Ep 82 What teachers can do to foster LGBTQ inclusivity in the classroom

New teachers often come into teaching already supporting LGBTQ rights and have good intentions to demonstrate this support but can fall short on implementation. How can they start eradicating cisnormativity and heteronormativity that has been institutionalized for many students? How can they create a safe space that goes beyond rainbow flags and stickers? In part 2 of my interview with Cody Miller, we continue to discuss how to support queer educators in our schools, how to deal with derogatory slurs involving being gay, and how non-English and history teachers can do their part to be LGBTQ allies.

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Cody Miller is an assistant professor of English education at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. Prior to that he taught high school English for seven years in Florida. And he’s teaching and research focus on the various ways students construct their identities in LA classrooms with a specific emphasis on how a young adult literature influences students worldviews, and meaning-making capacities. He’s also led professional development sessions that focus on writing instruction and developing inclusive spaces for LGBT students. And currently, he is the chair of the National Council of Teachers of English LGBT q Advisory Committee. And he was awarded the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2016, and recognized as one of the inner National Literacy associations 30, under 30, and 2019. So now that you know more about Cody, here’s our conversation. 


And how do we have this conversation with our LGBT q colleagues and let them know that we support it? I mean, it might isn’t going to be jarring if I came up to you and say I support LGBT q out of nowhere. Or, oh, hey, I went to the Pride Parade or, you know, how can I let them also know that there’s, there’s someone in the staff that that is there to champion them? Yeah.



It’s, like, in a perfect world, you don’t want that. But also, like, I get that all the time, right. Like, you know, like, I’ve had called well-intentioned colleagues, right, like, I just went to a wedding and it was like, two grooms. And it’s like, Oh, great. Like, I just want to throw everything was the bride and groom. Or, like, you know, people are like, oh, like, my  kid is gay? You know, I’ll be like, oh, like my mom straight. It’s wild. 


I don’t want to make a jest of that, because it really does come from a good space. But your question is really good. Because I as a teacher, whenever we hired new teachers, the first question that was always on my mind is like, is this someone who’s going to like, you know, be a bigot? Or is this someone who is going to be supportive? And that’s a real question that weighs heavily on LGBTQ educators. 


So why can you do I think kind of, similarly, what we had talked about earlier, I think having some kind of visible sign that you’re supportive, is really important. I think having material in your classroom. You know, I think we’re in a socially mediated world. And we always look up people on social media, when they get hired a new face, right. 


And so I think that using your position in all sorts of spaces, both in school and out of school online and offline to advocate for LGBT rights signals that So yeah, I think all of that is, is really important. And I would say I would advise people not to do the go up, and hey, I love LGBTQ people. But I only speak for myself, like, I always was kind of like, oh, like, great, you know, haha, though, I knew it was coming from a good place. But impact matters more than intent. I’m only speaking for myself. I would much rather find out by looking on their walls and seeing like a, you know, a safe zone sticker or looking on their bookshelves and seeing, you know, a book, or looking on their Twitter. And seeing that they like retweeted something like that was that was more important to me.



And, you know, one of my colleagues at my school, we talked about this. And she said, You know, I, I appreciate the support, I appreciate people and want to know more. But I don’t want to be their teacher about this when there’s this thing called Google. And, but people still will come to her and ask her because they’re curious, and they want to support their students. Do you find that to happen to you as well?



I think that like, so I agree, a thing called Google does exist, there are so many resources out there, right. I think that I’m only going to speak obviously, from my own perspective, but because so much of my work, both at school, the school I taught at, and then where I am now, and then just in the community was around LGBTQ education, that I positioned myself as someone who would talk about this, right. 


I didn’t mind when people ask because like, I was running professional developments on this. And the way that if someone asked me how to structure a book club and the club, right, I was running on like, young adult literature. So like, I position myself as someone who was doing that work and who didn’t mind. That is one person me, right, that is not obviously, all LGBTQ educators. I think in general, if someone is not positioning themselves in that way, then like, task them is like pretty taxing, right. And they’re also not getting paid for it.  


I used to joke before I started doing professional development about an LGBTQ education. And I was kind of doing it, because people would come ask me questions, right, I used to joke that, like, I was going to charge a rainbow tax, right. And like that was gonna be at the end, you have to pay me a certain percentage. But then I started doing professional development work. So I, that was like my position. That’s how I positioned myself within the broader education community. So I didn’t mind but that certainly is not everyone. 


It’s like, there’s so many resources out there now. I’d like start there, right and right. I always felt there was a difference to with someone coming with a question, versus someone coming with like, Hey, I like read this article. Or I read this book, and I’m thinking this, can you help me think through it, right, because I’m called the second like, example, as someone who is like trying to do the word, and they need someone to help them kind of think through an idea. But they’ve shown the initiative to do the work, which I think that’s the difference.



Here’s something I think about a lot. And this is something that I used to have the wrong reaction. So I used to get mad when I would hear kids say, Oh, you’re so gay, or that’s so gay. And I would get angry. And I feel like I should have stopped and had the conversation. I think it’s it’s something that I even heard other teachers say, you know what, that’s not a nice thing to say. And luckily, I didn’t say that. I just say, you know, that’s not appropriate. But at the same time, I feel like when we say that, not a nice thing to say that implies that being gay is bad. And so what isn’t more appropriate way to address it? And how do you suggest we start breaking down the idea that calling someone gay is an insult or a slur?



Yeah, so the last time I heard someone say, “That’s so gay!” was last school year, and I hadn’t heard it in so long, it felt like an anachronism that I was like, I was like, Wait, are we in like, 2003? Like, what is going on? Like, that’s still like, What?


But I always start with, like, you know, what did you mean by that comment, right. And typically, a student says, Whatever I meant something is bad or not cool. And then I always say, well, like, you know, we want language that reflects our intent. Because the impact of saying that so gay or so gay is really harmful. It’s definitely students will say like, I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m cool with gay people, you know, my cousins, gay, blah, blah, blah. And then right, and then you have the call to qualify it. You have to give like your you know, like eight steps to prove, you know, whatever, you’re not a homophobe. I’m gay friendly. 


And I think that that’s where the important conversation about intent versus impact comes in. That we want to be really careful with our language. And we want to say what we mean. And if we mean that something’s not cool, then like, say not cool, right. But when we say that so gay or that’s gay, regardless of our intent, the impact is it does harm people. So I always thought that opens up good conversations about intent versus impact. It also lets you know, all students, family members who are LGBTQ, because they will always that that, that, that approach, always let me know all of their gay aunts and uncles.



And then I heard that some schools are discussing LGBTQ issues in schools as young as elementary and, and so I was wondering, what are your thoughts on this? And how old you think that we should be having this topic with students? How old should they be? And do we have to talk about sex in order to have this conversation? Because that’s going to be the pushback is, where are they talking about sex to my first grader?



Yeah. So I think that’s really important to note that there are right now elementary and pre-K students who come from queer families. So right now, it’s a Monday, in an elementary school, or pre-k class, there’s a student with queer family. And so to not talk about LGBQ  topics and elementary and preschools is a violation of those students rights. Like, if you’re not talking about them, you’re denying the visibility of their family. And you’re saying there, there’s something controversial about their family, right. And so that’s a violation of their rights. 


So we should always be talking about LGBTQ topics, LGBT people exists at all ages. So we should discuss LGBTQ topics with all ages. And there’s a variety of ways to do that, right. 


So we can select a book that show a variety of family structures and literature. So the school I worked at was a K-12 School, and I worked with some really amazing kindergarten teachers, who had a whole like book, like a whole book display of like, family, right, because it was the opening unit. And they had books that same-sex families, single families, kids being raised by grandparents adopted families, right, and that send a signal that this is a welcoming and affirming places for LGBTQ families. And, you know, like, 50 Shades of Grey wasn’t up there.  There was no, no sex in that. 


