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February 06, 2019


A headshot of National Student Council member Jessica

Jessica Chiriboga - 2018-2019 National Student Council Member


Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Breathe. Racket up. Extend through the serve. Follow through.

I repeat those words in my head like a mantra as sweat rolls down my forehead. It’s a hot summer morning in 2017, the type of day where the sun beats down incessantly on the green and blue court. Days like this always make me jokingly reconsider why I’m out on the court, why I’m running after a small green ball with a netted circle on a stick.

My coach snaps me out of my inner monologue, asking me what corner of the box I decided to aim at. It provides direction, he says, to have a position or corner in mind before I start my backswing.

“Down the service line”, I answer. That’s a lie. But certainly not as big of a lie that I felt I lived everyday.

You see, often on those summer days we spoke of social issues and general news, freely and uninhibited, unleashing our opinions, our disappointments, and our hopes. I was always quite comfortable speaking with my coach due to his open mind and good heart, but whenever our discussions approached my community, my mouth shut close.

“The LGBTQIA+ community,” he would start, “is facing ... and it’s a disgrace that they have to face that everyday”. “Yes”, I’d respond, “I wish that community didn’t have to face that. It’s unfortunate.”

During that summer, never once did I refer to that community in the first person. My community remained in the shadows of third person, an entity removed from our dialogue because of my fear and deep sense of shame.

There was always uncertainty then around disclosing a part of me. Actually, that’s not completely true. When meeting new people I was unabashedly clear about my identity. If they didn’t agree with who I am then they just left or didn’t pursue a friendship. Fine with me, I thought, spares me the effort.

It was the people I deeply cared about, the people I truly loved and respected, that I had hesitancy around. It was my coach, the man who has helped me through so much, that I feared would judge me (even though deep down a seed of hope knew he wouldn’t).

Yet, for me, and so many LGBTQIA+ students, that fear of rejection lingers and stings, regardless of how supportive that person may or may not be. This exists because for me and so many of my sisters in the sports community, there is a warranted fear of homophobia, but beyond that sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, and islamophobia. We fear being cast out by our teammates, belittled by our coaches, kicked off our sports teams, and not being seen the same way. As athletes who truly love and value the game, this scares us more than anything. Our lives are so intertwined with the game, the match, and the journey, that anything that could jeopardize that frightens us.

During the summer of 2018, I missed a Saturday pre-season practice for L.A. Pride. I told my coach, and he asked some questions and compared it to how he remembered it years ago. Even then, I doubted myself. Did he know I was gay? What if I was just an ally supporting the community? Did he care? Would this change everything?

Our next private lesson rolled around, and he told me about a new documentary he had watched, Alone in the Game, about LGBTQ athletes in the professional, collegiate, and Olympic levels.

My heart swelled in that moment. I knew he knew. But instead of dread, I felt nothing but welcome. I felt nothing but supported.

Thank you coach, thank you. You’ll never know how much that day meant to me. You’ll never know how much each email with the latest LGBTQIA+ news means to me. You’ll never know how much you mean to me Coach.

For more resources, check out…

GLSEN’s Sports Project, Changing the Game

GLSEN Massachusetts’ Sample Sports Presentation

And GLSEN’s research brief on The Experiences of LGBT Students in School Athletics

 Jessica is a part of GLSEN's 2018-2019 National Student Council.

February 04, 2019

A photo of students sitting in a hallway.
School-based mental health providers
– counselors, psychologists, and social workers – can often be some of the first adults that young people connect with regarding their LGBTQ identity. In fact, in the 2017 National School Climate Survey over half of LGBTQ students reported that they would feel most comfortable talking with school based mental health professionals about LGBTQ issues.  Unfortunately, a recent study shows that 76% of school mental health professionals received little to no preparation on working with LGBTQ youth (Supporting Safe and Healthy Schools). These providers can adopt some of the following best practices to best serve their students:

  1. Advocate with other teachers and administrators

LGBTQ students need to know that there is at least one adult who is supportive of them. This is, very importantly, a “show don’t tell” version of allyship. What this means is that it is not enough to simply say we are supportive of LGBTQ students, we need to show it through our actions. I recognize that because of different environments, locations, and administrations, we as mental health counselors might not have as much of a voice in our school system to be able to do some of these more public actions. However, take a look at this list and see if there are a few that you might be able to do, or alter to be able to fit within the bounds of your particular school. Here are several suggestions of public actions that you can take to show your support of the community.

a. Have pronoun buttons available in an obvious location in your office. Also, wear your own pronoun button if you’d like!

b. Display LGBTQ-affirming materials and signs while you work with youth. This can be done with books, safe space stickers, or posters to promote an inclusive space, or with notebooks or lanyards if you travel between spaces or schools.

c. Advocate for time and/or funding for your school to be able to have a GSA (Gender & Sexuality Alliance or Gay-Straight Alliance) group.

d. If a teacher or administrator is using bigoted language (whether in front of students or not), respectfully but firmly let them know that the language they are using is inappropriate.

e. If an adult or student in the school is using the wrong name or pronouns of a transgender student who is out publicly, correct them. Don’t make a big deal of it, as that can draw uncomfortable attention to the student. Instead, simply say the correct name or pronoun and then let the person continue speaking.

f. Find out from your school regarding their policies regarding bathroom use, and advocate strongly that your students can use the bathroom that matches their identity, or at the very least, for them to be able to use the gender-neutral staff bathroom. Refer to and share GLSEN’s Trans Model Policy for support.

  1. Explore LGBTQ-Community Resources

Take some time to do research in your own area regarding therapists and clinics that are LGBTQ-friendly, and compile a list of referrals for students who are looking for therapy outside of school. Granted, depending on where you are, those resources may be slim, but there are multiple vetted online support groups as well as national helplines for young people to be able to get support outside of school.

This need for referrals holds particularly true if you only have time to meet with students infrequently, or for short periods of time. Forgive yourself if you can’t be “The Person” that this student goes to for support regarding their LGBTQ identity. There are so many hats that a school mental health provider has to wear, and it is an honorable thing to recognize your limits. You can still have a positive impact, even if your primary role is connecting that student to an outside provider and being a safe space in the school environment for the time that you are able to give them.

  1. Be transparent with your students about what you can (or cannot) hold confidential

It is crucial when working with LGBTQ youth that we are forthcoming regarding what our obligations are regarding confidentiality. Every school is different regarding what is expected of their counselors in regard to sharing what a student has shared, be it with teachers, interns, administrators, or the student’s family members. In addition, it is important to be aware of how note-taking may happen after you see a student and of who might have legal access to those notes.

Personally, unless safety is a concern in any way, I believe thoroughly that it is our ethical duty as counselors not to share any information about a student’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or curiosity and exploration of gender expression, unless the student is ready to come out and wants some help with having those conversations. It is so important for young people to have a safe space, and have access to adults who value their privacy and respect their need to take their time with self-discovery. Remember that public school students have a right to privacy.  If this confidentiality is not possible due to the particular expectations in your school, you need to make that clear to any student who might want to share personal information with you regarding anything along the LGBTQ spectrum.

As LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience mental health concerns regarding suicide (YRBS 2017, Trevor Project), be very transparent with your students that you will have to break confidentiality if you are concerned about their safety either due to potential self-harm or harm from someone else. Depending on the situation, even with this necessary break of confidentiality, you may be able to keep the person’s LGBTQ identity out of the conversation if the student wants to keep that part of their identity private for the time being.

  1. Follow their lead with their coming out path

When we’re working in a school setting, we often have dual relationships with students. We see them privately in our offices, but we may also interact with them in other settings, such as in a group session, in mediation, in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting, or even in classrooms. This can make it feel tricky to know how to keep confidentiality for a client while also respecting what they may have shared with you about their identity.

For example, let’s say a student comes out to you as being a transgender girl. Ask her how she would like for you to address her in public settings. It’s possible that she may, for now, ask you to continue to use her legal name or “deadname” and he/him pronouns in public, as she does not yet want others to know. You are not being disrespectful to then follow her wishes. When you are meeting with her alone, use her chosen name and her female pronouns. Furthermore, offer to help her facilitate conversations with her parents and/or the administration should she decide she is ready to come out publicly. Share GLSEN’s Coming Out Guide to help the student consider different aspects of this ongoing process.

There are myriad factors that play into a young person’s decision to come out or not, and potentially a student may feel that due to their individual circumstances it may not be safe for them to be out. All you can do is hold space for them, and allow them to safely explore their thoughts and feelings about their gender or sexual identity with you, without the pressure of feeling obligated to have to take everything to the next step of coming out.

  1. Remember that we will never be experts

One of the most important things I’ve learned as a therapist is that the moment we think we are an expert in something is the moment that we stop learning. Regardless of whether we may have decades of experience as a counselor, or if we are out and proud regarding our own gender identity and sexual orientation (I myself am as queer as a tea cozy!), that does not make us experts on a particular student’s experience. We have to do our own continuing education (on our own) to learn how the language is changing, and we have to do it enthusiastically. We have to allow our students to correct us, and not become defensive if we have made assumptions that are challenged.

More than anything, we have to hold an open, honest space where we allow each individual student to teach us about their specific experience. Just because I have worked with countless queer and trans teenagers does not mean that I automatically understand every emotion, hardship, or desire of a person walking through my door. What makes someone truly a professional is confidence in the acceptance of being wrong, and a genuine willingness to learn. You are here, reading this, which means that you already are on a solid path toward being the person that an LGBTQ student may need. In fact, you probably already are.

Kit McCann, LMFT, she/her, is a queer/gender therapist in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

February 01, 2019

Transgender teens need safe & supportive schools

On January 25, 2019, for the first time, the CDC released data on health behaviors and experiences of transgender youth from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). Data collected by 19 CDC-funded sites (10 states, 9 large urban school districts) included a single-item question to measure the proportion of high-school youth who identify as transgender in the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Population-based data (including YRBS) are critical to address disparities that exist between transgender and cisgender youth.

Knowing which questions to ask and how to ask them in order to get high-quality data can be a challenging task. That is why we have been working to try and get it right – developing, testing, and piloting questions. We work closely with partner organizations and research colleagues to identify the most accurate and effective ways to accurately represent in surveys students who identify as transgender. A variety of governmental and non-governmental partners, including GLSEN and CDC, have been working to share data and find the most effective way forward.

Data from the 2017 state and local YRBS indicate that transgender students are more likely to experience violence victimization, substance use, suicide risk, and sexual risk, and would benefit from increased support. This spring, 22 states and large urban school districts will assess transgender identity for the next cycle of YRBS data. In addition to increasing surveillance, programmatic efforts to create safer learning environments and ensure access to culturally competent care are important steps to improving the health of the nation’s transgender youth. 

Joseph G. Kosciw, PhD, GLSEN’s Chief Research & Strategy Officer; Michelle M. Johns, MPH, PhD, Health Scientist, Research Application and Evaluation Branch, CDC’s Division of Adolescent School Health (DASH); J. Michael Underwood, PhD, Chief, School-Based Surveillance Branch, CDC’s Division of Adolescent School Health (DASH)

January 21, 2019

A handmade sign with a rainbow background with the words "Brave Comrade" painted on it
Before I socially transitioned as Gender Non-Conforming (GNC), my transness held little consideration in my advocacy work. I made parts of myself invisible out of self-hate. I grew up Black, queer, and transgender in the South. In my town, hate and underrepresentation of my sexuality and gender expression caused me to avoid parts of myself. As a trans educator, I have experienced isolation to its fullest extent. From this, I am imbued with a sense of responsibility to center dialogue in my school community on queer and trans experiences that have remained hidden because of social stigma and hatred.

My experience as a GNC or trans educator is one of constant discrimination in schools. Trans and GNC educators are often treated with skepticism, made invisible in curriculum and instruction, given little to no space for programming or extracurricular engagements, and pushed out of school communities because of discrimination from faculty or the student body. Based on my experiences, when schools attempt to include transgender identities in curricula, we are often tokenized and these methods are inconsistently reinforced. These issues are deeply-rooted, intentional, and institutionalized. They are also microcosms of the larger social stigma of transgender identities in American society. 

Too often, the focus of discussion around transgender and GNC discrimination in schools is the use of pronouns and gender inclusive restrooms. This limited focus does not consider the holistic impact of transgender identities in and beyond the school environment. In my experience, so many individuals in schools focus on how to appropriately pronounce my honorific, “Mx.,” or feel the need to announce that they are “getting used to my pronouns.” These comments, devoid of intention, signify that people assume that my desire for inclusivity can be achieved through their correct pronunciation of my honorific. I also have a desire for more support from school leaders around my ability to self-define.

Rather than “getting used to” trans and GNC individuals, support them authentically. Ask them if they feel safe in your community. Ask them if community members are displaying attitudes of acceptance. While bathroom use and pronouns are important issues, recognizing one’s existence and validating their belonging sends a powerful message about that transgender person’s right to fully access the school space. Transgender individuals are humans. We are not single stance issues to choose a side on in political discourse or an uncomfortable object around which you must wrap your mind. For those who are willing to recognize the fullness of transgender and GNC community members’ humanity in a school environment, I would suggest that you all attempt some of these steps:

1. Be aware of the issues that face trans and GNC students and educators in and beyond school.

Try watching videos and reading blogs at

2. Survey the GSA clubs in your school to gather evidence of the climate for LGBTQ youth and ask your LGBTQ+ faculty their opinions with earnest intent.

Find GSA resources at

3. Make space and programming on transgender experiences accessible for all faculty and students.

Check out GLSEN’s LGBTQ history resources and Unheard Voices curriculum.

4. Ask people how they want to be identified, leave it at that, and deal with your confusion on your own.

Learn more with GLSEN’s Gender Terminology Visual and Pronoun Resource.

Consistent efforts toward transgender inclusion are challenging and should be treated with diligence. Remember, your school is working with a human population and not with objects of fascination. All humans deserve adequate attention and validation. Indifference toward or ignorance of the discrimination against transgender lives bolsters the power of hate and perpetuates the current system. We need all individuals to be stakeholders in our liberation.

In Solidarity,

A picture of the authorMx. Marvin D. Shelton Jr., M.S.Ed., Middle School English Teacher, Riverdale Country School, Pronouns: They, Them, Their



January 14, 2019

A picture of a student holding a sign that says I am a strong, proud queer immigrant

In preparation for GLSEN's No Name-Calling Week, we asked GLSEN's National Student Council to tell us the labels and identities that they hold and want to be called. Self-identification can be empowering, and it can be hurtful when people use labels that don't match the ones we choose ourselves.

These students are making a statement against name-calling and bullying by encouraging people not to use slurs or stereotypes, but to call their peers by the names that they identify with and give others permission to use.

Want to share how you identify? You can put #KindnessInAction and join the conversation by posting your own sign with the names YOU want to be called. Make sure to use #KindnessInAction and tag @glsen on Twitter and Instagram

To get involved with No Name-Calling Week, and to get free streaming of LGBTQ-inclusive classroom documentaries, register here!

Make your own sign and be sure to register for No Name-Calling Week!

January 03, 2019

Teacher and students in a classroom

I have been a secondary science educator for fourteen years. I have loved teaching science – piquing students’ interest in the world and in scientific possibilities, and encouraging them to pursue science careers.  After all, science solves the world’s problems. I was named ESL Teacher of the Year, twice nominated for my campus’ Teacher of the Year, and held numerous leadership positions at multiple campuses in multiple districts. In spite of this, anti-LGBTQ discrimination has led me to resign, ending my teaching career mid-contract.

In the fall of 2017, shortly after school started, I was approached by a student and asked to sponsor a GSA. I was ecstatic at the opportunity. My two sisters and I identify as LGBTQ and we have religious parents who learned to love and accept us.  As an out educator of 11 years, married to my wife for 9 years, and mother to 3, I was excited to offer a safe space for students to feel open to express their true selves.

In late February, however, I was called to the office of an administrator on my campus and was asked about a conversation that had occurred in my classroom.  During a genetics lesson I overheard a gay slur. Anyone who has spent any amount of time around teenagers is familiar with the rampant use of negative LGBTQ terminology -  in 2015, 92% of Texas students reported hearing “that’s so gay” in the classroom and 86% reported hearing other homophobic remarks (GLSEN 2015 Texas State Snapshot). In this instance, as always, I intervened to challenge the conversation with my typical, “not appropriate” and “it is offensive.” I believe it’s our role as educators to tell students that anti-LGBTQ comments should offend anyone; homophobic or transphobic comments, along with racist, sexist, ableist comments and any comments targeting a marginalized group of people, should have no place in our institutions, as they keep our classrooms from being safe and welcoming for all students.

The administrators informed me that the brief conversation I had with students was not an acceptable use of academic time and that I should focus on teaching the TEKS, Texas’s guiding K-12 subject required curriculum.  I was the campus GSA sponsor; if I did not correct this type of language, who would? I highlighted the worrisome statistics from LGBTQ students - nearly 9 in 10 were harassed or assaulted at school (GLSEN 2015). All adults in schools should know that ignoring comments like the ones I heard only encourages the anti-LGBTQ behavior and can increase the isolation felt by so many.  Unfortunately, however, school officials did not agree and I was formally reprimanded. A letter was entered into my personal file and it was expected that I not get in “an extended dialogue about those things” and “that these conversations not be allowed in [the] classroom”. Reprimand letters become part of a teacher’s employment record, can be used as documentation to support a firing, and travels with the teacher, even to other schools or other districts.

Although I was a teacher in a suburb of the fourth largest city in the United States – one whose most recent mayor was openly gay— and, most recently working in the third largest school district in Texas, the anti-LGBTQ climate left its mark on me. Texas is one of 34 states that does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression in public schools. Beyond that, Texas is one of the seven states with “No Promo Homo” laws that are designed to restrict instruction and limit school expressions of support for LGBTQ people or issues.  The law in the Health and Safety Code, Sec. 85.007. requires that teaching materials “state…homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense” (now deemed unconstitutional by the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas).

Although my last school district has a stated policy to protect for LGBTQ students – including “offensive jokes, name-calling, slurs,” the reality is that educators are expected to remain quiet about LGBTQ issues. If the current administration continues to be welcoming towards divisive, derogatory commentary, if the Department of Education refuses to protect all students, if school districts refuse to follow through with written policy, it is the students who will suffer.  

The research concludes that “No Promo Homo” states like Texas can create more hostile school environments – with less LGBTQ resources or supportive educators. Our role as educators is to guide and protect students to become productive members of society; we do this for all students, not just those like ourselves - especially the most vulnerable.

Administrators in any state need to be supporting their faculty in creating learning environments where all students can succeed. That’s why GLSEN created this guide for Administrators and School Leaders.  It is time for school boards, school administrators, and all educators to fully embrace LGBTQ students and staff, not just as policy – but to really fight for their rights to feel welcome, safe, and protected.  

Shannon Flores, Educator and GSA Advisor, TX

November 29, 2018

Support LGBTQ Youth this National Homeless Awareness Month

If you work in a school, it is vital that you provide an affirming and supportive environment for the LGBTQ youth who attend your school. Your LGBTQ students experience unique vulnerabilities and risks that their peers do not. According to a recent report by Chapin Hall at The University of Chicago, Missed Opportunities: LGBTQ Youth Homelessness in America, LGBTQ youth aged 18-25 are more than two times at increased risk of experiencing homelessness than compared to non-LGBTQ youth. The report also found that LGBTQ youth experience much higher rates of  assault while being homeless than non-LGBTQ youth as well.

Due to the realities of homelessness and the limited access to affirming youth services, these youth need extra support. The risk does not stop after high school either. LGBTQ youth are at high risk of not finishing high school and that will put them at high risk of homelessness after high school— 34% of LGBTQ youth have less than a high school diploma, compared to 11% of the general population (Chapin Hall). An earlier report by Chapin Hall, Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, showed that youth with less than a high school diploma or GED were more than four times (346%) at increased risk of being homeless than compared to youth who completed high school.

You can help support the LGBTQ students who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness in your school so that they feel affirmed in your community and have an adult ally. Here are some ways you can support your students.

1. Trans and Gender Nonconforming (TGNC) youth may not be able to afford the items, treatments or legal services needed to present as the gender they identify as. This should not stop school staff from affirming their gender and allowing them to use facilities or participate in events that affirm their gender identity. Allow youth to self-identify, express themselves how they choose, and allow for that to change and evolve on their personal timeline. 

2. Survival sex unfortunately is a real reality for some youth experiencing homelessness, in order to survive and get their needs met. 27% of LGBTQ and especially TGNC youth have traded sex for money, food, places to stay, compared to 9% of non-LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness (Chapin Hall). If you are supporting a student who has engaged in survival sex, use a harm reduction approach. They are getting a need met to survive, do not shame or blame them. Listen to them and help them connect to resources for food, shelter, gender affirming medical care/clothing or what else they need. If you meet them with shame, blame or punishment; they will still need to survive and they will not find the school environment safe for them anymore.

 3. Students may have a hard time focusing in class, check in with them and ask them when the last time they ate or had water was. If they are showing up they want to be there, support them in being able to be present.

 4. Like number 3, check in to see if they have slept the night before. As we all know this will definitely affect someone’s mood and attention. If a student falls asleep in class, do not jump right to consequences. Instead, have a conversation with them, ask them how you or the school could create a plan to support their ability to learn.

 5. LGBTQ youth who experience high rejection from their families are more than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, compared to LGBTQ youth who experience little to no rejection by their families (Family Acceptance Project). This risk is something school staff deal with across all student identities but when it comes to youth experiencing homelessness it is important to have an understanding as to why this group uses more substances, and may be using them to cope with trauma and the stress of homelessness. Of course, keep your space safe for all students but it is proven to have better results and less dropout rates if the approach is harm reduction and is supportive instead of just punitive.

6. Hygiene can be an issue with homeless youth. This is due to a few factors; they may not have access to a change of clothes/laundry, or they may need support on life skills. They may not be showering as a response to trauma or they may be experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychosis or other serious mental health issues. These factors may cause the youth to be bullied in school so be aware of how they are interacting with their peers, and how it affects their mental health. School staff can support them by providing them with toiletries, and clean clothes or resources for those items. Assisting them with extra access to locker room showers is also very useful and will help them feel like themselves. Connect students to the school social worker if it becomes an ongoing issue to explore with the student where the behavior is coming from.

7. Homelessness is chaotic. This makes it really difficult for youth to be able to show up on time and regularly to school, work, or appointments. LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness have limited to no access to public transportation or cars, especially in suburban or rural areas. Work with students on making up assignments and assistance with travel.

8. The traumas of homelessness, family rejection and abuse can make people feel hopeless. It is a horrible reality that LGBTQ youth who experience high levels of rejection from their families are more than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide than compared to LGBTQ youth who experience little to no rejection by their families (Family Acceptance Project). It is so vital that youth are connected to the school social worker or counselor and has school staff that they trust and affirm them. Make sure your staff are trained on how to assess for suicide. When youth are affirmed for who they are and have their basic needs met that risk is greatly diminished.

9. LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness have experienced immense amounts of trauma. Violence and homelessness is interconnected. Violence makes people at risk for homelessness, and homelessness makes people at risk for violence. You can support youth by using a trauma-informed approach to managing the space and supporting young people. When youth “act out”, are hyper-vigilant, or have quick reactions of self-defense, take a step back and support the student by understanding where that reaction came from in order to figure out the plan to support them, instead of only punitive measures. Often the reaction is a trauma response that would need support from the school counselor or social worker.

10. Last but not least, it is crucial to have social workers on staff who have real understanding of LGBTQ youth, gender and sexuality. They do not need to identify with the community themselves but it is so very important that they understand and affirm the youth. The risks are too high, and LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness need extra support and if the staff do not understand and empathize with them, they will not go to them for support. The repercussions of that are too high. Youth are consistently doing the work to be their best selves, and we must do the work to show up and affirm them.

Photograph of Nadia Swanson, LMSW, the Coordinator of Training and Advocacy for the Ali Forney Center.


Nadia Swanson, LMSW, is the Coordinator of Training and Advocacy for the Ali Forney Center. This blog is part of a GLSEN partnership with the Ali Forney Center to learn more about what school-based resources and actions can be done to support LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. 

November 28, 2018

A picture of Sleeping Swan, the author of this blog

It can be difficult attending school as an LGBTQ youth. We are constantly being teased for the way we dress, and who we are attracted to. There are many ways educators can make the classroom environment a safer space for youth including homeless queer youth. Queer homeless youth go through a lot -- from feeling or being abandoned, to feeling like they do not belong. This puts homeless youth at a disadvantage when it comes to having access to support and resources. As an educator for all youth, which includes homeless queer youth, there’s an obligation to also provide resources around homelessness to help empower and uplift youth.

Growing up as a queer person attending a New York City public school in Harlem, I was bullied and teased for the way I was dressed. I wore mostly baggy clothes and did not dress the way folks thought a “girl” or a “woman” should. Thinking back in that experience during my formative years, the one thing I needed to help me through that, was the support and care of my teachers and other staff in my school. I wanted to feel welcomed and protected by educators who knew what it was like to be me, or who at least educated themselves on queer issues. I looked for support and guidance and it was nowhere to be found. There were no classes that talked about issues affecting me, and no posters or flags representing me or other LGBTQ folks. Teachers should always intervene when LGBTQ homeless youth are being bullied for either their identity or if their clothes are not “right,” because they can’t afford new ones.

One of the most important ways, and the first start to creating a safer environment for queer youth in the classroom, is educating yourself. Educators have a duty to continue educating themselves so that they can effectively teach the youth. You can start your research on the internet. Learn inclusive and compassionate language to spark conversation in class, how to help diffuse situations, and ways to teach your students by example what it looks like to be kind. Educators should be the first ally for youth and through both education and modeling, can help other students in the classroom who may or may not be queer, become allies as well.  

