Published June 7, 2022
How can teachers of math, science, and other non-humanities content create an LGBTQ-inclusive classroom that is sincere and authentic? What can teachers do, and say, when they witness homophobic statements or behavior?
In the episode, you will meet Dr. Heather Brown-Hudson, who has spent the last two decades as an academic, activist, and educator. Heather unpacks these questions and offers reasonable and practical guidance on the opportunities all teachers have to create LGBTQ-inclusive classrooms. Be sure to visit the bottom of this page for "the blurb" that Heather mentions!
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; and Eric Marcus.
Deb Fowler Narration: Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
When we talk about creating LGBTQ-inclusive classroom spaces, we tend to think that that’s the domain of teachers of literature, of history, of social studies—subjects that naturally invite discussion of what it means to be a human being in relation to oneself and to others. But all educators play a crucial role as arbiters of acceptance in ways large and small, explicit and unspoken.
To discuss the importance of being a teacher ally, regardless of what subject you teach, and to explore strategies to create an affirming classroom environment, I’m joined by Dr. Heather Brown-Hudson. Heather is a diversity and inclusion consultant with 20 years’ experience in education and academia.
Deb Fowler: Hi Heather, and welcome.
Heather Brown-Hudson: Hi there, Deb. Thanks so much for having me.
DF: Heather, when it comes to creating LGBTQ-inclusive classrooms, we often think that's a job for social studies and English language arts teachers. Why are we asking math and science teachers and other non-humanities teachers to take on that responsibility, too?
HB: So, it's everyone's job. You know, yes, we typically consider the humanities and the social sciences to be places where we think about identity and personhood. But classrooms are like microcosms of society. It's really important to understand that in any classroom space, we have a few distinct phenomena occurring. There's teaching, there's learning, and then there's the sociology of the classroom.
In any classroom setting, students are gonna develop relationships through these interactions with peers and with teachers, and there's undoubtedly gonna be a variety of social forces that will emerge that are going to either facilitate learning or inhibit learning. And a classroom space that is not actively inclusive—um, where students do not feel valued, where students do not feel seen—can absolutely become a place where learning is impeded. And this is not rocket science. It becomes a simple matter of explicitly removing the barriers to learning.
So this issue, and these issues, can come up in any class, in any context. Students don't just think about or question or grapple with their gender identity and sexual orientation during English class or during history class. Having a gender identity or sexual orientation is a 24/7 proposition. It's the stuff of life. And especially if the identity or orientation in question is not the default—straight or cisgender—the road to feeling included and accepted is even longer and windier.
All teachers have a responsibility to make their students feel safe and seen, and it's really important to be prepared, um, and to identify yourself very openly as an ally, and then to do more than that, to also behave as one.
DF: So thinking specifically of non-humanities teachers, let's unpack what being prepared and being an ally entails.
HB: So I think the first step in any new effort like this, especially if it's not the teacher's comfort zone, is to be really intentional and mindful. We are not asking math and science teachers to be moderators of these topics. Um, you don't even really have to know a lot about the subject matter to be a great ally.
You have to care. You have to lead with empathy. You have to be able to put yourselves in these students’ shoes. What it boils down to is ultimately creating a safe space. So what I think teachers really need to do is make it abundantly clear, on day one, that they specifically affirm all students, all identities. Everyone is valued, everyone is accepted, everyone is celebrated, and we all have the right to thrive. Free of judgment.
DF: That is a hugely important message to get across, um, but practically speaking, how can teachers convey all of that?
HB: So what I've always done, and what I've encouraged my colleagues to do, is to create what I now call a belonging blurb—like an addendum to the syllabus about language, inclusivity, tone, all of that stuff. Creating something like this is a gentle and effective way of communicating to your entire classroom, um, that everyone matters.
And they're also, you know, I look at them as little contracts between the teacher and the students. It protects everyone. My belonging blurb is in two parts. One is a note on body language, tone, and manner. And the other one is a note on gender-inclusive language guidelines.
