diversity2The echo of school bells is returning now that schools across Montana are once again in session, bringing exciting opportunities for many students.

For others, such as LGBTQ students, returning to school may remind them of the gulf between the mundane worries of managing crowded hallways, students rushing to first period, and last night’s geometry homework with their fundamental desire just to be seen and accepted for who they are.

This challenge—coupled with a negative public narrative that has been amplified as a result of more than 200 anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation that were introduced in state legislatures across the country—means that navigating school can be particularly difficult for LGBTQ students.

Persistent obstacles to educational success, such as ongoing bullying, discrimination, or violence due to sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression, highlight the ongoing need for LGBTQ mentors and teachers, and LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in schools.

Fortunately, one professor, Donna*, is already working to make a difference.

Before accepting a position at Montana State University-Bozeman in 2013 Donna taught at a Catholic School. As a lesbian, she couldn’t be “out” because of the school’s “morality clause,” which means she couldn’t serve as a mentor, source of support, or authentic role model for her students.

At MSU-Bozeman, however, she knew she could do more. For students, she was a mentor, and for faculty, she conduced “Safe Zone” trainings that promote awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ people on campus.

In addition to the trainings she facilitated, Donna also believes deeply in the importance of having LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and literature in schools. “When LGBTQ people are excluded from literature and curricula, students get the message that LGBTQ people are too controversial, unimportant, or inherently worthless—that they are ‘other.’ This can cause harm to both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ students by promoting prejudice and, ultimately, negatively impacting self-esteem. Students tend not to learn as well if they feel unsafe at school,” she shares.

This belief drives Donna to engage in outreach activities, working to foster dialogue among educators who may be inexperienced in or hesitant about using LGBTQ-inclusive literature and curricula in the classroom.

“For instance, since society often oversexualizes LGBTQ people, some equate acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people with talking about sex—failing to recognize that our experience is so much more than that,” Donna reflects.

We have seen over time that education and dialogue are necessary to dismantle stereotypes and fears. Donna’s work is a powerful example of how education and awareness-raising can also build safer schools and foster equality. Pride Foundation, along with other community partners like Montana Human Rights Network and Empower MT, is proud to share in this work as a member of the “Safe Schools Coalition.”

Fostering respect among LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ students through curriculum and inclusive classrooms will help end the misinformation and fear that opponents of equality employ to discriminate against LGBTQ students. This, along with the “Safe Schools Coalition” and “Safe Zone”-type trainings, is even more critical. We know that efforts by groups like the Montana Family Foundation are already underway across the state to discriminate against LGBTQ students, particularly transgender and gender non-conforming students, by dramatically limiting or repealing access to bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the only thing transgender and gender non-conforming students were worried about was which excuse to use after forgetting to do their geometry homework?

Thankfully, Montana educators like Donna, who recently began teaching in Billings, and the Safe Schools Coalition are working from inside and out to make schools more affirming for LGBTQ students. This is where I find hope for LGBTQ inclusion in schools. This work is the reason why I can see the same future Donna sees—one where all LGBTQ students feel safe, encouraged, and valued in every classroom.

Kim Leighton is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Montana. Email Kim.

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