Classroom climate for LGBTQ Students.

Tips for faculty

A faculty member who wishes to be respectful and inclusive of sexual and gender minorities in their classroom often does so without any certain knowledge of the sexual orientations of their students. While a person’s gender identity might be assumed to be more visually discernible than sexual orientation, more teachers every year are surprised by students’ requests regarding use of gendered pronouns and inclusion of transgender experiences and perspectives in the course curriculum.

This difficult situation is made even harder by the fact that our larger culture continues to celebrate humor full of negative images of sexual minority people. Many institutions provide little or no guidance on inclusiveness and religious institutions aren’t alone in tolerating bigotry and discrimination against sexual minority people. It is still legal in 33 states to fire someone based on his or her sexual orientation and legal in 43 to fire someone based on gender identity or expression. None of this helps faculty members, even those with the best intentions, to establish a classroom culture that must considerably exceed standards of civility set in our larger society. It is no wonder then that a college or university classroom where information and knowledge are dispensed equitably to LGBTQ students continues to be the exception.

Students frequently report that comments or behaviors of a faculty member, or of other students demean LGBTQ people or exclude them from full participation in the classroom. Occasionally these comments are intentional, but most of the time they result from a lack of information. Sometimes a professor allows comments or actions by students that single out or ignore lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) issues or people

to go unchallenged. This kind of often-inadvertent behavior can contribute to LGBTQ students feeling unsafe in the classroom and interfere with them reaching their full academic potential.

While many of our society’s institutions have remained biased against sexual and gender minority people, much of the popular media available to young adults has become more inclusive and young people are coming out at much younger ages. LGBTQ culture, language, and politics have changed dramatically during recent decades and continue to change at a rapid pace. Attention to bullying in K-12 schools is increasing and at least some students are arriving on campus more knowledgeable about sexual minority people and issues than previous generations in our society were permitted to be. It can be difficult for an undergraduate student who is aware of LGBTQ people and issues to understand e.g., how a psychologist could do research on romantic relationships, but exclude same-sex relationships from that research.

That student might be equally shocked by a political science, sociology, or history class that studies the issue of civil rights without mentioning the civil rights battles being waged across the country at this very moment regarding gay marriage and the right for LGBTQ people to live free from discrimination.

Classroom teachers today struggle to respond to the issues raised by students who are knowledgeable about LGBTQ issues, and also to students who take their cues from a larger culture that continues to accept open expression of stigma and bias about homosexuality non– normative gender identity. It is not uncommon for a teacher to be confronted on the one hand for not being inclusive enough of LGBTQ perspectives and experiences, only to be confronted by other students for discussing LGBTQ issues too much. In fact, what many teachers who work at inclusiveness report is that even a few sporadic mentions of LGBTQ issues will sometimes elicit negative comments on evaluations from a vocal

minority of students who remain uncomfortable with LGBTQ issues. It is because of all of these challenges that we have compiled this guide to assist UVM’s classroom teachers in making our classrooms more conducive learning environments for LGBTQ students and the majority of their heterosexual peers, and to assist teachers in managing the controversy that can arise regarding a student’s right to not be exposed to information about LGBTQ people.


Examples of Bias in the Classroom

Sexual orientation and/or gender identity discrimination in the classroom can take two basic forms: discrimination against LGBTQ people in general terms and discrimination against individuals or a classroom group. Examples of discrimination against LGBTQ people in general terms include the following:

· Explicit use of derogatory terms or stereotypic generalizations;

· Use of perceived “humorous” images or statements that demean or trivialize LGBTQ people;

·Reinforcement of stereotypes through subtle, often unintentional means, such as by using:

·Unexamined use of classroom examples in which LGBTQ people are portrayed in stereotypical occupations;

·Refusal to allow LGBTQ issues or people to be discussed regardless of relevance to the topic;

· continuous use of heterosexist terms that foster the assumption that all people are heterosexual. Such assumptions effectively eliminate LGBTQ people as subjects of discourse. Even if the elimination is unintentional, it nonetheless renders LGBTQ people peripheral or invisible.

Although much discrimination against LGBTQ people is intangible or unconscious it is critically important that it not be dismissed or ignored. If bias goes unaddressed it not only puts LGBTQ students at an educational disadvantage, it reinforces the feeling that the classroom and the campus are unsafe, and it may have other lasting effects. Such actions may discourage both classroom participation and the seeking of help outside of class, cause LGBTQ students to avoid or drop classes or to change majors, undermining their scholarly and career aspirations. In the worst case scenario, unintended actions can add to a sexual minority student’s despair and feelings of hopelessness that can result in self-harming choices and actions.

What Individual Faculty Members Can Do To Improve Classroom Climate

LGBTQ students seek a “safe learning environment” i.e., a classroom environment where they know they can “come out” without facing discrimination from the instructor or unfettered harassment by fellow students. The following are some ways individuals can be proactive in creating a classroom environment respectful of all students regardless of their sexual orientation or identity.

1. Consider including the following in your syllabus: A policy statement in your syllabus regarding how harassment of a student in class, i.e., a pattern of behavior directed against a particular student with the intent of humiliating or intimidating that student, will be handled. You can make it clear that the mere expression of one’s ideas is not harassment and is fully protected by academic freedom, but that personal harassment of individual students is not permitted.

