Be an Ally: LGBTQ Advocacy and the School Library

I recently attended an Ally Training for faculty serving LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning) students. The facilitator looked around the (nearly) full room of teachers and librarians and said, simply, “my gay fifteen-year-old self thanks you.” As a teenager, he would have given anything for even one visible teacher ally.

It might seem that today’s educational climates have improved in terms of diversity and tolerance of gender diverse youth. However, the statistics continue to tell an alarming story. According to a 2015 GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) survey, 85% of LGBTQ students reported verbal harassment or discrimination at school; 49% experienced cyber bullying. And 60% of students reported hearing negative remarks about LGTBQ issues or gender expression from faculty and staff.  Meanwhile, the statistics on bullying and suicide for transgender students, particularly transgender students of color, are dismal. (See Gender Spectrum’s Supporting and Caring for Our Gender Expansive Youth). We can do better.

While many educators are becoming better informed about the needs of their LGBTQ students, gender diversity may still be under the radar. “Gender diverse” or “gender expansive” refers to students who do not identify with or express the gender typically assumed of their biological sex. It may be helpful to think of gender and sexuality as separate spectra. Who one is attracted to sexually or romantically does not depend upon a person’s professed gender identity. (For instance, a transgender individual born female who identifies as male may be attracted to either men or women.) The kaleidoscope of possible gender and sexuality combinations is beautiful, but can be confusing. The best advice for librarians and teachers is not to make any assumptions about their students, and to modify lesson plans, classroom language, and projects and programs to be as inclusive of gender  diversity as possible.

As librarians, we attempt to create spaces and programs where diverse students feel welcome. Below, I offer suggestions for how to be an effective ally to LGBTQ students, particularly gender diverse and gender expansive students. It is our job to make sure that everyone feels safe, welcome, and included in our libraries. What can librarians do to support LGBTQ students?

  1. Make information about LGTBQ issues available and easily accessible, for faculty as well as for students. Don’t wait for days or months designated as “awareness” periods. LGBTQ students need support every day of the school year.
  2. Don’t tolerate anti-LGBTQ language in the library or anywhere else you hear it in the school. This includes the use of the word “gay” to indicate that something is stupid or undesirable. If you hear something, say something.
  3. Understand that any student you interact with could be LBGTQ. Don’t modify your behavior just because you know an LGBTQ person is present! Consistently model and reinforce inclusive behaviors and attitudes.
  4. After training, put an ally symbol on your office door. If a student comes out to you, don’t assume that that are out to everyone, including their parents.
  5. Don’t assume that your students are cisgender and/or heterosexual. Modulate your language to exclude gendered expressions such as “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls.” Ask students for their preferred pronouns, and accept the use of the singular they/them pronoun.
  6. Don’t separate groups of students by perceived gender or assume just two genders.
  7. Be inclusive in programs and book displays. Include resources authored by and featuring LGBTQ people even and especially when the theme of the display is not LGTBQ-related.
  8. Support GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) groups at your school. Volunteer to be a faculty adviser to the group. Give them opportunities to sponsor programs, suggest library resources, and contribute to displays. Make the library space available for GSA meetings.
  9. Make the following resources available to students, faculty, staff, and parents:

The Trevor Project: Resource for LGTBQ crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

Gender Spectrum: Tools for creating gender-sensitive and inclusive spaces for youth and teens.

It Gets Better: Testimonials for teens and youth from LGTBQ adults who survived difficulties as youth to emerge happy and successful in adulthood.

GLSEN: A resource for students and faculty to help create space and affirming spaces in schools for all students.

Know of other resources that could benefit LGBTQ youth and their allies? Please share below!

Author: Loretta Gaffney

Loretta M. Gaffney, MLIS, MA, Ph.D., is a librarian and teacher at Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles. Illinois-born and Iowa-raised, she is slowly becoming an Angeleno by learning to shiver in 50-degree weather. Loretta is the author of Young Adult Literature, Libraries, and Conservative Activism, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. A frequent conference speaker and guest lecturer, Loretta taught YA Literature, Reading Research, Intellectual Freedom, and Youth Services Librarianship at both UCLA and the University of Illinois. She has twin 13-year-old daughters and a bad reading habit.



Categories: Blog Topics, Intellectual Freedom, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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