The holiday season is a time of year that many spend with family and friends to share in each other’s joys and success and reflect on aspirations for the coming year. However, there will be people who spend this time in involuntary solitude, waiting for the return of the normal hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Last year, I decided that in addition to the traditional gift giving that I usually engaged in, I would find a way to give my time and attention to those who needed extra support during the holiday season. In my quest, I came across this website, Your Holiday Mom.
This mom, blogger and advocate has created a virtual home for LGBTQ+ youth who may be experiencing homelessness during this time of year.
About 40 percent of the 1.6 million youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+. Most cite the reason for their homelessness as rejection or abuse from home. In addition to lending my time to projects that support LGBTQ+ youth, her work inspired me to think about how I ensure that my classroom is a welcoming space when students return from the break.
In consultation with a friend, Jenee Duncan, a certified family life educator, we reflected on the barriers that we have to overcome as educators to decrease heteronormativity in the spaces where we educate and encourage the growth of young people.
We are fully accepting of people who identify as LGBTQ+, but realized that our heterosexual privilege often keeps us from creating an inclusive and affirming environment for LGBTQ+ people, despite our best intentions. So, we sat down together and wrote our struggles that create barriers and thought about what action we need to take to overcome them.
Using desired pronouns
Barrier: He/she and him/her are currently the dominant pronouns used in our society, and we use them without much attention or consideration. We also continue to use pronouns even when alternative ones have been shared. Yet, these privileged pronouns are grounded in a false gender binary that is not inclusive.
With an increasing understanding of sex and gender as more than dichotomous, we need to understand that the traditional pronouns are not always appropriate. Increasingly, people are using different pronouns such as they/them, ze/zir, and other terms with which they can identify.
Work we must do: Our resistance to new pronouns, or our conscious default, is unacceptable. We must do more to educate ourselves on how using affirming pronouns creates a more hospitable environment for our students. We recognize that change can come with both resistance and discomfort, but if we want to do better, we need to try!
We will continue to educate ourselves, be proactive and ask our students what pronouns they prefer and use them consistently. And if we get it wrong, we must apologize, move on and try to do better. Some people advocate for sharing your own pronouns in every introduction, adding your pronouns to your email and business cards, etc.
Seeing public affection of same-sex couples
Barrier: While it’s rare to witness the affection of same-sex couples in schools and other education spaces, it happens. We also recognize that our lack of exposure drives our curiosity and fascination with it.
It is tempting to proclaim that we would attend to any couple’s public affection in an educational setting, but if we are honest, we notice same-sex public affection differently.
Work we must do: We need to stop staring and being awkwardly uncomfortable about public affection with LGBTQ+ couples. We have to rethink what intimacy looks like in our diverse community and think about new possibilities.
It is important that when we redirect our students’ own decisions and behavior regarding public affection that they feel confident that they are not being singled out because of their identity. It is important that they know that it does not matter who they are holding hands with, hugging, kissing or cuddling with, we need them in the classroom doing these literature circles instead!
Assuming that partnership indicates a heterosexual union
Barrier: Most of the time, we find ourselves in the position where we are talking about families and referring to the students’ parents as mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, or some other combination of heterosexual coupling only to realize that we are excluding a vast number of other family structures.
When we assume that heterosexuality is the default (heteronormativity), we contribute to a system and way of thinking that views LGBTQ+ relationships as abnormal or less than valued.
Work we must do: It is unrealistic to expect your assumptions to go away quickly, but it is our responsibility as educators to explore those assumptions and how they have materialized as a result of heterosexual privilege. That means we must actively work to unlearn and dismantle these assumptions.
Speaking out when people make intolerant remarks
Barrier: It is often difficult to tell people when their words are offensive. For us, it can be difficult because there is sometimes this ridiculous notion that if you are not part of a particular group then it seems out of place for you to be offended by intolerance against that group.
It is also difficult to speak out because we do not want to offend, alienate, argue with or embarrass those closest to us. We also do not want to seem pretentious or all knowing. We do not want to embrace the discomfort and risk being alienated from future conversations or interactions. It just feels easier to say nothing. Sometimes we don’t know what to say or how to say it. Sometimes we find the courage to speak out, but too often we don’t.
Work we must do: We have to continue to build relationships with people so that we can have conversations that may be uncomfortable. We have to talk about discrimination of LGBTQ+ people when we encounter intolerant commentary and have private conversations about how people can do better.
We have to embrace lessons that teach about LGBTQ+ issues and have productive discussions to increase awareness. We have to let people know where we stand on injustice and intolerance of any sort. And finally, we have to learn about and with LGBTQ+ people and not put the responsibility on those who have the lived experience to tell us everything. We need to seek out opportunities to be more educated or at least use Google and good information literacy skills.
As educators, we know this to be true:
People should be accepted and valued for who they are and supported in becoming the best version of themselves. HARD STOP.
Our growth in understanding does not occur overnight nor does it occur without daily intentionality and attention to the needs of people who have different life experiences from our own. As we continue to think about the youth who are dealing with homelessness this season because of who they are, we want to send the clear message:
We love and support you. We will continue to make our educational spaces ones where you will feel comfortable and valued. We cannot wait for your return to our classrooms! Take care of yourselves this holiday season.
Educators who can see every awesome part of your being