Published June 11, 2021
Making our schools truly LGBTQ-inclusive takes time--and requires real systemic change. But creating LGBTQ-inclusive learning environments doesn’t always require major policy shifts. Meet Dr. Steven LaBounty-McNair, an expert in K-12 education, who reminds us of the everyday opportunities teachers have to create a more inclusive environment for all students.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed by History UnErased in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by Deb Fowler; Inge De Taeye; Ali Lemer; and Eric Marcus.
Deb Fowler: Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I'm Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
Terms like diversity, inclusion, and equity are on the lips of more people than ever these days. But translating that awareness into systemic change can be difficult and takes time. That’s certainly the case when we try to make our schools truly LGBTQ-inclusive.
But meaningful change doesn’t always require major policy shifts. There are plenty of everyday opportunities for teachers to create a more inclusive environment.
To explore this issue I am speaking with Dr. Steven LaBounty-McNair, an expert in K-12 education. Steve has experience as a classroom teacher, instructional coach, state-level policy specialist, and director of curriculum and instruction.
Steven LaBounty-McNair: Hi Deb.
DF: Steve, let me first ask, what does an LGBTQ-inclusive school mean to you? What does this school do or provide to make it inclusive?
SLM: Great question. As a leader of a school community, the first thing I'd want to think about is, is this learning environment or work environment truly safe for everyone to feel like they belong? I really go back to starting with language. For instance, in elementary school we hear all the time, “Boys and girls, boys and girls,” and that's how we address our students. And I know that's changing in a lot of places, but even just that sort of gender-binary approach to how we talk about young children, it does sort of ingrain these ideas about gender and expectations from an early age, and so language can be a starting point.
Am I, and this team, clear on what LGBTQ means? Understanding that LGBTQ encapsulates both gender and sexual orientation identities, which are not the same. Have we had conversations about identities, specifically about sexual orientation and gender identities, with our staff, with our students, with our community members? And that might come through in conversations about, um, library resources. What are the books we're using within our classrooms, in our school community, in our larger community that expands on identities? Have we even started that conversation?
DF: That is such a thoughtful place to start. And beyond building that awareness, what are some steps schools can take to be LGBTQ-inclusive?
SLM: Another piece might be a Gay-Straight Alliance, which in many ways has evolved to now be a Gender-Sexuality Alliance, as a space, a safe space, where staff and students come together to talk about social issues, um, and expand on the curriculum outside of school hours.
It also might come through in an anti-bullying policy work that districts are doing. And then I think the most impactful, in my opinion, is thinking about LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum. And when we say curriculum, it's the instructional materials we're using in our classrooms, it's the pedagogical moves we're making as teachers to bring content to our students to have conversations and explicitly bringing identity in.
DF: Now, these conversations will be different depending on the setting, depending on what subject the teacher is teaching.
SLM: Yeah, I think it largely becomes the responsibility of your humanities teachers—so your English teachers, your language arts teachers, and your social studies teachers—to be, um, the leaders and advocates for bringing in identities, because it seems like the most, uh, comfortable place to bring in conversations of characters and lived experience.
Um, when I was a teacher, I was teaching English and social studies in middle school, and I found that by expanding my own understanding of history, and knowing where my own identities lived in history that I never learned about, that there were students bringing questions that I would never have been comfortable bringing—such as, when we were studying the American Revolution, I'll never forget one of my female students saying, “Where were the women during the Revolution?”
And I thought that was so poignant because there was an obvious overemphasis of white males throughout history. And that started a journey for me of, so what, how are we talking about gender in history class? And then, even beyond that, the heteronormative man and, you know, woman relationships, the love stories, how do we start to disrupt that through real lived stories? And then go further to talk about, um, intersecting identities with race, class, gender, and sexuality.
So there are opportunities that are in our curriculum that sometimes we miss as places where we can have conversations about gender identity or sexual orientation. Um, I live in Massachusetts and when I was teaching history in middle school, um, not far from where I was teaching, there's a statue of Deborah Sampson, who was a figure of the American Revolution who, um, is known for having worn men's so—soldiers’ clothing to fight in the Revolution, and in doing so, pretended to be a man so that she could fight, um, alongside the soldiers. And nobody really knew until a lot later. And, and this was a figure that our town celebrated, but even in teaching her story, we never had an explicit conversation about gender identity, but there it was right in front of us.
And so sometimes we just have to look for opportunities to add an explicit conversation about something that's right there in a way that's accepted and could be celebrated, especially in such a local way.
DF: That is such a great example. And that history and those opportunities are, honestly, we're, we're swimming in that. It's everywhere.
SLM: Yup. So I had brought that initial student's question about where are the women in the Revolution to the team and said, “Hey, have we really talked about this?” And in doing so, gender identity opened a door for us to look at the characters and, um, historical figures we taught. And when she came up, we said, wait a second, there's an opportunity here to really unpack what Deborah Sampson was doing in history in that context of that time period. What did it mean to be a woman who dressed in men's clothing for, um, either an economic purpose or a social purpose?
And in this case, the exercise was not in bringing today's labels of identity back into the 1700s by saying that Deborah Sampson was either transgender or gender nonconforming, but to say: these disruptions of gender expectations existed, and what did they look like then? And what might they look like today in your lived experience? And, and students are great with that.
DF: I love that, and I think that’s a very responsible way of contextualizing those histories. Steve, do you have any other examples of how teachers can foster LGBTQ-inclusive conversations in the classroom?
SLM: Absolutely. I think, um, there's an opportunity to realize that you can take some small steps that will help you in the long range get to a more inclusive learning space. And that might be something as simple as, um, asking students to replace one character's identity with another: what would have happened in this social context if this character were identified this way? Um, what if they were gay? What if they were a lesbian? What if they were trans? And, and find ways to see how that opens a door to invite students to contextualize identity within the social studies or the topics that you're studying, and, and let the teacher experience what it sounds like, feels like, um, in the moment.
DF: That’s great advice.
SLM: Yeah, I think we are in a place now where there are so many more resources for teachers to work with their students who also know so much more than students did five, 10 years ago in school and are comfortable talking about. So I would encourage anyone who wants to engage in work around LGBTQ inclusivity in their curriculum, in their classrooms, is, it can change a life. It truly can impact one or more children in a way that can really help them be seen, be heard, and be valued, um, in a way that could really remind us of the power of this work, and that starting small, taking actionable, measurable steps, can really help do that work on a larger scale over time.
DF: Steve, thank you so very much. Thank you.
SLM: Thank you so much for inviting me. This was a real pleasure.
DF: Steven LaBounty-McNair is an expert in K-12 education with experience as a classroom teacher, instructional coach, state-level policy specialist, and director of curriculum and instruction.
Thank you for joining us for UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. This History UnErased podcast series is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by Inge De Taeye, Nahanni Rous, and Eric Marcus. The music you heard is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thank you for listening.