on affirming your students when the state doesn’t want you to

[I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice! Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for trustworthy counsel regarding your specific situation. And always remember: your company’s/school’s lawyer will always work first and foremost to protect the institution, not you!]

How do we protect our students in the face of an anti-queer state?

This is a critically important question for faculty and staff across the U.S., but in 2023, it’s also a difficult one to converse publicly about. Most school employees work for the state, and even if that’s not the case (read: private schools), most institutions receive federal funding and as such are subject too specific requirements in a variety of areas, including reporting certain things. Those reporting requirements are typically supposed to help keep our students safe—but many states have spent the early 2020s implementing requirements for school employees to out trans students to their parents, prevent access to (or knowledge of) gender-affirming care, refuse to honor students’ names and pronouns, and more.

These, along with expanding censorship, banning identity-based affinity groups, and other erasure tactics are all extensions of white supremacy, which seeks to isolate white children (and white learners generally) away from any perspective that argues the systemic empowerment of white, cis- and heteronormative, dyadic, abled, patriarchal structures is unjust. And each year, proponents oof these structures seek new means by which to entrench and increase their own power. Right now, many of these tactics affect our students pretty severely.

As teachers, we’re told in no uncertain terms from our first days in the field that it is imperative we follow the laws and regulations set forth by governing bodies to protect ourselves, our students, the school, and so on. At the same time, we’re also often aggressively encouraged to use our adherence to these policies to support and uplift the power structures at work around us. An example: during my own undergraduate study, a professor mandatory-reported comments I’d made about misogyny in and around ASU’s Jazz Studies program to the Title IX office—and though he (retroactively) let me know he’d done it, he didn’t give me any information on what I should expect, what might happen as a result, or my rights under Title IX. And he never checked back in to see if I’d heard from anyone about it.

I know now that the Title IX office was never going to do shit about hearsay with no names attached (especially pre-#MeToo), but I’d brought those issues to that professor because I wanted him and his colleagues to actively work to change the department’s culture. Because he immediately washed his hands of it and never followed up, nothing was done, and the fallout kept getting worse.

As an adjunct, I look back on that experience as a formative moment (in the worst way) en route to becoming the teacher I am, but I also see it has an efficient, even mundane example of how so many teachers stop caring for their students (especially their marginalized students) as soon as they’ve checked all their required policy boxes. This rising wave of anti-queer and specifically anti-trans legislation is but a small part of that larger white supremacist endeavor, but it’s reasonable to expect that a lot of teachers in affected states will immediately and automatically comply with any and all new regulations without doing anything still within their power to respect and affirm the queer and trans students in their care.

If you are here, reading this, I assume that even if you could have done better in the past, you’d like to make sure you’re doing better by your students right now. (Yes, even if you’re the teacher in the anecdote above.) I don’t want to get into “duty of care” as a legal term here—because I’m not qualified to break that one down—but even beyond a legal context, those of us who work in and around classrooms are not only important parts of our students’ lives but also power brokers who control their experiences. Even if you’re not into civil disobedience (and not everyone is!), you have the power to make your classroom safer for all your marginalized students in many uncountable little ways. You can be the faculty or staff member who makes it a little more bearable—but it is IMMENSELY important that you and your students understand the stakes.

(If you’re assuming a significant amount of risk, please consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction who does not work for your school(s). You should be fully informed and aware of potential legal consequences before you decide to become a pedagogical chaos engine.)

(My) Guiding Principles

In thinking about what can make our classrooms safer for queer students, there are three underlying principles that scaffold all my thinking. They are as follows:

  • Maximally effective work to support your queer students also involves increasing support for all your marginalized students, both because some of your queer students will be nonwhite/disabled/women/etc. and because more students will likely feel safer around someone clearly working to proactively support all their students. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  • You should always assume your queer students aren’t “out” to everyone the same way. (This is true of non-students too—even after I came out publicly, we did not share the news with your Fox News-loving next door neighbor in Arizona, for example. My ID docs also don’t fully match my identity. Your students may be in similar situations.)
  • You should always assume there are queer students around you whose queerness you will never know about, and you need to not take that personally. Regardless of their risk factors, that choice is theirs to make, not something they owe you in exchange for your support.

With that covered, let’s hop into some of the things you can start doing today to support your LGBTQ+ students. I’ll do my best to sort these into like groups for fluid reading and understanding.

Part 1: Know Your Policy.

Remember those big things we’re beholden to? Yeah? You’re going to need to know them pretty damn well. This includes:

  • FERPA. Especially if you’re teaching late high school onward, make sure you know who’s in charge of those privacy settings for both 17-year-old and >18-year-old students. And let your students know what parts of their info are available to whom! I also recommend getting written guidance from your school or district’s FERPA point of contact regarding whether nicknames, chosen names, and pronouns are considered directory information. (And then use that knowledge to protect your students if and when you need to.)
  • Title IX. Guidance on this changes almost with every administration (and sometimes more often than that), but if you’ve been teaching awhile, check if you’re still a mandated reporter. Schools now have the power to set those themselves, and some institutions no longer require everyone to report. Also familiarize yourself with current legal interpretations of Title IX’s applicability for LGBTQ+ students. And if you’re teaching college, PLEASE make sure your students know what this is! I’ve been explaining the basics on the first day of each semester for years now, and usually 1-2 of 15-25 students even know what it is beforehand.
  • Active laws and policies in your jurisdiction. Is mandatory outing already in play where you live? Are you allowed to have books about gay people in your classroom/library/etc? Make sure you have a VERY clear understanding of what policies you are subject to, from school board to federal—and known what stays or injunctions may only be temporary.
  • Pending legislation/active bills. The ACLU Tracker is a great source for explicitly anti-LGBTQ+ stuff, but bear in mind that book bans and “Stay Woke”-type legislation may not be represented there.
  • Does your school have gender-neutral restrooms? Find out where! If you ask around, be sure to specify that you’re looking for single-stall restrooms anyone can use. These may also be labeled unisex, accessible, or family restrooms. Make that info part of your “welcome to class” spiel (along with the closest gendered restrooms). Remember to make sure the bathrooms are actually student-accessible (and wheelchair-accessible!) and not in faculty-only areas, and if there aren’t any available to students, investigate nearby options for folks who would be uncomfortable outing themselves by getting permission to use a faculty restroom or similar.
  • Does your school have a health clinic or mental health counseling? Swing by sometime and find out how much of students’ (and employees’!) medical records the school has access to. Can therapists be compelled to give up their notes if there are concerns about someone’s wellbeing? Are appointment types made available to the school for billing purposes? If a seventeen-year-old student mentions their parents supporting their queer identity, will their counselor automatically report them to CPS? Think creatively when asking your questions, and make sure your students have access to this information. (A landing page of resources and facts in your online course content is a great place to put this.)

Part 2: Know Your Language.

  • Broaden your gender-neutral language use. Whether you like “y’all” or “everybody,” “scholars” or “students,” “spouses” or “partners” (…you get the picture…), start making your speech and writing naturally inclusive of more than two genders. “Spouse,” “parent/guardian,” and “sibling” should all be part of that, too, plus a ton of other terms. Not only do you want to expand the genders represented in your speech, you also should aim to stop assuming certain genders fill certain roles (e.g. “husband and wife”).
  • Practice switching pronouns on the fly. PLEASE do not practice this by misgendering your students! Either pick some multipronoun users you know of (like me, Demi Lovato, or Elliot Page) and swap our sets OR make up someone in your head and use multiple pronouns for them. Plenty of folks in various settings are out with some people but not others, so this should extend beyond alternating someone’s pronouns and include completely switching to a new set on a moment’s notice. Learn that skill now and save yourself some future stress.
  • Stop sorting your classes by gender or using gender as a determining factor for anything. This is likely more relevant to folks teaching younger kids, but regardless of your students’ age, don’t make all your trans students feel icky and gross by limiting options and assuming everyone’s cool with the gender you and their peers assume they are.
  • Practice de-gendering all your students when talking about them anonymously. This is a great skill for FERPA reasons, too, and if I had to guess y’all may be more familiar with it for that reason. Regardless: get used that neutral “they” when someone’s privacy needs to be protected.
  • Familiarize yourself with anti-queer and anti-trans dogwhistles. This is vital in a classroom setting, because it’s likely some of your students are going to (knowingly or not) walk them through your door at some point, and you need to be prepared to handle it. If scripts or other prepared plans help you, think ahead to how you’d address that in a classroom or other presentation in a way that protects and affirms any LGBTQ+ folks who may be in the room—whether you know it or not.

