Last month, at an educational event, I spoke on a panel with an elementary school teacher who has two decades’ worth of experience. She shared a personal revelation about heteronormativity in the classroom: Even though she is a supportive and affirming mother of an LGBT child, it had never occurred to her that the questions she asked her students and the examples she used in the classroom always put forth a heteronormative perspective. It wasn’t until she recently ran into one of her former students—now in high school and openly gay—that she realized how important it is to not make assumptions when teaching children.

Not everyone is straight or cisgender. Yet, we live in a heteronormative world, and many students spend their days in classrooms that are extensions of the world outside them. Through everything from pop culture to K–12 materials, the messages children receive inside and outside the classroom often put forth a heteronormative worldview.

Just the other week, I was at the grocery store with my 8-year-old nephew. We were waiting in the checkout line, and a woman at the register complimented his brown eyes and long eyelashes. She told him, “You’re gonna be trouble for the ladies. I’m sure all the girls have a crush on you.” It’s a seemingly harmless and sweet comment, but if you scratch beneath the surface, the message is harmful.

As my nephew and I left the store, I thought about how, when I was 8 years old and knew I was gay, comments like hers were part of the reason I hid in the closet. How did she know my nephew wasn’t gay?

Teachers have a responsibility to not make assumptions about their students’ identities—and that includes their sexual orientations and gender identities. To effectively do so, it is important to consider the following key points:

  • No matter who you are or where you come from, we subconsciously learn or are exposed to certain societal messages. They mold our beliefs, and it’s our belief systems that become the lens through which we interpret the world. Building an awareness of our implicit biases is key to interrupting heteronormative thinking.
  • Beneath heteronormativity lies homophobia and transphobia. Homophobia and transphobia are multi-layered, and each can include conscious or subconscious beliefs that someone else or a group of people is “bad,” “wrong” or “less than.”
  • Biological sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression cannot be equated. This is vitally important to understand when dealing with youth.
  • Not communicating is still communicating. When teachers do not have LGBT-inclusive curricular materials or lesson plans, they are still sending a message to their students.
  • Heteronormativity perpetuates the closet and the closet is a hotbed for shame.

Dr. Brene Brown, who researches shame and vulnerability, argues that shame-prone children are more likely to commit suicide, drop out of school, engage in high-risk sexual behaviors and experience increased drug use. During her keynote address at the 2017 SXSW EDU Conference, Brown spoke to an audience full of teachers about shame and the negative impact it has in the classroom. She shared how learning is inherently vulnerable and if students can’t be vulnerable, it’s impossible for them to learn.

For LGBT youth in the closet, it isn’t possible to be vulnerable without first feeling safe.

As educators, it’s not enough to support gay marriage and be an ally for the LGBT community. We have to go a step further and stop heteronormativity from taking root in our classrooms.

Here are five proactive steps:

  1. Consider that at least one child in your class is LGBT.
  2. Be inclusive and incorporate LGBT examples in your teaching and classroom discussions.
  3. Show support by having LGBT-related books, signage, stickers or resource materials.
  4. Create an open, safe and affirming space.
  5. Be vulnerable, ask questions and have authentic conversations.

By incorporating these steps and not making assumptions, we can help keep children out of the closet. Being outside of the closet is the only place appropriate for a child to learn, feel safe and thrive.

For more information, click here to watch Tompkins’ 2017 TEDx Talk, “What Children Learn From the Things They Aren’t Told.” 

Originally published by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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