News, Student Voice

Queer-friendly classrooms: a manifesto (introduction and background)

This is a manifesto for higher education UK classrooms, for higher education teachers, by higher education queer students. When we say ‘higher education,’ we mean universities, colleges and the like, however much covered in this manifesto can be considered for classrooms in other school environments and even outside the classroom.

We must acknowledge that there might always be a queer person in the room, whether you realise it or not. This is not a hypothetical manifesto incase you encounter a queer person in your classroom. This is a guide for the real situations where queer people inhabit more spaces than you might think, whether you identify them as queer or not. You must be proactive, not reactive.

A case for queer-friendly classrooms is not only a case for queer protection, but a mental health strategy, an anti-suicide strategy, a strategy for open and thoughtful communication, and a strategy for learning, not only through the teacher, but also through students (Scott Winkler, 1996: 48). It is not enough to welcome queer students into an institution with the guise of diversity. Representation is not protection, and it is not enough to rely upon students to create community and equity alone.

This manifesto is founded on evidence from multiple sources and our own experiences, which have taught us not only why we need queer-friendly classrooms, but how we might achieve them.

A 2018 UK study showed that ‘one in three lesbian, gay and bisexual’ university students have ‘attempted suicide,’ whilst ‘two-thirds have self-harmed’ (Beech, 2018). An interview project showed that queer students have ‘intentionally skipped’ class, and ‘recoiled’ from class discussions for fear of ‘backlash,’ when their classes have not felt like safe places to be (Schmalz, 2015). Studies have found that stereotype threat faced by queer students can activate the fight or flight response we feel when in danger, elevating cortisol, increasing adrenaline, increasing blood pressure and ‘other cardiovascular responses,’ which can have long term negative health effects (Casad and Bryant, 2016: 2). And further, it has been shown that queer people, whether they are trans*, nonbinary, gay, lesbian, bisexual or any other identity, are unlikely to report -phobic bullying to university staff (Bachman and Gooch, 2018: 10).

As well as preventing and/or reversing these troubling findings, creating queer-friendly classrooms can have other incredibly positive outcomes, and not only for queer people.

In an interview, a queer student said classes that were ‘a safe environment’ were the ones where he felt ‘excited to learn,’ as he was able to put his ‘whole effort into learning’ (Schmalz, 2015). It has been shown that cisgender men who participate in queer-friendly classrooms ‘undergo feminist change,’ and are likely to ‘increase their involvement in anti-sexist activism’ (Flood, 2011: 147). The University of Birmingham (UoB)(2017: 12) found that ‘both heterosexual and LGBTQ students value lecturers’ who are openly queer or an ally, as it gives them ‘‘safe’ people to talk to’ if they need to.

What we understand from this is: queer-friendly classrooms are necessities, and that when they are achieved they can create environments that spark learning, systemic change, and protection. The question is, how can we achieve these kinds of classrooms? We are aware that when a teacher -especially a heterosexual and/or cisgender teacher- is faced with this question their first response might be panic. The last thing someone who is trying to help wants to do is say the wrong thing. We enter this manifesto with warmth, knowing that you can’t always get it right, and we are not expecting you to, but we are expecting you to learn from mistakes and push forward. We also know that individualising the problem is not a total remedy for systemic change. You, as a teacher, are not the sole activist expected to change the system from within. There must be support and community for teachers (and students) to help combat queerphobic issues together, share experiences, and organise (Brundin, 2018). We appreciate that this manifesto is a mere step in the direction towards equity for all genders and sexualities, and we call upon you to read, absorb, and implement.

NOTE: We have chosen the word ‘queer’ as an expansive word for LGBTQIA+ idenities. We felt that queer offered more inclusion to those who are not represented within the LGBTQIA+ acronym, such as two-spirit people and Black people who use the term ‘same gender loving,’ instead of ‘gay’ due to it’s Eurocentric roots (Collins, 2019). We understand that queer has a long and difficult history, through it’s use as a slur and segregator. We have reclaimed it and share it as an emblem of solidarity to those who do not reside within the hetero-cis-normative box. We know this may not be a comfortable word for you to use if you are a cisgender or heterosexual person, or you may not feel represented by the word as an LGBTQIA+ person. What is important is that you can examine these things, and implement language into your classroom that both you and students will be comfortable with using.

Issy Stephens (they / she)

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