Part 3: Consider Your Documentation.

  • Accept paper assignments. Seriously, hear me out. I know we’re in the age of Internet Everything, and with online courses so prevalent, this may not be feasible for everyone depending on your modality. But ESPECIALLY if your students may address their identities in your assignments, let them turn in hard copies. That way you grade them and give them back, and they’re not left with a semi-permanent paper trail potentially outing them in Canvas or Blackboard to whatever administrator may need (or just choose) to review the assignment. And if you want to keep stellar student work as an example for future classes, make sure your request for the student’s permission addresses any privacy risks regarding identity information they might have shared. (Fully redact those documents, too! Use Acrobat.)
  • DON’T EMAIL STUDENTS ABOUT THEIR QUEERNESS WITHOUT GETTING THEIR EXPLICIT PERMISSION IN ADVANCE. Many of us (students or not!) show up differently on paper than we do in other aspects, and while that’s definitely a hard thing to navigate, it’s also a calculated, intentional choice for some folks. ESPECIALLY if you’re sending to or from school accounts, DO. NOT. MENTION. IDENTITIES. without that student’s consent prior to sending. If your email ever gets subpoenaed or hacked (or forwarded to an administrator or seen over your shoulder or or or), you out them. (This is also a good idea to apply to your disabled students, FWIW.)
  • Document carefully and intentionally. I’m not going to get too far into this, but please look into infosec practices—on a personal level, not just the ones your school tells you about to make sure their entire system doesn’t get compromised. Keep copies of things that may be important, but get into good deletion practices, too. At the bare minimum, take stock of all the systems you use and how thoroughly you even can delete something within them. Most things are retrievable by a skilled IT professional in your school’s infrastructure; let that inform your decisions about what to send and what to keep offline.

In my eyes, a lot of this is bare-bones, but as far as interacting with your students, affirm them whenever possible and start being real with them about what’s protected and what’s not. My community college students still routinely don’t have a good grasp on Title IX when they first enter my classroom, much less how their information can and cannot be shared with certain parties by the school. Tell them what you know, and just as importantly, tell them what you DON’T know. They deserve all the transparency we can give them.

All these strategies are things you can implement explicitly to prevent students sharing identity information in ways their school will likely be able to access no matter how hard they try to revoke that permission. As more and more queer and especially trans students are faced with hard choices about balancing their safety with their authenticity, some will decide to fly under the radar in ways they may not otherwise want to. We’re teachers; it’s our job to empower them and trust they know themselves best. And in some jurisdictions, this may be just about all you can do while remaining compliant with restrictive guidelines. But allowing your students access to those tools, helping them fully understand the risks they incur when talking about their identities in various academic settings and formats, WILL enable them to make the most informed decisions possible. And that could save some lives.

Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post and would like to tip me, head on over to my Ko-fi page. For more analysis and commentary like this in your life, check back again soon, and consider subscribing to my mailing list (at the bottom of the page or in the sidebar) for quarterly update emails on my biggest projects. To support the long-term work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.

For information about my current artistic project, go check out the KENOCHORIC consortium page. It’s very queer.