So under body language, tone, and manner, one of the things I say in my blurb is, when we are faced with topics, readings, discussions that some may either deem controversial or uncomfortable, um, we may not have a pleasant reaction. If we want to challenge a comment, even if it's the teacher's, don't go into attack mode. Please be self-reflective and ask yourself why you feel this way. And then when you want to engage, say whatever you want to say in the form of a question; everything comes out more gentle if you phrase it as a question.
And your blurb might say something like, “What you say can be as impactful as how you say it. Please refrain from condescending remarks and consider our classroom a safe space for learning, expressing ourselves when appropriate, growing, and even changing our minds.”
DF: Oh, that’s—I love how you frame that.
HB: And under gender-inclusive language guidelines I've got: “When we use words that respect and affirm how people describe and express their own gender, we are being inclusive of all people’s experiences. Gender-inclusive language seamlessly includes the experiences of humans whose identities may not fit the gender binary and/or who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Some of these identities include transgender, intersex, and nonbinary. Gender-inclusive or nonsexist language acknowledges people of any gender. Students, staff, and faculty can share their chosen names and pronouns. And in this classroom at least, those gender identities and expressions will be honored and protected.
DF: That's fantastic.
HB: Now, the content of a belonging blurb, it needs to be sincere and authentic. So it's not all gonna look the same. A teacher like myself is gonna probably have language that maybe another teacher doesn't feel comfortable writing and actually standing behind. So we can do it in a scalable way.
Being vulnerable in the language of the blurb itself as an educator is also a great way to communicate to students that you're trying. You may not be an expert, but you have their best interest in mind.
DF: Yeah, and that's so important. Displaying that vulnerability in that gentle space I think is really powerful. And we know that teachers worry a lot about coming across as inauthentic. So how can teachers compose and contextualize that belonging blurb so that it doesn't feel forced or doesn't seem just lip service to the LGBTQ equality conversation?
HB: So I think, just level the playing field about how we're going to communicate to each other in the class, whether we're talking about neutrons and protons—I don't even know if that's a thing… Um, so, you know, a note on body language, a note on tone, and maybe some language guidelines. We're going to avoid slurs. Uh, bullying will not be tolerated.
The manner in which we conduct ourselves and the way that teachers can model that behavior is contagious.
DF: Mm-hm. So thinking about the belonging blurb, what are ways for teachers to introduce this to students at the beginning of the year?
HB: So, ideally, these belonging blurbs would be read aloud—they'd be read aloud with the class. A teacher could add some preemptive words along the lines of, “If I say something that offends, or if I use the wrong pronouns, it is not out of ill will or lack of respect. It is because I am still learning. And I hope that you will give me the benefit of the doubt if I make a mistake. I will correct myself and do better next time.”
Um, so, yeah, reading the blurb and being willing to answer questions about it. So that's why it's important to only put in the blurb what you're absolutely comfortable with talking about.
If a teacher does not feel comfortable answering questions or having a full discussion about this belonging blurb, at the very least they should read it, read it aloud. Make some general comments about the classroom being a place where we have mutual respect and healthy communication, and we avoid slurs and name-calling, and you can leave it at that.
DF: So, Heather, we hear so often that teachers really want to step in when they are witnessing instances of homophobic statements or behavior intended to hurt or make fun of someone. And, and there's, there's that desire to step in, but there's a lot of fear as well as far as what specifically to say, how to say it, uh, how they can be as supportive of all students involved… Do you have any advice you can provide teachers in this regard?
HB: Yeah, absolutely. Interventions are very scary. But this is where the rubber meets the road. Teachers can literally save lives by refusing to turn a blind eye when they witness what is inevitably going to happen in their classroom. So we're talking about teasing, bullying, homophobic language, even in jest. Teachers reverse all efforts and intentions to be inclusive if they allow these incidents to slide.
