The Power of An Inclusive Curriculum in LGBTQ Education

If we are committed to helping our LGBTQ students, we need to make more thoughtful decisions about the messages that we send about sexual orientation and gender in the classroom. While our educational system has made attempts to be more inclusive of LGBTQ students in recent years, too often we are excluding them in the ways we frame our curriculum and messages –  all part of the “hidden curriculum.”

Changing the “Hidden Curriculum”

While many of our textbooks and classroom materials pay lip service to LGBTQ inclusivity, the reality is that it’s often the unintended messages we send to students that are the most powerful. While teachers likely don’t intentionally send negative messages about identifying as LGBTQ to their students, their worldview assumes that straight, conventionally gendered people are the default.

Researchers have found that students who identify as LGBTQ have higher levels of stress, absenteeism, drop-out rates, and suicide. It’s my belief that these subtle (and not so subtle) messages contribute to these problems.

Words Matter

Language is more than just a way of communication – it shapes how we conceive the world around us. It’s vital that teachers use inclusive language to promote the idea that children of all genders and sexual orientations matter. For example, many straight female teachers will talk about their husbands and vice versa. During gym class or recess, teachers might divide teams or activities by gender, girl or boy. Even if they’re not consciously excluding their LGBTQ students, the message is clear: heterosexual relationships and conventional genders are “normal” and all other identifications are not.

In my own work, I’ve stopped using gendered pronouns. Replacing “he” and “she” with words like “they,” “people” and “individuals” to account for the fact that there are other genders than just male and female. It’s often these small gestures that are the most powerful.

Stop Erasing LGBTQ Identities From History

In addition to combatting the hidden curriculum that disenfranchises LGBTQ students, we also need to make strides to change the history we teach to be more inclusive and accurate. For too long, the achievements and contributions of LGBTQ people have been left out of the history books.

This isn’t about using little-known incidents from history to highlight the contributions of gay and lesbian people. It’s about acknowledging their role in the history we’re already teaching. For example, when we teach about suffragist and cofounder of the ACLU Jane Addams and the Hull House women’s settlement, we should be clear that many in these women’s circles were more than friends. We should not talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. without recognizing the contributions of his openly gay speechwriter, Bayard Rustin, who helped organize the March on Washington but was barred from speaking there because of his sexual orientation. We should not teach the history of the Holocaust without remembering the lives of thousands of gay and lesbian people who were sent to concentration camps and kept imprisoned even after other groups were freed.

Steps Towards an LGBTQ-Inclusive Education System

Stop making excuses. Too often, teachers hide behind the idea that teaching standards demand that they use a non-inclusive curriculum. However, as I noted above, there are dozens of examples of LGBTQ people who have made a profound impact on important and well known historical events. We need to highlight the history that already exists.

Make inclusivity part of professional development. Teacher training and professional development programs are designed to help teachers be better at their job. Just as we help them improve in other areas, we should train them in culturally and linguistically responsive teaching techniques.

View LGBTQ inclusivity as an obligation. I like to remind educators that if they teach in a public school they are obligated to teach all their students, including their LGBTQ students, equally. That’s why an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum needs to be a priority.

Use online resources to augment dated textbooks. Often schools rely too heavily on dated textbooks for financial reasons. Here are some great materials for teachers who want their curriculum to recognize the presence of their LGBTQ students and help them engage all their students:

  1. A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski
  2. Center for American Progress’ LGBT View
  3. History UnErased: LGBTQ Studies for Every Classroom
  4. Warren J. Blumenfeld’s LGBTQ History SlideShare Presentations (Parts 1, 2, and LGBTQ People During Nazi Germany)

Support the Genders and Sexualities Alliance. Formerly known as the Gay-Straight Alliance, this student group has a huge benefit for schools. Not only does it provide a safe space for LGBTQ students, it encourages their straight peers to be allies. In fact, we’ve seen that schools with GSA chapters have lower incidents of bullying and absenteeism for LGBTQ students.

J.B. Mayo

About the Author

J.B. Mayo, Ph.D.

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