Safe Schools staff member Mel Gaylard writes:
In 2010, Writing Themselves In 3, the third national study on the sexual health and wellbeing of same sex attracted and gender questioning young people conducted by La Trobe University, provided the Victorian Government with the impetus to fund Safe Schools Coalition Victoria. Its findings identified an alarming level of homophobia and transphobia in the lives of young people, with 80% of the abuse identified as happening at school (Hillier, L, et al., 2010).
In 2014, Safe Schools Coalition Australia was rolled out nationally, convened by the Foundation for Young Australians. The Program is currently working with over 500 primary and secondary schools, within government and independent sectors to raise their capacity to create environments more inclusive of sexual diversity and gender diversity.
The teacher training provided by the Program staff examines the research that informs our work, including the already mentioned Writing Themselves in 3 but also From Blues to Rainbows (2014) which looks specifically at the mental health and wellbeing of transgender and gender diverse young people in Australia. This study also identifies this particular population as needing more explicit and targeted support in Australian schools (Smith, E, et al., 2014).
Importantly, supportive and inclusive schools can make significant and positive differences for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse young people (Jones, T, 2015). In response to this, training also provides schools and teachers with some practical strategies to address homophobia and transphobia and to consider the impact of heteronormative practice. Heteronormativity describes the assumption that everyone is opposite sex attracted, cisgender and non-intersex which results in an erasure of other identities and experiences.
When this exclusory notion is embedded into pedagogy and curriculum, students who are sexually diverse, gender diverse and intersex do not see themselves and their experiences refected at school. This absence of validation and recognition of their identity can also lead to negative health and wellbeing outcomes (Hillier, op cit.).
Below are three recommended tips for teachers to use in their classrooms to make them more inclusive for same sex attracted, gender diverse and intersex young people.
1 Challenge all homophobic or transphobic language and behaviours
Ignoring homophobic or transphobic language can be distressing for same sex attracted, gender diverse and gender non-conforming students in your classroom and can send the message that you and the whole school are saying that this form of discrimination is okay. LGBTI students report to us that addressing this type of language is the number one thing they wish they could change at their schools.
Homophobic language can include things like ‘That’s so gay’ and other more obvious forms of discriminatory language. Many people use the word ‘gay’ to describe a positive part of who they are and therefore using it in a negative way is highly insulting. Even if a young person doesn't intend that connection to be made, it’s important to remember that a person can experience something as discriminatory regardless of the intent. Remind students that there are many other words that describe what is really meant which won’t be hurtful to anyone.
Transphobic language, such as ‘he-she’ and ‘tranny’ should be addressed as inappropriate immediately. Transphobic behaviour can also involve questioning someone’s gender identity. Asking someone if they are a girl or a boy or claiming that they are not a girl or a boy can be deeply distressing for someone who is gender diverse or not conforming to gender stereotypes. Providing an explanation that a person’s gender identity is defined by them and that it isn't respectful to question someone’s gender identity would be an appropriate response.
Some schools have initiated a ‘language blitz’; a coordinated approach to shut down the use of homophobic and transphobic language at school. A strong message as to why this language isn't tolerated by the school is communicated to all students, for example, at the beginning of a term. Teachers can then simply refer to this when they hear homophobic and transphobic language in a way that doesn't slow down their lesson with lengthier explanations. When this is done consistently by all teachers, in all classrooms, a profound cultural shift can occur that will improve the health and wellbeing of same sex attracted, gender diverse and gender non-conforming young people.
2 Give positive examples of sexual diversity, gender diversity and physical diversity
Providing your class with positive examples of sexual diversity, gender diversity and diverse bodies is an incredibly important and effective way to signal that these forms of diversity are normal, natural and worthy of recognition. Doing this also cultivates a safe and inclusive space for everyone.
Every subject area has the potential to include such examples, including classes that are traditionally thought not to provide opportunities to do so. A maths problem that poses David and his boyfriend Tuan ordering three pizzas that need to be evenly sliced to feed them and their six friends for example, demonstrates the way some less heteronormative thinking can result in some inclusive examples. Even if a problem like this raises questions from the class about sexuality, students can be told that some boys have boyfriends and that’s okay and then redirected to answer the question in a casual way that normalises the inclusive content.