So, you know, try making space for self-correction and gentle general correction. You know, you don't want to call a young person out for doing or saying something that they really don't understand the ramifications of. Calling them in, maybe having a conversation, um, simply reminding the students at the end of the class about the policy, about the no-tolerance of bullying, of harassment, and all of that… And then maybe setting aside a little time with that student or students, and nipping it in the bud. It's really, it doesn't have to be that complicated.
DF: Any other straightforward strategies you can recommend to communicate allyship?
HB: Absolutely. On the first day, it is really important to start learning students' names. That sounds silly, and in classrooms with 25 to 30 students I'm sure that that seems like an impossible feat, but your effort goes a long way.
When we talk about names, we are also talking about some chosen names, and if educators could at least be armed with the data on the number of LGBTQ+ students that are probably in their classroom, they will realize that students are gonna have some chosen names.
Um, and so, “What is your name? What is your chosen name? Do you have a nickname that you go by?” It just personalizes their experience in your classroom. And not everyone does that, so it's going to matter to them.
DF: Oh, my gosh, that's so important, and I think is also really important for teachers to hear that the intentional practice doesn't have to be Goliath undertakings. But those simple, small acts to be specific about affirming and celebrating and respecting everyone's identities and, you know, being consistent, and stepping in when needed, being clear, being gentle—it all adds up to a really powerful experience for all students.
HB: Right. And it reminds me about when non-humanities faculty say, “I don't grade for grammar. I just read for content.” They are kind of entangled. So how do you say, I'm going to teach this math or this chemistry to these students, but I'm not going to think about or have to address their identities at all? They come with their identities. You can't remove them or tell them to check it at the door.
You have to be ready to face their realities. They're going to bring themselves into the classroom. Um, they're gonna bring their hardships. They're gonna bring their joys. So we have to be ready for that.
DF: Heather, do you have any final thoughts for non-humanities teachers to impress on them the importance of creating an LGBTQ-inclusive safe space?
HB: Yeah, I do. Some of the most valuable lessons learned in your classroom, at least from what my students have told me, have nothing to do with the actual subject matter that I'm teaching. Um, it may just be the lesson about effective communication, about mutual respect, and about how students treat each other that stick with them long after eighth grade chemistry.
It may be that, you know, you modeled integrity and inclusivity so well that it ends up being the lessons you modeled and not the ones you taught that travel well beyond the classroom.
DF: That's fantastic. Heather, thank you so much.
HB: Thank you so much for having me.
DF Narration: Dr. Heather Brown-Hudson has spent the last two decades as an academic, activist, and educator. She is a former chair of the gender studies program at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, and now works as a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging consultant for organizations, businesses, and schools nationwide.
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 me, Deb Fowler; Inge De Taeye; and Eric Marcus.
The music you heard is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.
A Note on Body Language, Tone, and Manner
When faced with topics, readings, class discussions that some may deem “controversial” or “uncomfortable”, we may not always have a pleasant reaction. I encourage us all to acknowledge our feelings, but not to go into “attack mode”. Instead, please try to be self-reflective and ask yourself why you feel this way. This will help all of us to engage better with others whose opinions differ from ours.
When you choose to challenge a comment, I would encourage you to phrase your comment in the form of a question. Participation matters in class, and what you say can be as impactful as how you say it. Please refrain from condescending remarks. And consider our classroom a safe space for learning, expressing ourselves (when appropriate), growing, and even changing our minds.
Gender Inclusive Language Guidelines
When we use words that respect and affirm how people describe and express their own gender, we are being inclusive of all people’s experiences. Gender-inclusive language seamlessly includes the experiences of humans whose identities may not fit the gender binary and/or do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Some of these identities include transgender, intersex, and non-binary. Gender-inclusive /non-sexist language acknowledges people of any gender (first year student vs. freshman, chair vs. chairman, humankind vs. mankind). Students, staff, and faculty can share their chosen names and pronouns, and in this classroom, at least, those gender identities and expressions will be honored.