educational equity

You Can and Must Foster Belonging, Acceptance, and Support for Your LGBTQIA+ Students. It's a Matter of Life and Death.

Many young people see belonging as a quest to fit in, but it’s so much deeper than that. Belonging means accepting, celebrating, and including our own and others’ fullest selves without editing or censoring our true nature to meet the expectations of others. 

Fostering belonging for LGBTQIA+ students is about more than protecting feelings—it can be a matter of life and death. Belonging is critical in secondary school, holding lasting benefits to self-esteem, self-efficacy, life satisfaction and well-being. However, LGBTQIA+ students—particularly youth of color and youth with disabilities—face myriad challenges to belonging, including erasure (often involving inadequate sexual health education), targeted harassment, and bullying. Bullying can lead to physical and emotional distress and disorders, poor academic performance and an increased likelihood of suicide. Despite protective laws and school policies, inclusive education for LGBTQIA+ students remains an equity issue

For queer and trans folks, “coming out” is a massive threat to belonging. Saying, “I’m different from the dominant culture” risks safety, stability and support. Sometimes, it even means having to publicly claim an identity before privately embracing it. To complicate matters, sexuality and gender identity can change over time. Even those who don’t “come out” to others or themselves face obstacles to belonging due to their perceived identities. 

Educators have the ability and the responsibility to support LGBTQIA+ students, starting with personal education on allyship. Additionally, there are several practical ways to support belonging for the LGBTQIA+ students at your school. 

Lead Identity Exploration in the Classroom 

Inviting students to investigate multiple facets of their identities in spaces where they are valued and empowered to contribute is a powerful step toward helping queer students foster belonging for themselves. Incorporating trauma-informed practices like co-creating classroom behavior norms prepares students for open, authentic discussions. At Wayfinder, we offer six years of curricula specifically focused on developing belonging and purpose. Each year begins with norming so that, when identity and other vulnerable topics arise, students have deep, personal understandings of expectations for themselves and their classmates. 

With foundations laid, invite students to articulate and share visible and invisible parts of their identities, including gender and sexuality (if they so choose). Voicing these can help LGBTQIA+ students begin to accept and appreciate who they are and what they have to offer. Wayfinder lessons also guide students to consider perceptions of their identities and question assumptions around others’, empowering students to critically examine their existence in society and their ability to influence it. 

Demonstrate Visible Support for LGBTQIA+ Students, Teachers, and Staff

In school, as in life, representation matters. That’s why Wayfinder’s lessons include opening quotations and media by individuals representing a range of identities and lived experiences. These provide students with positive examples of prominent queer and trans figures who encourage belonging.

You can also foster belonging by setting up, demonstrating support for, and/or attending meetings of a school-wide Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA). Having GSAs on campus has been proven to reduce bullying and hate speech and increase feelings of campus safety among LGBTQIA+ students, whether or not they participate.

Explicitly Teach Empathy and Compassion 

Wayfinder teaches that compassion starts with the self. We guide students to note which situations are and aren’t in their control and to practice self-compassion during difficult times. These practices can help LGBTQIA+ students manage complex feelings they may wrestle during their identity development journeys. 

Compassion doesn’t, however, stop with the self. Peer support goes a long way toward supporting belonging for LGBTQIA+ students. Wayfinder teaches students how to be upstanders and use personal strengths as gifts, behaviors that help students grow social awareness, relationship skills, and an understanding of intersectional allyship. 

Ultimately, efforts to ensure safety and well-being for LGBTQIA+ students contribute not only to equitable education for queer and trans youth but also to a larger community of belonging from which all students will benefit. 

Casey Pettit
Casey Pettit is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker in the Boston, Massachusetts area and Wayfinder’s Director of Strategic Partnerships.

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