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Supporting LGBTQ+ Students in the Classroom and Online

Help all students build digital citizenship skills for more inclusive, positive, and safer schools.

Christine Elgersma | June 6, 2022

For all kids, growing up and discovering your identity is a process littered with complexities: things like shifting friend groups, carefully chosen clothes, loyalty to bands, and painful crushes. It's notoriously messy. And growing up in the digital world brings even more challenges and complexities into the mix. For kids from marginalized groups, these challenges compound exponentially.

Kids who are LGBTQ+ -- or who are quietly questioning their orientation or identity -- often have to navigate the shifting seas of adolescence alone, or in the shadow of overt or potential rejection from the people they love. Stark statistics tell the story:

That leaves school and online spaces as potential refuges, but only 5% of LGBTQ+ teens report that all teachers and school staff are supportive of LGBTQ+ students, and they experience almost twice the in-person and online bullying as other teens. And for students of color also dealing with other forms of bigotry, the situation can be overwhelming.

Your courage is critical. Know that you may be the only adult in a kid's life who shows acceptance -- their only oasis.

Teaching digital citizenship offers an opportunity to facilitate learning and discussion that can help all kids feel safer and improve school culture. Below, we have some tips about supporting LGBTQ+ students -- who may or may not be out -- and encouraging their peers to be strong allies.

Tips for Teaching Digital Citizenship with LGBTQ+ Students in Mind

First, it's important to be aware that you likely have LGBTQ+ students in your classroom, even if you don't know it. For educators who work in environments that are already striving to extend acceptance to all people and communities, it's a bit easier to go with that flow. But not every school comes with an accepting climate and culture. That's why -- while overall school culture is important -- just one teacher who is overtly, loudly supportive can be a crucial ally for struggling students. Even if this support isn't directed at specific students, it can be enough of a life raft.

The key is to be very clear: Let students know you support them and are there for them. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Be clear about harassment.

For some teachers, speaking out about this may feel uncomfortable, especially if you're the first to bring up the topic in your school. It's also important to be aware of the laws in your state around addressing LGBTQ+ issues, so you can share the facts in a way that work for your situation.

  • Talk about how there are many groups that are marginalized and harassed online, and include LGBTQ+ people among that list.
  • Remember that you don't have to understand all of the nuances, subcommunities, or terminology around LGBTQ+ issues to broach the topic. Even as a teacher, it's OK to approach the topic from a learning perspective.
  • The bottom line is that no one should be harassed online because of their identity, and we all suffer because of -- and are responsible for addressing -- that harassment.

Be aware of differences.

Remember that LGBTQ+ students may be having a different online experience than other students.

Offer support and resources.

For many LGBTQ+ kids, especially when they're figuring things out, finding accepting spaces online can sometimes feel safer. (Also see the "Actively Offer Resources" section below.)

  • When you discuss interacting with strangers online, emphasize safe practices and awareness, instead of the simplistic, and sometimes unrealistic, message of "never talk to strangers online."
  • Offer students safer online spaces where they might find support, like It Gets Better and the Trevor Project.

Promote solidarity with digital citizenship.

Help students who aren't from marginalized communities understand the positive role they can play -- not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because online hate is harmful to everyone.

  • Teach kids of every age about how they can address cyberbullying by being upstanders online. Digital citizenship lessons like Is It Cyberbullying?, Upstanders and Allies: Taking Action Against Cyberbullying, or The Consequences of Online Hate Speech are a great place to start.
  • Our eighth grade lesson, Responding to Online Hate Speech, equips students with helpful tools they can use to respond. Along with a helpful video, the lesson offers kids a set of helpful strategies: confront those who are bullying; defend the person being targeted; reach out to the person being targeted to see how they're feeling; tell a trusted adult about the situation; raise general awareness about the issue at school or in your community.
  • Our 10th grade lesson, Countering Hate Speech Online, also addresses the issue. Since there are, unfortunately, many types of hate speech, be sure to specifically address anti-LGBTQ+ messages in your discussion. One specific tip for students included in this lesson is to use counterspeech; the slide deck for the lesson has some examples that students can practice.
  • Encourage students to invite marginalized peers into safe spaces, both in person and online.
  • Discuss how having peers stick up for you, both in person and online, can make all the difference in not bearing the burden alone.

General Classroom Tips for Supporting LGBTQ+ Students

Be Vocal and Visible

Depending on where you teach -- or your personal beliefs -- this might be easier said than done. Being overt about your support around LGBTQ+ issues could be risky for you, or it could feel like it runs counter to your values. But your courage is critical. Know that you may be the only adult in a kid's life who shows acceptance, their only oasis. So even if you feel unable to say, "I support LGBTQ+ people," make it very clear that your classroom is a refuge by not allowing any form of hate speech or other charged put-downs.

For LGBTQ+ teachers who aren't out, this can pose a special challenge. Up until 2020, it was legal in many places to fire someone simply for being LGBTQ+. Teachers often come under special scrutiny because of their influence with young people. This is why it's even more important for straight, cis-gender teachers to show up as front-line allies and supporters.

Cultivate Safe Spaces

Outside of your own classroom -- the space where you have the most authority -- consider what clubs or groups your school has available for LGBTQ+ students. Are there any counselors or mental health personnel available? Any community spaces? If you're not sure where to start, GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) has a wealth of information and resources about how to make school a safe place.

Demand Diverse Representation and Fair Policies

It's ideal for students to see themselves represented and included in curriculum content and the school community. In other words, we want to offer both mirrors and windows -- mirrors where students feel represented, and windows through which they can practice empathy and understand difference.

So as you examine your own classroom, school, and community, are there opportunities for kids to see past their own experiences and learn about others? Is there an atmosphere where kids feel safe to share and learn from each other? Do you see representations of all types of students? Are there opportunities for all types of students to connect around shared interests and have fun? Is there anything that might make some students feel excluded?

For instance, school dances that don't allow same-sex couples or dress codes that prohibit students from wearing clothes that match their gender identities are practices and policies that aren't inclusive to LGBTQ+ students. It's possible that there may be teachers, coaches, or other school personnel who do or say things that are harmful to LGBTQ+ people, without consequence. Consider creating a cross-sectional task force to examine and adjust policies or other elements that will make the school a safer place for all.

Actively Offer Resources

Though many students are often savvy enough to seek out information or find community online, they may not always find the safest resources or people. You can make your classroom a place that offers kids ways to get the help they need without having to ask for it. Consider having links to resources on your class website, or a poster in class that lists helpful websites for kids who may feel marginalized, have trouble finding "their people," or are struggling. Sites like It Gets Better, the Trevor Project, and Q Chat Space are great resources for LGBTQ+ students to find help and safe communities. And if you know parents and caregivers who are struggling to support their kids, PFLAG is a great resource to offer.

Here are some more organizations and resources that might be helpful for you, your students, families, and your school community: