Thinking about queer-inclusive teaching and learning

Research shows that LGBTQIA+ students are at higher risk of developing depression and anxiety (Glazzard, Jindal-Snape, and Stones 2020). If we as teaching staff can take steps towards making our classrooms more welcoming and our teaching more inclusive, this has the potential to impact positively on the mental health of our students and allow them to get more out of their studies without worrying whether they ‘belong’.

A great deal of queer-inclusive teaching is about not making assumptions. Being more queer-inclusive in your teaching might mean simply letting your students introduce themselves, or stating that you disagree if someone says something homophobic, but it could also mean a radical shaking up your whole practice, challenging what has previously been taken for granted, and looking to give students a greater stake in their own education.There are a number of relatively easy steps we can take to make our classrooms more welcoming to LGBTQIA+ students. There are also pressing reasons for doing so. A UK-centred study in 2021 found that while LGBTQIA+ applicants to university were largely excited about starting university, just over half felt comfortable being out about their sexual orientation or gender identity with their peers and were somewhat apprehensive about being open with teaching staff (UCAS, 2021).

That being said, I believe there is one assumption that is a useful starting point: assume that you do have queer students in your class; assume that whether you know any of your students to be LGBTQIA+ or not, they might be. Acting as though queer issues are relevant to your students, and queer people are not outsiders, means queer students are more likely to feel part of the class dynamic, and will be better able to focus on their studies.

Having covered that one assumption, almost every other aspect of inclusive teaching involves not making assumptions. One of the most practical examples of this is how we refer to our students. Names and pronouns are two of the key areas where not making assumptions can have a big impact. TENI’s 2020 Report on ‘The Post-primary School Experiences of Transgender and Gender Diverse Youth in Ireland’ cites evidence that students who are referred to by the wrong name and/or pronouns are less likely to be able to concentrate or participate in their schooling. At a practical level, do not assume a student’s name, as listed on Blackboard, is correct. Rather than relying on the names on the official class lists at the start of each term, ask students to introduce themselves. This gives trans students the opportunity to give you the name they want to be known as and avoids deadnaming them in front of the class; similarly, you will inevitably find many other students want to be known by a variation of their ‘official’ name, or by a different name altogether to the one listed on Blackboard. I let my students know that they will be known by their chosen name, but they can tell me privately if they appear under a different name on the official register so I can ensure I am marking their attendance correctly and have the correct email for my records. By getting students to introduce themselves, you do not risk outing trans students before the class has even begun. You also indicate to all the students that they can be themselves in your class.

Give students opportunities to volunteer their pronouns, but do not insist that students provide them. At the beginning of each new class I ask my students to put the name they want to be known by on a piece of folded paper in front of them and to include any extra information they want to. I make a label that shows how I want to be referred to, and that includes my pronouns. I very deliberately do not tell students to share their pronouns as for some students, being made to share their pronouns would mean deciding between being outed as trans and/or non-binary in front of the class, or deliberately closeting themselves. Often students do share their pronouns, and this helps me to refer to them by the correct pronouns. It is easy to avoid using pronouns if you are uncertain: refer to a student by their name instead. If you feel comfortable sharing your own pronouns, do, it can act as a cue to others that they can also do so. This guidance is in line with the findings of Chris Chevalier and Conor Buggy in their invaluable 2020 Resource Guide for supporting gender-minority students in Irish Higher Education.

So what should you do if you do get a student’s name or pronouns wrong? Don’t make a big drama of it. The student may well already be feeling upset, so don’t draw further unwanted attention. Correct your mistake and move on.

If paying attention to, and respecting, students’ names and pronouns are a basic way to make students feel welcomed into the classroom, another aspect of being queer inclusive is by paying attention to the content of what we teach, particularly as queer students are likely to be keenly attuned to homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia both around them and in society more broadly. The University of Birmingham (UK) has devised a Best Practice Guide to LGBTQ Inclusivity in the Higher Education Curriculum. The guide identifies three levels of inclusivity: firstly ‘Increasing Awareness’, then ‘Additive Approaches’, and finally ‘Transformative Practices’. The first level,  Increasing Awareness, is really the bare minimum and could just mean avoiding discriminatory language and/or acknowledging sexual and gender diversity. The next level, Additive Approaches, entails avoiding heteronormative and cisnormative language and including topics related to LGBTQIA+ people in the curriculum. Ways of putting this in to practice could be using ‘they’ instead of ‘s/he’, or, worse, the universal ‘he’.

For some subjects gender and sexuality clearly relate to the topics being discussed – think ‘Sexual identity in Shakespeare’ or ‘Introduction to transgender healthcare’. Even if the focus is seemingly far removed from gender and sexuality, the examples used in class can reflect the fact that LGBTQIA+ people exist. ‘Sita and her girlfriend’ might appear in a language exercise, ‘Seán’s husband’ might be part of an economics case study – inclusion can be incidental and mundane yet still be meaningful.

There is scope for a transformative pedagogy that goes far beyond just acknowledging that LGBTQIA+ people exist. Back in 1995 Deborah P. Britzman outlined ‘the beginnings of a queer pedagogy’ – a call, drawing on queer theory, to challenge normalcy in the ways we teach and learn, and to take risks in our teaching practice (Britzman, 1995, p.165). A queer pedagogy can question existing structures and ask us to examine whether they are exclusionary (Neto, 2018). Queer pedagogy is, like the term ‘queer’ itself, difficult to define exactly, but pursuing a queer pedagogy means being willing to change current practices and structures. As Harper Benjamin Keenan writes, “We need pedagogies that concentrate more of our efforts on inviting people to be with each other in our full humanity. We need pedagogies that deeply examine how our current  gender system confines us all and how that interacts with other systems, like race, class, and ability.” (Keenan, 2017, p.554).

Dr Clare Tebbutt (they/them), Centre for Gender & Women’s Studies