Making Your School a Safe Space for LGBTQ Students

Make your school a safe place for everyone.

I remember the first time that I read about someone who loved like I do. My palms started to sweat, and I realized for the first time in my life that I was exactly who I was supposed to be. This moment literally changed my outlook on my own life. So many LGBTQ students yearn for this moment, but unfortunately schools have not always been a place where they can have it. Many kids struggle through their time in school, not feeling welcome and also not feeling safe. However, schools can make a difference. The five strategies below provide action-oriented practices that can positively impact your LGBTQ students’ experience while they are in school.

1. Have inclusive and representative curriculum.

Students benefit when they can see people who they can relate to in their school and in the curriculum they are learning. Such curriculum can take many forms. Consider the books that are assigned in your English and literature classes and on your school’s library bookshelves. Are books written by authors who are LGBTQ being read in your elementary classrooms? What about adding Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a fantastic YA novel, and others like it to your school library?

Ask yourself in what other ways can you incorporate stories about LGBTQ people, families, and communities in your classrooms. After all, inclusive curriculum doesn’t have to start and stop with books. Perhaps encourage your staff to design math problems that represent difference. Consider the sources you are using to teach your students US history. For instance, in your study of the Civil Rights Movement, have you ever highlighted Bayard Rustin, an activist who was Martin Luther King Jr.’s advisor and identified as a gay man? It would be a fresh approach to the subject, and your entire school community would benefit.

2. Have pedagogy for everyone.

Boys over here; girls over there! Have you ever used gender as a tool to separate students into groups? I have. However, what I failed to realize at the time is that this practice, while convenient, doesn’t necessarily include transgender students. It’s another method of exclusion. When you think about it, separating students—or even items or ideas—by gender often isn’t necessary. It also presents an unnecessary complication for some students, and they may suffer academically as a result.

An easy fix is to use a color system to quickly assign students into groups. Now it can be: Greens over here; oranges over there. At the beginning of the year, encourage your teachers to choose four colors to use for organizing students. Students can return to these groups quickly. And teachers can always switch things up as the year goes on. It accomplishes the same goal but includes all students, regardless of their gender identity.

3. Acknowledge the LGBTQ community during the school year.


It’s one thing to be accepted and another to be celebrated. This is something I did not get to experience enough as a child. Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you how much engagement increases when kids feel recognized. Even though Pride Month happens when most students are gone for summer break, October is LGBTQ History Month. Consider celebrating this month with your school community by highlighting significant LGBTQ figures. Talk with your students about Marsha P. Johnson, one of the catalysts of the LGBTQ rights movement. Does your school have an LGBTQ student group that you might partner with for school-wide programming during October? Are they receiving sufficient school resources to build a vibrant LGBTQ and ally community in your school?

A great way to push against heteronormativity, the assumption that everyone is heterosexual in which all societal norms are derived from, is to find ways to include programming that celebrates LGBTQ pride during the month of October and throughout the rest of the school year. I currently work within a higher education context at Lehigh University in the Pride Center for Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. Countless parents, current and prospective students, and community members consistently tell us that our presence alone makes our community safer for LGBTQ students at Lehigh.

4. Learn and grow with your staff.

Learning about and supporting the LGBTQ community can be an intimidating pursuit. What happens when you say the wrong thing? Do you know what to do when you make a mistake and use the wrong pronoun? (What are pronouns!?)

Incorporating training and professional development opportunities that are focused on learning about and supporting LGBTQ students and staff is a must. The GLSEN National School Climate Survey notes that over half of student respondents identified the source of negative comments they heard about the LGBTQ community as coming from school staff. This is a staggering number that reveals the necessity of training school staff and also holding them accountable when mistakes occur. Even as someone who identifies as queer, making mistakes regarding sexuality and gender identity is part of my daily routine. However, it is not just about stopping yourself from saying the wrong thing or excluding someone; rather, it is also about the way that you respond when you make them.

Plan yearly, ongoing training for diversity and inclusion across all forms of difference. You can even engage in some of your own self-work. It will allow you to answer questions like: What questions do you have about LGBTQ students? What are some of the internal biases that you carry into your school? These trainings are crucial to establishing an inclusive school environment.

5. Have a comprehensive policy that explicitly includes LGBTQ students.

Working to build a community where people respect one another is a surprisingly difficult undertaking. The four strategies mentioned above are all dependent upon implementing a policy that is equitable and will long outlast your tenure as a school leader. Are there policies in place at your school that support and affirm students regardless of their sexual orientation? Can your transgender students access the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity?

Consider undergoing a policy audit on all existing anti-bullying policies to see if they explicitly protect and support your LGBTQ student population. In addition to policy created directly for LGBTQ students, try implementing a comprehensive sex ed curriculum. Policy matched with programmatic support will go a long way in shifting ideologies of exclusion. They’ll also shift the culture of your school toward one of respect, dignity, and affirmation for all students.

A final reminder: It is okay not to get everything right. In the pursuit of equity for LGBTQ students, there will be missteps. Rather than letting these impede progress, learn from them and practice vulnerability and transparency within your school communities. Your school will become a richer, more vibrant place, and everyone will have the opportunity to love being there.

Join the great conversations going on about school leadership in our Facebook groups at Principal Life and High School Principal Life.

Plus, check out seven tips for a more gender-inclusive classroom.