And it’s pretty wild to me when people bring up sex because I don’t know, like, you can talk about. Like, it’s not like, kids books in general talk about sex. So why would LGBTQ books and it’s very interesting, because I’m sure you’ve seen this where you hear pushback, like why do we have to sexualize children? And usually, like, that’s by someone who’s holding, you know, a three month old baby with a shirt that says like, Lady Killer.


So like, we’re always sexualized kids. Like, if you go to like a toddler section of like, Target, you’ll see that we sexualized infants all the time, right, but we sexualize them straight. Right. So this idea that like conflating LGBTQ families identities with sex is just like, just odd. And we should call it out for what it is, which is like not true. 


And so, for especially elementary teachers who want to do this work, there’s a new book that’s really wonderful. It’s by Caitlin Ryan and Jill Hermann- Willmarth. That’s called Reading the Rainbow LGBTQ Inclusive Literacy Instruction. And it does a really great job showing both and reading and writing instruction elementary grades, how to make elementary classrooms are affirming for LGBTQ youth. But yeah, I mean, LGBT q people existed all ages and deserve to be seen in curriculum at all ages.



Right. And so it doesn’t have to be a conversation. I think people are conflating LGBTQ with sexual orientation. So like, kids have to know if they like boys or girls. That’s why they think of it as you know, do you like boys, you like girls? Do you like both? And maybe that’s why some people are thinking that talking about this, so young is sexual, it would really like from what I’m getting, from what you’re saying. It’s also about talking about family structure, and maybe eventually, you know, gender identity, because this, kids start thinking about that younger than they make us aware of it. So we may not be able to see that they’re wondering necessarily, but they are, you know, not feeling comfortable in their own skin in that way.



Also think to note that we, as a culture and society, you’re always enforcing gender identities and sexualities on kids, right. We’re just in the system. Yeah, right onto kids. So I think that is something that’s really important to note, there’s a really great article in Slate by a scholar named Harper Benjamin Keenan. And the article is called, There’s a Reason the Department of Education is Ignoring Trans kids, it does a really good job talking about the way schools and force sis identities onto kids through school scripts. So we’re constantly putting these scripts and identities onto kids without their consent. 


So it’s when we start to say like, well, there could be an option for queer people that like, then it’s once you know what I mean, like, part of being a dominant social identity is you never have to name yourself and you get a masquerade as normal, right. And I think that gets to a good point that giving kids the language to talk about characters. So if you’re reading about a system or character, just giving kids that language like this, is this gender, this character is this gender, so we’re not right. So we’re not only naming gender identity when it’s a trans person. Or this is a heterosexual family. That way, we’re not only naming family, when it’s a queer family. We’re always kind of naming these identities. So that way, dominant groups don’t get to hide behind, you know, the kind of mask of objectivity at the child.



That’s a good point. Because if we only bring it up, when it’s not just gender, hetero, then we’re making it seem on the fringe, and not normal. And making those kids feel like their family structure is not normal, if they identify with that.



Yeah, and I mean, it’s also denying kids language to describe reality. It’s like kids also need to know what’s this gender and heterosexual are because that’s a part of our culture. And it’s a part of our politics, and it’s a part of our world. So also given in that language is really important.



So along with this conversation about including this in the curriculum, as young as preschool, there’s a problem in terms of parents and community. So I’ve read in, you know, different community Facebook groups, there are parents that think that public schools are indoctrinating their kids with these liberal views. And, you know, there’s there’s a backlash against this, to the point where some, you know, parents are not allowing their kids to go to public school. And so let’s say that entire community feels this way. What can LGBTQ educators and allies do to protect themselves and the students within the LGBTQ community?



Yeah, so I think it’s worth remembering that even in the most seemingly homophobic communities, there’s a queer person somewhere living in that community and attending that school. Right, and they need educators are going to be supporting and affirming of them. I can say that because I was that person. 