Restorative justice is another way in which educators can foster compassion for youth who may be “acting out” through trauma. So when you realize that a youth is acting out through various traumas they are facing, then you will know how to properly view the situation instead of it being a character flaw of the student, you can start to address the situation at the root.

Teaching all students about the accomplishment of other queer folks can help queer or questioning students see themselves as folks who can also (if they wanted to) change the world. Representation in the classroom and history matters. While also teaching youth about the extraordinary things queer folks have done, remember to also remind them that not doing extraordinary things, or not having a desire to do extraordinary things, is okay. Your validity as a queer person is not rooted in how you can change the world. It’s valid because you are valid, no matter what you choose to do.

Lastly, it will be a difficult process to make your classrooms a safer space for homeless queer youth. It will take a series of mistakes to learn and unlearn all of the things we were taught about queerness, queer youth, and homelessness. But doing this hard work as an educator is the least one can do to foster an inclusive community with restorative justice and compassion for all.

 Sleeping Swan is an Ali Forney Client Liaison. This blog is part of a GLSEN partnership with the Ali Forney Center to learn more about what school-based resources and actions can be done to support LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.

November 18, 2018

A photo of a person in class. A heart is drawn on their hand.

By the time you’re reading this, I will be about two months into my third year teaching elementary special education. Which also means I’m about two months into my third year of answering questions from children about my gender identity.

I would like say to I’ve heard it all at this point, but I am constantly surprised by the questions my students have about my gender.

I love that my students never simply ask if I’m a boy or a girl. Instead, my students ask me why I wear makeup when I also usually wear men’s clothing. They ask me why I wear earrings when I also often have a beard. When not discussing my appearance, my use of gender neutral pronouns is the subject of many of their questions. Their complex questions show an innate curiosity in what they do not understand, and this presents me with an incredible teaching opportunity.

Instead of getting upset with their questions, I remind myself that this is exactly why I chose to teach elementary special education. I am the first non-binary person most of them have ever met, and many people have kept them from learning about the LGBTQ+ community at all because they do not believe it is developmentally appropriate. This gives me a very important job: I get to be the one to introduce them to an identity that I am so proud to have. I get to —in a way that is both age and developmentally appropriate— have conversations with my students about my reality.

The best part is that my students already understand difference. My students know that they are different and they know what that means. They understand that people treat them differently based on things about them that they can’t change. Instead of letting their identities as kids with disabilities be a reason that I cannot talk about my LGBTQ+ identities, I make sure that it is a reason that they will be the best ones to understand what I am going through. We are able to talk about a common goal: wanting respect from everyone despite being different.

Admittedly, I could never have done this alone. I have some incredible coworkers by my side who have made all of this possible. They have made space for me to exist in my truest and most authentic self by always using my pronouns correctly, making space for me to talk about my identities, and allowing me to answer questions from the students honestly. On the first day I met the students, every single one of the people on my team introduced themselves with their pronouns so that I would not feel singled out when I shared mine. These parts of being out at work have been incredible.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not always easy to be out at work. Wearing makeup, men’s clothing, and earrings when I haven’t shaved definitely makes some of the students in the school turn their heads. I have heard students whispering to one another when I walk by. There are staff members who have questions that I can see on their faces when I sit down for lunch in the lounge. People often default to using he/him pronouns for me, even though I wear a pin on my work lanyard that says they/them.

I’ve been asked many times if the extra work of being out as non-binary at work is worth it. I pass pretty well as a cis man, and I’ve been told by many people that it would be easier to just tell my students I’m one of the guys. My answer to whether or not it is worth it to be out as non-binary is a resounding YES. It is a privilege to be able to help raise the next generation with an understanding of non-binary identities. It is a privilege to spend every day teaching young people that asking questions about things they don’t understand is the only way to learn. It is a privilege to raise the next generation with the knowledge that gender is a social construct, that the gender binary is limiting, and that they can express their gender in any way they choose to.

Most of all, it is a privilege to know that someday I might have a non-binary student who will get to say that they had a teacher who helped them feel seen in their identities, which is something that I, and so many other non-binary folks, never got to have.

