance (GSA): My Gay Straight Alliance is a resource available through Egale Canada Human Rights Trust (ECHRT). The alliance promotes safety and inclusion for LGBTQ+ students. Through research, education and community engagement, the GSA aims to make schools a more queer-friendly environment for students from gender and sexual minorities. They also offer an equity and inclusion resource guide for high schools.
SOY: Supporting Our Youth: Supporting Our Youth is a community development program that runs groups, programs and events that support LGBTQ+ youth who are 29 and under. The Toronto-based program is free for queer youth and offers gender and sexuality-affirming spaces for different intersectional LGBTQ+ groups.
Teachers are some of the most influential people in a young person’s life. And for queer people, their influence is all the more powerful. People in the LGBTQ+ community can build an understanding of their gender and sexuality at an early age, which means educators teaching all ages can take part in improving inclusion and acceptance. By offering resources, books and other support, educators can become the trusted adults for the new generation of queer people and help them thrive.