Like, I grew up in a pretty homophobic area. And I never had that kind of affirmation in school. So I think that’s kind of important to always foreground that queer folks exists, and kind of all pockets of the world. So I think that finding allies in spaces where you can discuss and grow and reflect are really important. And if you cannot find those spaces physically, I think that looking online is really important. I think Twitter is a really great space for that. I think that looking at things like teaching tolerance glisten. You know, there’s also things like webinars, there’s a number of online spaces where you can find ways to grow that kind of knowledge, if it’s not offered within the community. 


I also think that finding people who have more power within your school, if they’re supportive of LGBT people, this is really important. So let’s say you’re a new English teacher, and you’re kind of in the scenario you described. But as the department chair, you know, is supportive of LGBT rights and has some institutional power, find that ally? Because that’s going to be your kind of go-to person. You know, if you get pushed back, or when you get pushed back, if it’s inevitable. But I think that it’s so important that we cannot say that only, we cannot say that only kids in metropolitan areas that are seen as more progressive get to have their identities affirmed. And, you know, that’s kind of if you remember way back, and I think those 2010 it gets better campaign do more with the It Gets Better campaign. It was started by Dan Savage, it was okay.


Yeah. So that campaign one I get, like, I get the intent behind it. And it certainly spoke to me at the time that someone who grew up in a small town and didn’t experience any kind of affirmation for queer identities until I moved to a metropolitan area and undergrad. The idea that you have to hold on and suffer, and then it’ll get better. 


While that is still true for many people,you kind of you start with the responsibility of adults and the schools. Like, we shouldn’t be telling kids, it gets better, we shouldn’t be like making it better for kids. So again, I get the reason behind that it gets better. But I think that we can do more and make schools better. 


Another thing that I know, I keep saying like, here’s a great piece to read. But that’s kind of what I do. So another point to reading. I talked a little bit earlier about the series of blog posts we’re doing with the LGBT Advisory Committee for NCTE. And the one that came out yesterday, actually, by a friend Craig Young, is all about how he grew up in a really rural area like West Virginia and teaches in a rural part of Pennsylvania, and the importance of being out within those spaces, and also working with teachers to even if it’s just including a book on the shelf, right, like more about space, and those areas, which is really important.



So these small things that symbolize the fact that you support it can mean a lot to someone who hasn’t come out, is afraid that no one will understand. But now they know they had an ally.



Yeah, and I mentioned Caitlin Ryan and Joe Herman-Wilmarth book, they also have an article I really liked called doing what you can. And if doing what you can mean that you can get a whole book, a whole book club, like five kids can read a book with LGBTQ characters, do that, if doing what you can mean that you can do a whole real out of the class do that if doing what you can put that book on the shelf, do that there’s something you can always do. Right. And so start there. I think that’s really important. You know, don’t give away your power. I think sometimes it’s easy for teachers to feel the weight of these oppressive systems and to want to, like give up their power but like, don’t get, like harmful forces want to take your power away all the time. Like, don’t make it easy for them.



Yeah. And now if a student comes out to a teacher, what’s an appropriate reaction?



Yeah, so I think that you want to remind the student that you support them, and you’re in a safe space, do not tell their family or anyone else, because you do not know their level of aliveness. Let them know that you’re there for them. And I always let the student guide the conversation and set the ground rules for how comfortable they are talking about their identities, right. So, for instance, I would say like, do you want to meet up? Would you like to talk at lunch? More? Would you like to meet after school and talk? Is this something you want to talk about more? Now? Is this something you just needed to say for yourself now, but you’ll talk about it more later? Do your friends note, like let them set the ground rules for their outlets? Right. So that way, you don’t overstep anything. And you also don’t accidentally out them, which would be really bad. So I think letting them set the ground rules is really important. And being an open ear and a listener is the best, honestly, the best thing you can do.



