‘You Can’t Learn in an Unsafe Environment’

Across the country, teachers are making sure their LGBTQ+ students feel safe at school while navigating a spate of anti-trans laws.

Teacher Barbie with students in a classroom.
As state legislatures propose hundreds of anti-trans bills across the country, teachers are working to make sure their LGBTQ+ students feel safe and included at school. All photos by Austen Risolvato/Rewire News Group

For related stories, check out our special issue, “They the People.”

Editor’s note: Names denoted with * are a pseudonym due to safety concerns.

Back-to-school season can mean a lot of things: new pencils, new books, new classes. For Indiana high school English teacher Emily Race, back to school this year means a new requirement to report any name or pronoun change requests from her students—at least according to her state’s legislators.

Signed into law in May by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, Indiana HB 1608—which also bans instruction on human sexuality in grades pre-kindergarten through third grade—theoretically could include any student who wants to go by a nickname or middle name, like “Katie” or “DJ.” However, Race is keenly aware of the transgender and nonbinary communities the bill targets in particular, and the larger implications it has on her role as an educator. HB 1608 went into effect on July 1.

“My business is the learning that is supposed to take place,” Race said. “To mandate to me that I communicate to parents every single thing their child is doing is really putting me in a position in that family dynamic that I shouldn’t be in. I have to protect my students, I have to report bullying—these things have always been true. But a particular targeted campaign against a particular population of my students will mean that I’m on higher alert on their behalf.”

In light of legislation like HB 1608 and recent anti-trans “bathroom bills,” which prevent transgender people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, some educators across the country are feeling the weight that’s always rested on their shoulders turning heavier. Most teachers will say creating a safe space for their students goes hand-in-hand with productive learning. To them, the need to create a safe space for every young mind that walks into their class was a responsibility they held—and now the need to build one for their transgender, nonbinary, and other LGBTQ+ students feels all the more pressing.

This year alone, 49 states passed anti-trans bills. According to the Trans Legislation Tracker, of the close to 600 bills proposed in 2023, 83 passed compared to the 26 of 174 bills passed in 13 states in 2022. On top of HB 1608, Indiana proposed 16 other anti-trans bills, including bans on gender-affirming care for minors. But it pales in comparison to the 65 proposed bills in Texas or the 43 proposed in Missouri, the states with the highest number of proposed anti-trans bills.

Of the 83 anti-trans bills passed this year, 12 target sports and 20 concern education. In Tennessee, for example, SB 0466 prohibits making it mandatory for public school employees to use a student’s preferred pronoun if it doesn’t correspond with their biological sex, and Florida’s HB 1069 mandates that sex education programs teach that sex is determined at birth and is binary, the Department of Education must approve any materials used, and anyone in a school district can object to classroom or library material that includes any sexual content for a non-health course.

Validating their students

Think about yourself in elementary, middle, or high school. School generally marks a 13-year period of time when you first realize and start to answer the question you’ll spend the rest of your life asking: Who am I, and who do I want to be? Studies older and more recent will attest to the key role school plays in the development of a child. The free fall of these questions can feel scary to anyone, let alone LGBTQ+ youth receiving the message that who they are or want to become is a crime. Research from the Trevor Project published in December 2021 shows that LGBTQ+ youth are at a higher risk of suicide attempts. A Trevor Project survey published earlier this year found that anti-LGBTQ+ legislation passing or the threat of it passing negatively impacts LGBTQ+ youths’ mental health.

For kids to feel the freedom to explore their identity, schools need to offer a safe and supportive environment for all students. When they do, it can pose a very positive impact on adolescents—especially LGBTQ+ students’ mental health, according to recent research. Much of that burden has fallen onto the shoulders of educators.

On the surface, it might look small: quiet signifiers like ally pins on their teacher lanyards, LGBTQ+ stickers on their school laptops, a sign designating their classroom a safe space for all. For a health teacher in New Jersey who teaches fourth through sixth grade, it means including a unit on self-love—exploring what that looks like and how it means “accepting who you are, and also accepting others.” For a Maryland middle school math teacher, it means not shying away from LGBTQ+ conversations her students might bring up, and even using the concept of binary numbers as a jumping point to explain what nonbinary means—thus developing a reputation as a teacher kids can talk to. For a special education teacher in New York City, it means including readings and texts from a diversity of voices and perspectives, inviting and emboldening their students to think critically about what they’re seeing and how they’re thinking about it.

“The way we make [school] safe is normalizing anything that’s not heteronormative,” said New Jersey-based health teacher Harry*.

Parents of students in some school districts would prefer to opt out of an approach like that—literally. For example, earlier this year, the Michigan-based right-wing group Great School Initiative lobbied for its “Operation Opt Out,” which would label anything LGBTQ-related as sex education and thus something to opt out of. Michigan already allows parents to opt their child out of sexual education classes.

