How to develop an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum
An LGBT-inclusive curriculum shouldn’t stand out as a separate subject in history, sex education or any other class. Culturally competent history educators, for example, will best engage students by blending LGBTQ history into the general flow of major world events, experts say.
“Just having a ‘gay day’ or celebrating Harvey Milk’s birthday once a year is not how LGBTQ history should be taught,” says teaching consultant Rob Darrow, referring to the activist and San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated in 1978. “No history is just a stand-alone subject. LGBTQ history stands next to civil rights, women’s rights, Latino rights and all the different social movements.”
Go back further than that and you’ll find that the origins of San Francisco’s vibrant LGBT community lay in the gold rush of the 1850s. Many same-sex relationships developed between miners, most of whom were male, says Darrow, a former educator who trains teachers in LGBT instruction.
One would also come across the story of Charley Parkhurst, a well-known gold rush-era stagecoach driver who transported miners around the region. When Parkhurst died and his body was being prepared for burial, it was discovered he was a woman who had lived life as man.
“I tell people there’s a difference between teaching LGBT history, and advocating a lifestyle or promoting a religion,” he says. “Some people get the three things mixed up.”
LGBT-inclusive curriculum starts with culture
In the past few years, California, New Jersey and Colorado have mandated that schools teach an LGBT-inclusive curriculum, though many districts across the country are acting on their own to broaden the horizons of instruction.
Implementation should begin with confidence-building conversations between district leaders and teachers about the reasons for adding the lessons. “Few of us grew up knowing anything about LGBTQ history,” Darrow says. “Because of that, most administrators feel uncomfortable with the topic, like any of us would with any topic we don’t know much about.”
Key to those conversations is establishing the purpose of integrating LGBTQ-focused lessons. That also includes holding all educators accountable for creating an environment that’s not just inclusive, but also affirming of all students’ identities, says Brittany McBride, the senior manager for sexuality education at Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit focused on students’ civil rights and health.
“LGBTQ students feel less safe in school,” she says. “This is an opportunity to make minor changes to the school setting that can have an amazing impact on the lives of all students.”
This can be as basic as updating registration forms to accommodate gender identities and students’ preferred names and pronouns. Administrators can also set clear policies that give students choice over locker room and bathroom use, she says.
An efficient way to make these shifts is through professional development. “Teachers want to use the right language and approach each situation in an affirming manner,” McBride says. “But they feel the information is constantly changing and they can’t stay on top of it.”
And what’s one of the best ways of staying current? “Including students in the process,” she says. “It’s so often done without their input, but they’re the experts in what is best for them.”
Checking the quality box
In the classroom, teachers can use gender-neutral language during sex ed—i.e., don’t describe all relationships as being between a boyfriend and a girlfriend or all families as having one father and one mother, McBride says. “Then it becomes applicable to everyone in the room,” she says.
In other classes, such as English, teachers can make clear at the beginning of the year that assignments will cover authors from previously underrepresented groups, such as the gay, African American or Latino communities, she says.
Across the country, districts have added inclusive curriculums with varying degrees of fidelity, says Brandon Stratford, deputy director of education research at Child Trends, a nonpartisan and nonprofit research institution. The organization recently posted a report that found a majority of schools in 15 states offer LGBT-inclusive curriculum.
“Even if somebody has checked a box that ‘this is something we’re doing,’ they also need to check the box that they’re doing it at high quality,” Stratford says.
In states where inclusive curriculums are less common, educators should review the research, which shows higher student achievement and less bullying when schools teach an inclusive curriculum and establish an affirming culture, he says.
Don’t presume there will be pushback
One mistake educators often make around LGBT curriculum is assuming that district or state regulations might prevent them from covering certain topics, McBride says.
“There’s a real need to review policies because I often find that in schools and states, they’re doing far less than they’re able to do out of fear,” she says. “Policies are there to hold educators accountable but also to protect them.”
Educators also shouldn’t be dissuaded by fear of opposition from parents or community members, says Darrow, adding that he’s seen only a little pushback in districts where he has conducted training. About 50 teachers he worked with surveyed students about LGBT lessons, and they received only two negative responses out of about 500.
“The resistance is just a preconceived notion,” he says. “Kids are growing up in a genderless world. They don’t care what gender people are. It’s only the adults that care.”