So don’t tell a counselor or anything like that. Just one on one.



That’s my stance. Yeah. Okay. Yep.



Okay. And now, I’ve seen a growing number of books with LGBT characters, you’d mentioned this and plots. And even I think it’s interesting that now there, you know, in California, we’re like, we’re going to have LGBTQ history. And I was like, that’s awesome. Because there were relationships in history that included that and that, you know, a lot of really famous people are included in this conversation. So I was like, you know, why should we just have it be one-sided? But then I think about someone who teaches science or math or PE, what can they do to support this as well?



Yeah, so all of those classes. Every class has language norms and procedures that can affirm LGBTQ or deny them their identities. So procedures, like we talked about changing language around the procedures you use in your class, like, that’s a simple step. That’s a really simple step that all teachers in any content area can do. 


I also think that in this place, like in a space, like science and biology, really talking about how sex is a biological construct, but gender is a social construct. A lot of folks still conflate those two, but those are very different. And when you’re talking about sex, you’re talking about something that’s very different than gender. And you do have to talk about biological sex and biology. So I think that’s a really important space. To name that right to name that difference. 


So there’s one, my friend summer now has a really great book called Queering Critical Literacy and Numeracy for Social Justice. And in that book, she looks at numeracy and math, and how can that how can we use math right to support queer students beyond just like a word problem with like, you know, Joe has two dads or whatever. Although like, I don’t know, like a word called what Joe has two dads is like a good place to start.It’s something better than nothing. 


And then I think PE is where so much system activity and homophobia can be most explicit. Because PE becomes a space where the gender boundaries get really pronounced. And especially because typically, in PE classes, least in my experiences, where you have, you have things like human growth and development and sex add. So like locker rooms. 


And so I had a former colleague who taught me who was really awesome. And when she talked about human growth and development, she brought in Planned Parenthood, and they took an expansive view, like they, you know, they took an expansive view on sex health. And within that, they talked about sexuality. They talked about gender, they talked about gender norms, they talked about, you know, violence within relationships. And that’s not just male partners being bonded to female partners, right. But it can be beyond that. And so those were spaces where teachers who weren’t English or social studies, teachers, were able to affirm LGBT youth.



That would be awesome for them to do that, especially since there, I would also hate for any of those faculty members to misinform, you know, the kids about these issues. So do you better have someone come in like Planned Parenthood, and even though they tend to be synonymous with things like abortion, I think most people who are against them don’t realize that that’s just one small part of what they do. And this education part, they would be really like a great ally, and they’d be really powerful to tap into.



Yeah, and I think that Planned Parenthood has kind of, yeah, Planned Parenthood has come under attack by right-wingers and they do kind of spread this myth around. Planned Parenthood, is this like, massive abortion provider? And they also provide a lot of other things as well. But yeah, if you have colleagues who are like, you know, why are you bringing in Planned Parenthood, you can always point out that, like, actually hears their social services beyond just abortion, and, you know, that support students thinking about development in body and, and there’s a number of local organizations to right, so there’s a local organization that one of the P Teachers also brought in to do this work.



And then, you know, as a fellow English teacher, luckily, the use of day in there is now grammatically acceptable. I really struggled with this, Cody, because I wanted to use them in there, but, you know, I’m a stickler for grammar. And so when they said it was acceptable, I just breathed the biggest sigh of relief. So what are what types of activities can we do in our classes? To find out their pronoun? And I do know their pronoun, or if they tell me what it is, am I calling out like, Am I outing them? And at what age should we start doing having them do that?


Unknown Speaker  

Yeah, so I want to say that people have always use singular they write like, my own writing.



Though I wanted to be really correct in my writing.



Right, like grammatically acceptable, like, is all about power? Because like, we can now separate, “correct grammar” from power. Like, who’s grammar. So I think that that’s in and of itself, a lesson to have right that people’s lives exists, and they live their lives. And that’s they create language to describe their experiences. And then later institutions catch on. And often there’s a power struggle within those institutions catching on, so that in and of itself was like a whole, whole interesting conversation to have with students, I think. 