Andrea D. Kelley, a researcher and postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State University who teaches courses on topics like reproductive justice and sociological interpretations of social hierarchies, said both approaches can prove “harmful to everybody” as it disregards aspects of sex educations that teach young minds about their bodies and the relationship we experience in them, both physically with others and internally with ourselves.

“So what happens when sex ed gets demonized as something that is inherently sexual? That all of that is inherently sexual and is something that can be opted out of hearing about, it’s so dehumanizing,” Kelley said. “It’s sending a message that there is no space for exploration. There’s no space for ambiguity.”

Barbie students sitting at desks next to a sign that says, "Trans Kids Have Always Existed."

Creating safe spaces also means recognizing trans and nonbinary students’ identities, including learning their preferred name and pronoun and not misgendering them—something of the utmost importance to Vee*, a Maryland middle school math teacher.

“I will learn my kids’ pronouns before I learn their names,” Vee said. “I might have to call you ‘sweetheart’ for the first few months of school because I can’t remember your first name, but I’m not going to misgender you.”

This establishes another key tenet for many teachers: validating their students’ chosen identities. Self-discovery characterizes a majority of adolescence and young adulthood. It also represents a key part of a person’s growth into who they’ll become, and a lot of that self-discovery looks like throwing stuff at a wall to see what sticks and feels right. How one identifies takes up a large part of that self-discovery.

The “youth” part of transgender youth presents a big talking point echoed by anti-LGBTQ+ groups, namely the idea that kids are too young to fully grasp their decisions or identities. That amid all those growing pains and angst of adolescence, we can’t interpret the decisions a kid or teen makes as set in stone—they’ll probably change their mind.

“Not being allowed to say who you are or have people believe you when you say who you are at this really scary time is dangerous,” Vee said. “You need adults around you to say, ‘Yes, I believe you.’ Who cares if they’re questioning and the answer to that question ends up being, ‘No, actually, I’m cisgender?’ They’re allowed to explore that. They should be allowed to feel what they’re feeling when they’re feeling [it].”

Nikki*, the New York City special education teacher, echoed these sentiments and added that although kids are figuring things out, they have an awareness of who they are. They also emphasized the importance of teachers standing as an affirming adult to transgender and nonbinary kids—pointing to research that illustrates how accepting adults help reduce suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youth.

Similarly, Harry, the health teacher from New Jersey, said they try not to tell students what to think, but rather how to think, teaching what being transgender is and how the idea of gender has changed over time, allowing students to draw their own conclusions about themselves with that knowledge. In Race’s case, as someone who primarily teaches high school seniors in Indiana, she said many of her students face making some of the most momentous decisions of their lives regarding their future.

“In the same breath that people will criticize the youth for not behaving like 50-year-olds, they will also dismiss the youth as not knowing what they’re talking about or how they feel or what’s important to them,” Race said. “Every individual student is different, but to dismiss a student’s ability to understand the significance of their own experiences to them is a disservice both to them and to the adult that they are going to become, or have already become.”

Standing up to other teachers—and the government

On a larger scale, creating safe spaces at school can also mean going toe-to-toe with other teachers or higher authorities in order to fight for their students. Most of the teachers we spoke with for this story said their schools have at least one gender-neutral bathroom. However, Race added that it’s up to her LGBTQ+ students to seek out these resources. Advocating for yourself at any age can feel insurmountable, let alone when you’re an adolescent, teen, or child and the entity you need to advocate to is your school board or your local (or even federal) government.

“They are kids,” Vee said. “They need adults to bear the brunt of that for them. I’ve gotten in a little bit of trouble in the last school year about being argumentative at staff meetings for saying, ‘No, that’s not good enough.’ But who should do it? A 12-year-old?”

And these teachers don’t just stand up for their students to other teachers, but sometimes to the government too. Race took a day off to visit her statehouse to talk with her senator and representative about the practical issues of HB 1608, which requires her to notify parents about the name changes of her students. It would also pile on stress to already overworked teachers.

It all poses a larger question—asked by both the government and oftentimes individual teachers to themselves—of what it means to be an educator in the United States, and what roles we hold them responsible for. For some teachers, that answer manifests in how they work to create these safe spaces for all their students, no matter how big or small.

“They’re children and we’re with them all day, and I think my main job is to keep them safe and help them grow into the best versions of themselves,” Vee said.

A lot of it comes down to how an individual teacher interprets their role. This can present a frustrating dissonance—Vee points to some of their co-workers not remaining as vigilant about learning their student’s pronouns—but for the ones who circle around with the question in their mind, it’s cut and dry.

“I don’t think my role’s ever changed,” Harry said. “I think my awareness and information’s changed. My role’s always been to provide a safe environment, which cultivates learning—and you can’t learn in an unsafe environment.”