2. Don’t assume that everyone in the classroom is heterosexual or traditionally gendered. LGBTQ people as a whole are not easily identifiable. As a result, heterosexual students often erroneously believe that they do not personally know any LGBTQ people, so feel free to make anti-LGBTQ remarks. This alleged absence, however, is only imaginary. LGBTQ individuals are present in all segments of society, which means that in any given class, there will likely be a significant number of LGBTQ undergraduates.

3. Use inclusive language (for example when referring to relationships, families, sex, gender, health, literature, history, art, etc.) in your syllabus and in your class presentations. Specific examples include: instead of mother and father, consider using parents; if discussing marriage as a social institution, also discuss civil unions; if discussing women’s health, gender, sexuality, femininity, masculinity, etc., include relevant information pertinent to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender health and sexuality.

4. Don’t rely on LGBTQ students to initiate discussions on LGBTQ topics. Often students will not bring up LGBTQ issues if they are unsure if it is safe to do so. Following the other guidelines listed here will help establish an atmosphere where students feel comfortable initiating discussions on this topic. But don’t hesitate to raise LGBTQ issues yourself

first, for that is generally the signal students need in order to feel safe contributing to the discussion.

5. Avoid making negative remarks or telling jokes that “put down” LGBTQ persons.

6. If a student in class makes negative remarks or tells jokes that “put down” LGBTQ persons, model how to respond with civility and mutual respect and in a manner that enhances the learning of all students. These can be treated as excellent “educational moments.” If you encounter a biased remark, you might:

a. Express your own discomfort with the comment and explain why. b. Encourage discussion about stereotypes in general and the ways that they can be harmful. c. Supply the class with information that helps dispel myths about LGBTQ individuals.

7. I f appropriate to your course content, note the existence of LGBTQ related programs on campus just as you might mention other lectures, forums, or events on campus.

8. Be prepared to respond to a transgender students’ requests to use their chosen name and pronoun when addressing them.

9. Discuss the stereotypes in textbooks. Students should be encouraged to note when assigned texts contain biased or erroneous information. This contributes to the development of critical thinking skills, which are vital to the educational process. Point out these stereotypes to other instructors.

Ways to Incorporate Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender (LGBTQ) Material into the Curriculum

1. Examine the course text and materials to assure that they don’t unjustifiably ignore or marginalize topics and perspectives associated with sexual orientation and identity.

2. Make explicit reference to the appropriateness of LGBTQ topics for discussions and for course assignments such as term papers, reports, and presentations. Citing examples of papers, projects, or reports from past semesters and a verbal presentation by the course instructor at the beginning of the semester can reinforce whatever is written in the syllabus.

3. Find out what famous LGBTQ people have contributed to your area of study.

4. Incorporate information about LGBTQ professionals and their contributions to your discipline into your materials.

5. Find out what professional associations related to your discipline have LGBTQ committees, working groups, organizations, or interest groups.

6. Collect resource materials (people to contact, books dealing with LGBTQ issues & topics and/or by LGBTQ authors).

7. Use research that deals with LGBTQ issues in your course content.

8. Stay informed about LGBTQ issues and concerns in your area.

9. Include a journal or book reference in your syllabus that relates to LGBTQ history, culture, and concerns that is pertinent to the content of the course. Of course LGBTQ students don’t expect such references to be pertinent for every course (e.g., a mathematics course, perhaps) but do see them as relevant and important in many social science, humanities, arts, and literature courses.

10. Encourage students to do research on LGBTQ topics. If a student approaches you with a proposal to conduct research on a topic in LGBTQ studies that is relevant to the course, do not discourage the student from doing so. Until the past two decades, very little research had been done on LGBTQ topics, so there are great opportunities for both you and your students to do groundbreaking work in this area.

What Departments Can Do

Encourage a departmental forum on issues related to homophobia and academic freedom as they pertain to your department’s courses. Possible topics might include:

– Responding effectively to a student’s use of offensive language, while respecting that student’s right to share his or her own beliefs and preserving the instructor’s academic freedom. This exploration might include instances when a student holding conservative religious beliefs says he or she is offended by the course content and discussion, or when incorrect information about sexual orientation or gender identity is presented by a student in class.

– Developing principles or guidelines for the department that can assist individual faculty members in responding to these and other classroom situations.

Professor David Moshman of University of Nevada-Las Vegas has published an excellent article that could provide the starting point for such a discussion. See Moshman, D. (2002). “Homophobia and academic freedom.” Journal of Lesbian Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3/4, pp. 147-161. This article also appears in Elizabeth P. Cramer (Ed.), Addressing Homophobia and Heterosexism on College Campuses (pp. 147-161). Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.


This document is adapetd from portions of the following previously published resources: “Discrimination in the Classroom,” Ronni Sanlo, UCLA “Resources for Integrating Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Into a Multicultural Curriculum,” Northern Illinois University Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center “What Can an Individual Faculty Member and an Academic Department do to Improve the Campus Climate for GLBT Students,” University Nebraska/Lincoln, Committee on GLBT Concerns “Overcoming Bias Against GLBT Students: What Every TA Needs to Know,” Ohio State University, GLBT Student Services

University of Vermont, LGBTQA Services Dot Brauer, Director (Retrieved May 2012 from

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