How to Foster Safe, Healthy, and Productive Dialogue in the Classroom


How to Foster Safe, Healthy,

and Productive Dialogue

in the Classroom

by Cheryl Clarke

How can I foster healthy, safe, and productive dialogues about LGBTQIA issues in my college classroom?
— Anonymous

Cheryl Says:

The right ways to engage your college class in positive dialogues on LGBTQIA issues depends first upon your reasons for wanting to do so. Before you begin to plan a dialogue, you should ask yourself the following questions: Do you want the issues of LGBTQIA communities to come up organically from materials you are using, without initiating the discussion yourself? Do you want to be more intentional by including the topic in your syllabus and taking a more formal approach? The ease or difficulty of introducing LGBTQIA issues into class discussions also depends upon the subject matter you are teaching. Some subjects, such as literature, social science, and women’s and gender studies are more naturally conducive to the introduction of social issues such as sexuality and gender identity. Understand your own motives, as an instructor, for wanting these discussions to take place.

First and foremost, you should work to develop guidelines for your classroom environment and clearly convey these expectations to your students at the beginning of the semester or school year. For example, you can ask students to use inclusive language, ask them their names and pronouns, uphold standards of confidentiality (what is said in the classroom stays in the classroom), and encourage a respect for difference—whether it be with religion, race, ethnicity, ability, gender or sexuality. Establishing these ground rules helps to create a space where students feel comfortable voicing their opinions and having dialogues with each other.

It’s important to be  aware of resources available to your students, and to consider what their worlds are like outside of your classroom. Is there an LGBTQIA Center in your community? Are sexuality and gender expressions and identities protected in your institution’s nondiscrimination policy? Are counseling resources available? Is there a diverse array of courses offered in the school’s curriculum that address different identities and communities? Is there any extra-curricular programming on these issues that you can encourage your students to attend?

On a similar note, use what is available in your students’ own environments to ask questions of them, such as television shows like Modern Family or Orange is the New Black or public figures such as Caitlin Jenner. Talk about how LGBTQIA people are portrayed in the media and what stereotypes the media perpetuates about LGBTQIA characters, especially LGBTQIA characters of color.

Another great way to introduce LGBTQIA topics into your classes is to invite members of LGBTQIA community organizations as guest speakers. Particularly on college campuses, many college campuses have LGBTQIA student organizations whose exist on campus and its members are willing to come into classrooms to lead peer education. Students often learn better from other students, and productive conversations can ensue from these interactions.

Many other resources can help facilitate your discussions. Films are immensely helpful, especially documentaries and features. Out of the Past: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Rights in America is a 1998 documentary that is still so good, despite its age. If you want to talk about AIDS in the context of LGBTQIA issues, Hold Tight Gently: The Battlefield of AIDS by Martin Duberman is excellent and recent. In addition, literature and history provide excellent platforms for the discussion of LGBTQIA issues. Writers like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Judy Grahn, Essex Hemphill, Martin Duberman, Samuel Delany, Jeanette Winterson, Jewelle Gomez, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, and many, many more would be useful.

The textbook Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (eds. Adams, Bell, and Griffin) has an excellent section called “Sexism, Heterosexism, and Transgender Oppression” filled with exercises for students that would enable dialogues. But you can also fashion your own dialogues by developing questions from the reading or other course material. Break the class down into small groups and give them questions to answer, such as:

  • What did you learn about sexuality from your family, your community, your church?

  • When did you first meet a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person?

  • Have you always wanted to be the gender you are?

When finished, bring them back together and have them report out. Ask them, “What are you learning?” Make a list on the board, which will illustrate the diversity of responses.

As a whole, self-knowledge and experience in the classroom are critical here. Be sure to prepare yourself ahead of time, and if you are new to teaching, talk to more seasoned teachers and ask them what they do. Build up your confidence first. Equip yourself with responses to students’ probable comments and questions. Prepare questions for them. Develop a bibliography of LGBTQIA resources so that you can continue to educate yourself on the burgeoning knowledge in this field as an ongoing order of business. This bibliography may be shared with your students after you start the dialogue. Include LGBTQIA issues with a catalogue of different issues, as stated above. And remember: always begin with a question.

From 1992-2009, Cheryl Clarke was the founding director of the Office of Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities at Rutgers University, New Brunswick Campus. She retired from Rutgers in 2013, after 41 years. She is the author of four books of poetry and has been an out lesbian since 1973.

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