But anyways, so I think that when asking students about their pronouns, it’s always really important to ask them to if they use different pronouns in different spaces, so I went to a safe zone training. Okay. Yeah, I went to a safe zone training recently, and this was brought up and I was like, Oh, that’s a really good point. Because you don’t know. Again, kind of back to our conversation about levels of aliveness with students, you don’t ever want to out a student. I also always wrote letters on the first day of school, I included my own pronouns. And then I asked students if they were comfortable to write their pronouns. So that way, it’s not this is not a public declaration per se. If they feel comfortable saying in a letter, then I know, it doesn’t, it doesn’t require this kind of public outing. 


But I think it’s also important to know that kids are they’re always surrounded by pronoun talk. So asking kids in kindergarten to discuss pronouns, like it’s not radical, because we’re already doing it. Right. kindergarteners already using pronouns. I think something I mentioned earlier, too, is you can always use fiction as a vehicle. So even think saying like, Who is this character? What are their pronouns? putting that in as part of like, kind of literary analysis, I think is also a good way to do that sometimes. Sometimes conversations that can be difficult for adults to have right about the real world can be a little bit easier if we use fiction. That’s part of the beauty of being in the knowledge that. And the beauty of being an English teacher.



Well, and also, from what I’m hearing, for a lot of our conversation, it’s a lot of being intentional and not assuming this heteronormative here. So, you know, of course, we’d say here, she, because that’s what they’ve been taught since they were little, but then now incorporating, you know, how can we talk about this differently? You said, What are their pronouns? That’s not something I would ever think of doing because it’s, the character is written as male or is written as female. But those are the assumptions again, that if I’m making these assumptions, you know, that it’s one of the things that I have to break out of, and then train the kids that they in the future no longer make those assumptions.



Yeah, I think that I mean, we know that part of the power of having the part of the power of social dominant identities is that you get to go throughout life, never having your dominant identity named, right, because it gets to masquerade as normal. So disrupting that I think is really important.



Well, thank you so much, Cody, for taking the time to do this. This was a little bit selfish. For me, it’s part of my own personal journey as a teacher, so that I can grow and like I mentioned, so I can help future educators grow, who may be also struggling to know what to do. And, you know, I can now I feel more comfortable having this conversation, even with my colleagues that have been teaching for a while that kind of aligned with me in terms of like, we support it, but we haven’t done enough. So I really appreciate you taking the time to educate us on these issues.



Thank you. I appreciate your stance of always learning and growing. And I also appreciate your 18 years to the service of public school. So thank you so much for that. Thanks.



I absolutely loved this conversation with Cody, I really feel like I’m now armed with so much knowledge to really advocate and support the LGBT community and my school. 

So here are my key takeaways from our conversation. First, we may feel compelled to show our support by proclaiming that we have maybe a gay friend or relative. But there are other and better ways to do that. Even just displaying it in our classrooms or having actual conversations about LGBTQ issues can show that you’re an ally better than walking up and saying, Hey, I went to a gay wedding. Well, Cody is fine with educating those that are not LGBTQ, about issues in the community, not all are necessarily feeling that way. 

Second, there really isn’t an age that’s too young to talk about LGBT issues. When it comes to discussions about gender, it’s so easy to just default to system entity and header interactivity, which really shapes how these kids see the world and the language they use to describe it. Plus, there are many students with queer parents and not involved in discussions about gender identity is teaching them that their situation isn’t normal or accepted. 

Finally, it seems easier for English and history teachers to be inclusive of LGBTQ voices in our curriculum. So Cody gives us some really useful suggestions on how other teachers can also show their support and eradicate hetero normative city and system relativity and their teaching. And you guys links for articles and books that Cody mentions are in the show notes as well as how to connect with him. 

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