It can be difficult attending school as an LGBTQ youth. We are constantly being teased for the way we dress, and who we are attracted to. There are many ways educators can make the classroom environment a safer space for youth including homeless queer youth. Queer homeless youth go through a lot -- from feeling or being abandoned, to feeling like they do not belong. This puts homeless youth at a disadvantage when it comes to having access to support and resources. As an educator for all youth, which includes homeless queer youth, there’s an obligation to also provide resources around homelessness to help empower and uplift youth.
Growing up as a queer person attending a New York City public school in Harlem, I was bullied and teased for the way I was dressed. I wore mostly baggy clothes and did not dress the way folks thought a “girl” or a “woman” should. Thinking back in that experience during my formative years, the one thing I needed to help me through that, was the support and care of my teachers and other staff in my school. I wanted to feel welcomed and protected by educators who knew what it was like to be me, or who at least educated themselves on queer issues. I looked for support and guidance and it was nowhere to be found. There were no classes that talked about issues affecting me, and no posters or flags representing me or other LGBTQ folks. Teachers should always intervene when LGBTQ homeless youth are being bullied for either their identity or if their clothes are not “right,” because they can’t afford new ones.
One of the most important ways, and the first start to creating a safer environment for queer youth in the classroom, is educating yourself. Educators have a duty to continue educating themselves so that they can effectively teach the youth. You can start your research on the internet. Learn inclusive and compassionate language to spark conversation in class, how to help diffuse situations, and ways to teach your students by example what it looks like to be kind. Educators should be the first ally for youth and through both education and modeling, can help other students in the classroom who may or may not be queer, become allies as well.
Restorative justice is another way in which educators can foster compassion for youth who may be “acting out” through trauma. So when you realize that a youth is acting out through various traumas they are facing, then you will know how to properly view the situation instead of it being a character flaw of the student, you can start to address the situation at the root.
Teaching all students about the accomplishment of other queer folks can help queer or questioning students see themselves as folks who can also (if they wanted to) change the world. Representation in the classroom and history matters. While also teaching youth about the extraordinary things queer folks have done, remember to also remind them that not doing extraordinary things, or not having a desire to do extraordinary things, is okay. Your validity as a queer person is not rooted in how you can change the world. It’s valid because you are valid, no matter what you choose to do.
Lastly, it will be a difficult process to make your classrooms a safer space for homeless queer youth. It will take a series of mistakes to learn and unlearn all of the things we were taught about queerness, queer youth, and homelessness. But doing this hard work as an educator is the least one can do to foster an inclusive community with restorative justice and compassion for all.
Sleeping Swan is an Ali Forney Client Liaison. This blog is part of a GLSEN partnership with the Ali Forney Center to learn more about what school-based resources and actions can be done to support LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.