By Jordan Keough (she/her), Research Assistant, PREVNet, Queen’s University; Dr. Alicia Lapointe (any pronouns), Research Scientist, Centre for School Mental Health, Western University; and Dr. Deinera Exner-Cortens (she/her), Scientific Co-Director, PREVNet, Queen’s University
In 2021, Egale Canada, a national advocacy organization supporting 2SLGBTQIA+ (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual/aromantic, etc.) individuals, conducted their second school climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia across Turtle Island (colonially referred to as Canada). On this survey, 62% of 2SLGBTQIA+ student respondents, compared to 11% of cisgender heterosexual student respondents, reported feeling unsafe in their school, with many experiencing discriminatory harassment.1 By contrast, the Every Teacher Project revealed that 97% of educators across the nation believed that their school was safe, revealing a huge discrepancy between school staff’s beliefs and students’ realities.2 And, although 73% of educators in the Every Teacher Project survey approved of 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusive curriculum, far fewer school staff were comfortable discussing queer and trans topics with students. Less than half (47%) of survey respondents used inclusive language and examples; only 18% challenged transphobia; and only 16% critiqued heterosexual privilege (i.e., unearned and taken-for-granted benefits associated with positioning heterosexuality as natural and normal).
Drawing on a landscape metaphor, we outline teaching and learning practices for anti-heteronormative/cisnormative education. To begin, what does anti-heteronormative/cisnormative mean? These terms describe beliefs and actions that challenge assumptions that being heterosexual and cisgender is normal, moral, or natural. For example, we may ask someone for their pronouns rather than assuming their gender identity based on their appearance. To learn more about 2SLGBTQIA+ terms and concepts, visit the link below for Eagle Canada’s glossary.
So how do we put anti-heteronormativity/cisnormativity into practice within education? Using a landscape metaphor, we can understand such practices in terms of land, atmosphere, water, and sun.
Land: Building the foundation
It is important that we first build understanding within ourselves and our students that gender and sexuality are spectrums that can (and do) change across time. Rather than seeing gender as a binary of man/woman (a colonial way of thinking), this perspective acknowledges that people embrace a diverse range of identities and expressions that do not fit into these exclusive categories. Given its roots in colonialism, rejecting the gender binary is also an important piece of decolonizing curriculum. Similarly, queer and trans theories understand sexuality as more than just heterosexual attraction. Sexual identity is very diverse, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, straight, and asexual identities (and many more!).
One important step is using equitable language in the classroom. Equitable language honours the diversity of student identities and experiences, and challenges oppressive ideas that have dominated learning environments. This foundation should also be trauma-informed, by acknowledging that some students have or are currently experiencing trauma.
Lastly, this foundation is intersectional, meaning that educators realize that students’ lived experiences are shaped by multiple, intersecting systems of oppression (e.g., homophobia, transphobia, racism, colonialism, ableism, etc.). It is important that we recognize these differences within and between youth, and do not apply a universal “experience” or narrative to students. Visit the link below to watch a panel discussion on supporting 2SLGBTQIA+ students of colour.
Atmosphere: Creating an affirmative learning climate
Beyond foundational knowledge and practice, it is crucial that 2SLGBTQIA+ students feel safe, affirmed, and understood in their school environment. This involves identifying and addressing the disparities 2SLGBQTIA+ students face in education, such as harassment, discrimination, ineffective intervention, and teaching and learning practices that exclude queer and trans identities.
Similarly, understanding and applying education policy within your school can aid in building supportive learning environments. In BC, school codes of conduct must acknowledge prohibited forms of discrimination under the Human Rights Code, which includes discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
Finally, respecting student privacy and confidentiality is necessary to protect the safety of 2SLGBTQIA+ students. For example, students may not feel safe or comfortable disclosing their identity to their family, but may feel safer doing so at school, especially in spaces that are affirmative (e.g., Gender and Sexuality Alliance clubs). Therefore, asking students what pronouns/names they use in specific school spaces (e.g., basketball team, drama class, chess club, etc.) versus at home, and taking care to reflect this in all documentation leaving the school, is crucial for supporting 2SLGBTQIA+ students.
Water: Riding the wave of continuous learning and change
Building an affirming classroom and curriculum requires ongoing work. Often, inclusivity strategies can look like checking boxes off a finite list of steps. However, promising practices continue to evolve, and embracing the ongoing and shifting nature of the journey ensures our equity strategies continue to improve. Collaborating with leaders in anti-heteronormative/cisnormative education helps to facilitate continued action. For example, networking with 2SLGBTQIA+ champions, such as the BC SOGI Educator Network, and seeking support from decolonization, equity, diversity, and inclusion leaders in school communities supports ongoing communal change.
Reflecting on potential gaps and connections in current curriculum can also aid in identifying areas for continued improvement. It is important to consider not only the presence of 2SLGBTQIA+ content in curriculum, but also how this content portrays 2SLGBTQIA+ identities and experiences. Integrating positive and varied representations of 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, rather than privileging tropes, stereotypes, and a universal “2SLGBTQIA+ experience,” can ensure representations are not causing harm. For example, question whether the representations offered only discuss risk factors faced by 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals and communities, rather than honouring their strengths and triumphs. Further-more, consider whether the content reflects the diversity within 2SLGBTQIA+ communities in terms of ethnicity, class, disability, newcomer status, religion, body size, etc.
Sun: Shining a light on student-centred learning
Equitable and affirmative education must centre the experiences and perspectives of students to best address their needs. By focusing on youth voice, educators can empower students to explore their interlocking identities and ways of understanding. Student-centred learning can look like encouraging discussion-based, case study, and role-playing practices where students can learn with and from each other. These practices challenge teacher-student power dynamics by positioning students as invaluable participants in their learning. Similarly, fostering opportunities for self-reflection and exploration can support student creativity and celebrate non-conformity. For example, see GLSEN’s Empowerment and Self-Identification Activity and Challenging Assumptions Activity that address the negative impact of stereotypes and labels. You can take a look at both activities by visiting the link below.
The Every Teacher Project urges schools to implement anti-heteronormative/cisnormative education to promote student safety and well-being, and challenge harmful assumptions surrounding gender and sexuality. By embracing the ongoing and evolving journey of building equitable and affirmative learning environments, we can support all students’ well-being—not just straight and cisgender pupils.
For links to resources mentioned in this article visit linktr.ee/2SLGBTQIAResources.