Headshot of the author of this article Dylan KapitDylan Kapit is a 4th/5th-grade special educator who is currently working at The Quad Preparatory school in Manhattan, and is a member of GLSEN's Educator Advisory Committee. For more information, blogs by trans educators, and resources on gender identity go to

November 14, 2018

Child's drawing of a person with glasses and a heart that says "Love" inside it

It's a typical Wednesday afternoon on the playground, but in the minds of my 5-year-old students it’s a zombie obstacle course, an Olympic monkey bar competition, or a restorative circle of tears and reconciliation. One such 5-year-old, so distracted by my presence, takes a break in their play to ask, "Are you a boy or a girl?" I promptly answer, "Both and sometimes neither." To this they look at me with a delicate grin and animated bob of their head. Responding with “Okay, me too sometimes,” as they zombie walk away. As a non-binary trans educator, this is a daily occurrence, a daily “coming out,” a daily playful teaching moment in between literacy and personal space lessons, and an ongoing conversation.

 This child’s response is not exclusive to this school nor to my experiences as a teacher. I have heard it echoed by numerous queer, GNC and trans educators. I have experienced this in public and private schools, with mixed responses from co-workers and administration. The ease of this experience can be attributed to three factors: 1) the openness and comfort with which preschool-age and kindergarten-age children engage in conversations about gender, 2) the trans-affirming public school where I work and 3) the privilege I have to be out in my workplace. The latter factors are not mutually exclusive but the first always stands. Children in preschool and early elementary grades are not limited by commitments to prejudice and bias-- they want to learn the languages of identity, they want to hear queer stories, they want to know all the possibilities.

When I first developed the self-awareness and vocabulary to appreciate my trans identity, I would never have imagined I would feel so at ease teaching 5-year-old children gender-neutral pronouns, let alone be out at work. Early in my career I realized that my professional and personal identities are inseparable. Avoiding the endless questions from students about my gender and expression was not only causing me excessive anxiety, but also giving them a dishonest representation of the world, relationships and who can be a teacher. It wasn’t until five years into my career as an educator that I requested support from my school to be out as nonbinary and transgender. While this wasn’t always greeted with love and understanding from the adults in my workplace, hearing four and five-year-old students respond with “That’s cool!” “Me too!” and “I want to be called ‘she’ now” are well worth the tears and frustration caused by transphobia in the workplace.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” “Why you got hair on your legs?” “You like flowers and pink too?” “You sound like a boy.” “Do you like Elsa?” “You’re both, so do you get to use both bathrooms?” I started seeing these endless questions and comments directed at my gender identity as invitations to teaching moments. These preschoolers weren’t baiting me; they simply wanted the information on gender from the only reliable source they knew. No need for long lectures, hours of workshops, or a shift of categories and biases. In early childhood education all it takes is honesty, relatable language, consistency, hugs, and some stickers for good measure.

Every school year, for the past five years, I have had to come out and explain to a new group of very young children and their parents, how to use they/them pronouns, that clothing and toys have no gender, and that their own unique gender(s) live(s) in their hearts. Every school year of my career I have had gender non-conforming and/or trans children in my classroom. These children are why I continue to work with preschool and kindergarten students and to push for gender-expansive curriculum in early childhood education. So how, exactly, do we discuss gender with children who are often pre-literate, and sometimes pre-verbal? We tap into their sense of imagination, admirable emotional sincerity, and their love of dramatic expression.

More specifically, in my classrooms I have incorporated the following starter mottoes, values and mini-lessons. While these tools are presented with early childhood children in mind, I have also used them in professional development settings with adults:

  1. Openly discuss gender identity and pronouns from the start

  2. Gender lives in your heart and communicates with your brain

    - "Someone might feel like a boy in their heart, a girl in their heart, both or neither”

  3. Pronouns help us talk about another person with respect

    - Place your hand on your heart and repeat these pronouns (e.g. she has her hand on her heart, they have their hand on their heart…etc.) What feels warm in your heart? Which pronoun(s) feel like respect to you right now?

  4. GLSEN’s pronoun stickers and pins

    - When someone sees this symbol they can read it and know how to talk about you (pre-literate: blue=They/Them, Green=She/Her, Yellow= He/Him, Pink=ask the person)

I encourage educators to repurpose these tools, role play gender-based conflicts from your classroom, recognize your students’ hard work and curiosity, and continue to revisit meaningful gender discussions and activities throughout the year. And of course: books, books, books! Try reading the children’s favorite books, this time with different pronouns. Whether you are an administrator, parent, or teacher these small changes in language and approach to gender conversations will mean the world to very young children. Give them a chance to show how inquisitive, accepting, and considerate they are, and give them, and trans teachers, a chance to be.

A headshot of the author of this blog Syd ShannonSyd Shannon, M.A., has been working in Bay Area and NYC schools for over 10 years and is currently the Kindergarten Director at Children’s After school Arts (CASA) (photo credit: