How to create an inclusive classroom as a graduate lecturer or teaching assistant (2/3)

By: GSA2 Subcommittee

Queer university students in North America face disproportionate harassment and discrimination (Rankin et al., 2010; Pryor, 2015), which can impact their mental health (Grant et al., 2014), academic success (Grant et al., 2014; Garvey et al., 2018), and program retention (Hughes, 2018). However, a safe environment can improve the mental health and academic outcomes for queer students (Grant et al., 2014). Whether you’re leading a lecture, tutorial, or lab for a course, there are a few things beyond hanging an inclusive Pride flag that you can do to ensure you’re creating a space where Two-Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and other gender and sexual diverse (2SLGBTQIA+) students feel safe and accepted.

1.  Respect chosen names and pronouns.

Using a queer person’s chosen name and pronouns significantly improves mental health outcomes (Russell et al., 2018). To help students feel comfortable, introduce yourself with your pronouns and how you would like students to refer to you, and invite students to share their preferred name and pronouns as well. Once the students have done this, familiarise yourself with the use and pronunciation of their name and pronouns, and correct yourself if you make a mistake. It’s normal to make mistakes, and it usually is best to apologise, correct yourself, and move on, rather than drawing out an apology in front of other students which may make the student you are apologising to feel uncomfortable.

In some cases, their name may not match their name in your class lists and the online portals. While the University of Calgary allows students to select a preferred name, some students may not be aware of this option, or may not use it for their own safety. Therefore, to avoid inadvertently outing a student you may also wish to privately ask whether they would like you to use this name outside of class. Despite providing a welcoming environment, some students may not feel comfortable with sharing their pronouns, and this choice should be respected.

2. Use inclusive language.

Wherever possible and appropriate, use gender-neutral language so all students feel included. For example, you can replace phrases like “ladies and gentlemen” with “everyone” or “folks” or “people”; “girlfriend/boyfriend” with “partner(s)” or “spouse(s)”. It is also preferable to replace pronouns with the singular they or to avoid pronouns altogether, when speaking, as opposed to using “he or she”, and these options are more inclusive and less awkward.

Also avoid separating students into groups by gender or sex, as some students may be outed by this, or may not feel comfortable deciding between either category. 

When discussing human health conditions, it is better to be specific. For example, if a disease affects menstruation, it is clearer to say it affects “people who menstruate” rather than “women”, as many women do not menstruate, and some men do.

3. Incorporate inclusive content and 2SLGBTQIA+ researchers and authors in your courses.

Courses focused on human health and biology naturally lend themselves to discussion of queer bodies. A more complete view of biology acknowledges the complexity of sex determination, which is comprised of multiple traits, and as such not all people will clearly fall along the lines of male and female. When the topic of biological sex comes up in lecture, take the opportunity to explore the topic of sex determination, and outline the difference between sex and gender identity. Not only will this include queer, trans, and intersex students, but it will also provide all students with a better understanding of the topic.

Another way to incorporate inclusive content is to explicitly include works from queer authors or researchers in your classes. In some cases, how the gender identity or sexual orientation of a researcher or author informs their work is an important topic of discussion to understand the content in its full context. Similarly, gender and sexual diversity has always existed and therefore impacted major historical events, which can be explored in lecture or discussion.

By following some of these guidelines, you can make your classroom or lab a more inclusive space for 2SLGBTQIA+ students, and signal to your students that you are a safe person to be themselves around. A safe learning environment which allows all students to express themselves benefits all students.

For more information, see the following resources:

Pronouns and gender-neutral language:

2SLGBTQIA+-inclusive content for biology, psychology and medicine:

2SLGBTQIA+-inclusive content for STEM:

2SLGBTQIA+-inclusive content for humanities:

About this Pride article series:

Happy Calgary Pride 2020 from the GSA2! As Calgary Pride week 2020 kicks off, we want to acknowledge that Pride is not simply a diversity event that happens once a year. For this reason, we want to bring light to the continuous efforts that are necessary to protect our rights to love, be loved, and be whoever we want to be. It is also important to acknowledge where pride started and whose efforts we are building on.

We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and embrace and celebrate that Pride was and continues to be a protest led by Black and Brown trans women. Furthermore, we acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty and the importance of supporting Indigenous led efforts to decolonize our communities. Queer and trans Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of colour experience disproportionate discrimination and targeted acts of violence in our communities. The GSA2 and its members are proud to co-exist with our racialized kinfolk and recognize that queer and institutional spaces, like universities, often do not foster inclusion, justice or reconciliation. Therefore, we call upon all GSA members, queer or not, to meaningfully engage with our communities and speak honestly of the harms we have all contributed to. We encourage you to read the three articles that we have put together with some history on why pride is still a riot, some advice on how to go about discussing these issues, and some actions that you can take in the classroom:

  1. Challenging Unjust Systems: Pride is a Riot by: Pedrom Nasiri and Sean Bristowe
  2. How to create an inclusive classroom as a graduate lecturer or TA by: GSA2 Subcommittee
  3. How to discuss issues of politics, gender, and sexuality by: Danielle Lefebvre, Rob Clifton, Rebecca Frederick, and the GSA2 Subcommittee

Who is the GSA2? We are the Gender and Sexuality Alliance of the Graduate Students’ Association. The GSA2 serves the 2SLGBTQIAP+ (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, agender, asexual, aromantic, pansexual and all gender and sexually diverse identities) and allies graduate student body at the University of Calgary. Through education and networking events, the committee works to increase the visibility of gender and sexual minorities within the university and the broader 2SLGBTQIAP+ community of Calgary. We are committed to providing a friendly, safe and welcoming environment for all, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ability, body size, professional experience and education, socioeconomic status, religion or other lived realities. Please reach out to us at gsa2.gsa@ucalgary.ca if you would like to learn more or if you have any questions.

References:
  • Garvey JC, Squire DD, Stachler B & Rankin S (2018). The impact of campus climate on queer-spectrum student academic success. J LGBT Youth 15, 89–105.
  • Grant JE, Odlaug BL, Derbyshire K, Schreiber LRN, Lust K & Christenson G (2014). Mental Health and Clinical Correlates in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Young Adults. J Am Coll Heal 62, 75–78.
  • Hughes BE (2018). Coming out in STEM: Factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students. Sci Adv 4, eaao6373.
  • Pryor JT (2015). Out in the Classroom: Transgender Student Experiences at a Large Public University. J Coll Stud Dev 56, 440–455.
  • Rankin S, Weber G, Blumenfeld W & Frazer S (2010). 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT. Campus Pride210.
  • Russell ST, Pollitt AM, Li G & Grossman AH (2018). Chosen Name Use Is Linked to Reduced Depressive Symptoms, Suicidal Ideation, and Suicidal Behavior Among Transgender Youth. J Adolesc Heal 63, 503–505.

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