All humanities subjects involve learning and teaching that explore concepts of identity.
These moments in the curriculum provide ideal opportunities to challenge stereotypes and include gender identity, sexual diversity and intersex status as part of the discussion. Legal studies classes can look at the 2013 amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act that affords legal protection against discrimination on the basis of intersex status. Psychology students can investigate the changes made over the years to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the implications of these for LGBT people. Same sex attracted and gender diverse people have existed throughout history and their experiences should be included in History classes. Economics classes could investigate the impact of the Sydney Mardi Gras on the local economy. There are an increasing number of English texts with characters that have diverse sexual and gender identities and there is a vast array of relevant media issues that can be studied. The list goes on and on and is only limited by the teacher’s ingenuity when making connections with national learning standards!
It’s also crucial that health classes, as well as being inclusive of sexual and gender diversity, recognise that there are people who have intersex variations. Their experiences are often excluded in current teaching and learning as biological sex is generally presented in a rigidly binary way that doesn't recognise natural variations. For example, to say that all girls will get their period in a puberty education class fails to recognise that there are people with a female gender identity who will not have this experience, whether because of an intersex variation or because they were assigned male at birth. Simply replacing all with generally or most girls is more inclusive.
3 Take the pressure off gender
There are many times as educators that we either divide our students along gender lines, speak to them in gendered ways or make assumptions about them based on gender stereotypes. It’s important for us to ask the question ‘What is the educational purpose of gendering my students in this way?’ If there is no answer to that question then there is no valid reason to do this.
Getting students to line up in girls and boys lines and dividing project groups along gender lines are just two examples of unnecessary gendering that can cause significant distress to gender diverse students who don’t experience their gender as either male or female or who are not supported to be with the group that aligns with their gender identity. There are many other ways to divide students that have nothing to do with gender including things like odd and even birthdays, front and back tables, etc.
Using gendered language like girls and boys, ladies and gentlemen can also be alienating for gender non-conforming and gender diverse students. It is easy to avoid by using language like students, class, crew, everyone, people or year 9 which is far more inclusive.
These students may also fnd PE and sports classes particularly stressful. Having mixed gender or non-gender specifc competitions, activities and teams can alleviate this stress. It’s important to remember many students already have a ‘competitive advantage’ over other students because of their diferent bodies, shapes, sizes and strengths. Acknowledging this through providing students with more opportunities to compete in mixed gender competition will beneft all students.
It is common for students of all ages to monitor each other with regards to gender and enforce social expectations of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.
This can include teasing someone for how they throw a ball, walk, style their hair, their tone of voice, their hobbies, what clothes they wear, what music they listen to, how good they are at science or PE, etc. All students are subject to gender regulation, but same sex attracted and gender diverse students can often experience much more of this because of the added expectation of heterosexuality. Challenging all gender stereotypes in your classroom will beneft all students, and will actively contribute to a reduction of homophobia and transphobia. You can do this by not enforcing these stereotypes yourself, for example, avoiding comments like, ‘I need a couple of strong boys to move some tables for me’. You can also pick up students who are enforcing stereotypes and speak to them about why this is inappropriate or if you’re in a position to, run discussions about gender stereotyping and its negative impact.
For more information and support contact us today.
This article by Mel Gaylard first appeared in ACEL (Australian Council for Educational Leaders) E-teaching: Management strategies for the classroom publication and has been reproduced with permission of the author. Download the story, which includes a handy glossary, here: ACEL E-teaching Making Your Classroom Safe And Inclusive For LGBTI Students Top Three Tips.pdf
Hillier, L, Jones, T, Monagle, M, Overton, N, Gahan, L, Blackmen, J, Mitchell A 2010, Writing themselves In 3: The 3rd national study on the sexual health and wellbeing of SSAGQ young people,: ARCSHS, Melbourne. Jones, T 2015, Policy and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Students, Springer. Cham, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht and London Smith, E, Jones, T, Ward, R, Dixon, J, Mitchell, A, Hillier, L 2014, From Blues to Rainbows: Mental health and wellbeing of gender diverse and transgender young people in Australia, ARCSHS, Melbourne.