Supporting LGBTQ+ Students in Secondary ELA

Supporting LGBTQ+ Students in Secondary ELA cover

Supporting LGBTQ+ Students in Secondary ELA

by Danielle from Nouvelle ELA

Supporting LGBTQ+ students will literally save lives.

As I write this post, legislators across the United States have made our LGBTQ+ students a political flashpoint in ways that put their very lives at risk (1). New laws aim to police Trans students’ bodies and restrict their liberties in school and athletics. 

According to the CDC, 1.8% of students identify as Transgender. According to a 2018 report, “Transgender students were more likely than were cisgender students to report violence victimization, substance use, and suicide risk” (CDC). The report recommends taking immediate steps to create a safe learning environment and access to culturally-competent physical and mental health care. 

Years ago, I read the Trevor Project’s Facts about Suicide, and it gave me a laser-sharp focus on keeping students safe. According to their research, 1 in 6 students (grades 9-12) seriously considered suicide in the last year, and LGBTQ+ students were three times as likely to seriously consider suicide than their heterosexual, cisgendered peers. As I applied those numbers to my classes of 30 students, I knew that I had to do everything in my power to keep my students alive

Trevor Project Suicide Prevention Hotline 866.488.7386

According to the National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, LGBTQ youth having at least one supportive adult in their lives were 40% less likely to contemplate suicide.

It has never been more important for us to show up and protect our students. 

Education has always been political, and these political maneuvers threaten our students by compromising their safe learning environments and health (CDC, above). 

Above all, we must create a culture of safety for our students. 

So, yes, we need to act now.

Let’s get started.

Keep safety as our main goal

As we implement the ideas from this post, please remember that our main goal is student safety. In practical terms, that means protecting students against violence from their peers, their teachers, and their carers.

Do not “out” a student.

“Outing” a student means exposing their gender identity or sexual orientation to another student, teacher, administrator, or to that child’s parents. 

If a student feels comfortable enough to share parts of their LGBTQ+ identity and experience with us, we cannot assume that they’ve shared it with anyone else in their lives. We don’t know what other people would do if they found it. We must act as though we are shielding them from deadly violence, because we are. We know from countless news stories that children are not “too young” to be victims of anti-LGBTQ violence (2).

Alright, phew. That was a tough paragraph to write, but we need to be honest with ourselves about what we’re dealing with: our students’ lives are at stake. 

Image of brightly colored flair pens and a pronouns pin.

Model and practice inclusive language

As English teachers, we are extremely well-positioned to model inclusive language! This is an instance in which our passion for words is life-saving! That’s amazing. Here are five tips for harnessing the power of language in our classrooms: 

  1. Introduce ourselves using our pronouns. Add them to our email signatures. This is a painless way to fight against the societal assumptions about gender presentation (how we look) vs. gender identity (the identity we feel). 

  2. Model gender-inclusive language. We can practice using gender-neutral nouns, like “firefighters” instead of “firemen.” We have an opportunity - particularly as we read older texts - to hone students’ sense of this. We can actually stop on gendered words and ask students to find a gender-neutral term. Additionally, when we need student help, we can be inclusive: “I need two students to carry these boxes of books to the library.” 

  3. Use the third-person singular “they” for all individuals unless otherwise told. As English teachers, we get bonus opportunities to practice this skill. Anytime we meet a new character in a novel, we have an opportunity to suspend our assumptions until we’re informed of their gender by the author. 

  4. In our Carer Communication, we can suspend assumptions about familial ties and relationships. Instead of making the heteronormative assumption that families are composed of one mother and one father, we can focus on the care. As a kid who was orphaned young, I can tell you that seeing “Parents” on school communication continually hurt. Instead, try “Carers” in communication and “Your grownups” when talking to kids.

  5. Humbly accept accountability from our students if we misspeak. This is an excellent opportunity to model the interpersonal communication skill of apologizing and decentering our own feelings. Here’s one great article about doing so. 

Provide opportunities for students to celebrate their identities

As English teachers, we want to share our passion and skills around the written and spoken word. Since identity is at the core of culture, language, and communication, we can center it and celebrate it in our classrooms. 

  1. As part of any student survey we do, we can distinguish between a given name and a chosen name. The Daring English Teacher has a great free student survey that has space for this information and students’ correct pronouns. [Safety hint: We can also ask students how they’d like us to refer to them when we speak on the phone to their carers.]

  2. Make Identity Mapping part of our “getting to know you” activities. I love these activities because “knowing yourself” has always been such a key motivator for writers, poets, and speakers. We can loop our students into a long history of self-reflection. [Safety hint: plan with students about how much each person will share. Students will benefit from knowing what’s private to them and public to the class.]

  3. Plan activities for LGBT History Month (October). There are so many amazing LGBTQ+ writers, thinkers, and artists to feature in our curriculum!

Create an inclusive library and curriculum

Here on the Coffee Shop, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about including more voices in the curriculum instead of maintaining the reputation for “dead, White guys.” LGBTQ+ voices are definitely part of that! Let’s take a look: 

  1. Give our students access to inclusive classroom libraries. Brittany, the SuperHERO Teacher, wrote a great post with recommendations here. Addie Williams collected even more ideas for promoting diversity in this post. On my own blog, I share recommendations of middle grade books featuring LGBTQ+ main characters

  2. Include LGBTQ+ speakers and teachers as part of the expert voices in our classrooms. For example, I love sharing TED Talks and TEDEd videos as “expert voices” for teaching concepts. I love this TED Talk by Gabby Rivera about writing and developing a character. We can amplify LGBTQ+ voices in big and small ways, and this is a great habit to fold into our unit planning!

  3. Include positive representations of LGBTQ+ folks in our curriculum and classroom decor. It isn’t all struggle! In this LGBTQ+ History Poster Set, I feature amazing LGBTQ+ activists, athletes, thinkers, and writers. Having posters like these up is a great visual cue to make LGBTQ+ students feel welcome.

Respond to anti-LGBTQ+ behavior

Responding to bigotry and harassment is different from responding to other types of student misbehavior because we’re protecting a student from harm. Whereas we may address Johnny’s tardiness privately and not make a scene, we need to address his anti-LGBTQ+ behavior immediately and publicly. We can make this a moment of learning by labeling how and why the behavior was wrong. This isn’t about shame; it’s about growth. 

  1. Have a plan for how we will intervene in student harassment and bullying. Practice and role-play with a colleague, if we can. GLSEN has a guide on page 16 (page 18 of the PDF) of their Safe Space Kit that I strongly recommend. [And remember, if our students correct us on an appropriate behavior, we have the opportunity to practice humility and reconciliation.]

  2. Address intolerance and bigotry that we hear from colleagues. No “joke” is too small to go unconfronted. We are able to hold our colleagues accountable to protect our students. 

  3. We can fight for inclusive policies and handbook language in our schools. For example, does our dress code demand a gender binary? How can we support our gender-nonconforming students? 

Pull quote from blog post on sticky note

Provide resources for the safety and well-being of our students

Our students’ safety needs to be our number one goal. Here are some resources we can provide for the safety of our students: 

  1. Put up a Safe Space poster in our rooms to indicate that students can come talk to us when they need support. There are tons of free posters online, including in the GLSEN Safe Space kit. We can also purchase a decal or find a poster that suits our needs on a site like Etsy. 

  2. Make menstrual supplies available in our classrooms. There’s a lot of research in general about “Period Poverty,” or the fact that a large number of menstruating youth cannot afford supplies. This is something that can become a safety issue with Trans kids, especially if they’re not out to classmates. For the dignity of all of our menstruating students, we can make these supplies available without barrier.

  3. Use these free posters from The Trevor Project to connect students to life-saving hotlines. 


All teachers have the ability to save the lives of our LGBTQ+ students, but ELA teachers are especially equipped to guide students in adapting language and communication for the safety of all. We can model choosing the right words, advocating for the dignity and safety of others, and apologizing when we get something wrong. We can also provide students a wide variety of voices and stories as we expand our curriculum. 

It’s okay if we make missteps, as long as we’re learning and growing. 

Here are some further resources:

  1. Check out this episode of The Daily Podcast for a broader view of these bills passing through state legislatures.

  2. Check out GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey for more statistics about the kind of harassment (verbal & physical) and violence faced by LGBTQ+ youth.

  3. Additional reading: NEA resource page on Supporting LGBTQ+ youth

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