How can we create an equal and discrimination free education environment that is open to all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity? Some important queries to make about the school environment are:

  • What is being done to promote the acceptance of unique identities within the school?
  • What is being done for youth who are being harassed?
  • What is being done to address the youth who are doing the harassing?[1]

Language can be a powerful force of inclusion or exclusion and it plays an important role in promoting equality. Imagine the example of a student in a class being told, “Take this paper home for your mom and dad to sign.”  For some in the class this statement will reflect their family structure, however for students in single parent homes, adoptive or foster homes and same-sex parented households this statement is a direct reflection of the invisibility of their particular family makeup. Many of the students in our classrooms do not have a ‘mom and dad’ responsible for them. Using more inclusive terms and interchanging the terms that are used in the class will help all students feel welcome.

Students and their parents are assumed heterosexual over and over again on a daily basis. Forms they fill out have a space for mother and father, male or female, never considering alternatives. Classmates assume that their friends are interested in the opposite sex only, and will ask awkward questions such as asking a boy “Have you ever had a girlfriend?” These types of questions might seem harmless but their repetitive nature makes them a constant reminder to gay, lesbian, and bisexual students that they are not fully accepted by their peers. For students who might be questioning their sexual orientation, the constant assumption of heterosexuality, otherwise known as heterosexism, is a warning that they had better hide their identity. This issue is even more complex for a trans person who may be aware at an early age of his trans status but is unable to discuss it at school or at home. Using the incorrect pronoun to describe an ‘out’ transgender student sends a message to other students that transgender people are not accepted.

Creating a safe and inclusive learning environment is not just an ethical mandate but a legal one as well. In Canada, provincial human rights legislation prohibits discrimination in services customarily available to the public. Public schools are included in this category and discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited in every province and territory in Canada. Discrimination based on gender identity is written into many human rights acts across Canada, however it has not been included in all provincial human rights statutes. At the time this was written the following provinces did not explicitly include gender identity in their provincial or territorial human rights statutes: Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick and the Yukon Territory. However, these places continue to accept complaints based on gender identity under the ground of “gender” or “sex”. In addition, some places also include “gender expression” within human rights legislation. This is a new ground and law will have to be developed to understand more fully what is included in that ground.

Preventing discrimination, including name-calling, is not just a professional duty but also a legal responsibility for school boards. The British Columbia Court of Appeal in the Azmi Jubran case found that school boards have a “duty to provide students with an educational environment that does not expose them to discriminatory harassment.”[2]

Clearly, school boards, teachers and other school officials have a responsibility to be pro-active about promoting a classroom that is free from harassment and discrimination. Here are some strategies to use in a learning environment to encourage equality and respect. Before implementing them you may want to spend some time examining your own stereotypes and language.

  • Use open language when referring to romantic relationships. Try to use the term ‘partner’ and avoid assuming people are heterosexual.
  • With each new year and new class, begin by laying the groundwork for class dynamics. Let students know that name-calling is not allowed in the classroom. Have students outline rules for respectful behaviour.
  • If you have a discussion about sexual orientation, include gender identity and talk about some of the issues facing trans students.
  • Contact a representative of your school board to find out what supports are available for transgender students. The Calgary Board of Education (“CBE”) and the Edmonton Public School Board (“EPSB”) have experience with issues facing trans students and they can help you to address these issues in your school and classroom.
  • Contact the ACLRC or Youthsafe to ask for an interactive session addressing the issues facing LGBT youth.
  • Inclusive language is not only about eliminating heterosexist and transphobic assumptions, but also about creating space for LGBT communities.  Ensure you make reference to same-sex couples in ordinary discussions and lessons. For example, rather than always using a heterosexual couple in an example, sometimes use a same-sex couple. The goal is to actively let people know that, as the teacher responsible for the classroom, you are accepting of all students regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This does not indicate that you are promoting any particular identity, but simply that you want LGBT students to know that they are safe, while letting other students know discrimination is unacceptable.
  • Do not make jokes about women or men in drag. Sometimes these issues come up in videos, or television shows. The degree of seriousness with which you deal with the issue will demonstrate to students that your classroom is a safe space for all youth.

  • When talking to an LGBT student, follow their lead. Use whatever term they use to self identify. If you feel uncomfortable, ask privately and respectfully what the person prefers.

  • Take a look around at the physical environment of the classroom or education setting, Are the posters representative of all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity? Are any of the images homophobic or transphobic? Are the books you assign inclusive, or if they are not do you discuss the discriminatory aspects of the book?
  • Try not to use the term ‘homosexual’. ‘Homosexual’ was originally coined as an expression to describe a pathology (disease). This term is not specific to the person you are referring to (i.e., gay, lesbian, bisexual) and is too often used in a negative, rather than positive fashion.
  • Be aware that stereotypes about LGBT communities will be different across diverse communities. Get your class to discuss and deconstruct these stereotypes, being aware of diversity. Examine different stereotypes that are seen in various cultures. The Youthsafe session described in the back of this booklet allows students to explore stereotypes and discuss these with their classmates.
  • “Don’t assume that everyone is heterosexual. Assume that there are heterosexual, lesbian, gay and bisexual people in all classes, sports, the cafeteria, the staff room, meetings, daily life, etc.”[3]
  • Don’t assume that someone who looks effeminate is gay, or who looks butch is a lesbian. Don’t assume being a macho male or feminine female means a person is heterosexual.[4]
  • Encourage your school to make LGBT friendly policies and have LGBT friendly forms.[5]

Language can be used to actively exclude others from feeling accepted, it can be used in a way that ignores the existence of others, or it can be used to purposefully harm another person. Particular words or phrases in one context might be acceptable, while in other contexts hurtful and harmful. There are many words, such as ‘queer’, that have been reclaimed by the LGBT communities as positive labels. However when these same words are used in a hateful manner they are hurtful to a student’s self esteem and growth. Usually terms such as these, which have been reclaimed by a community, can only be used safely by people that belong to that community. It is best to use more mainstream terms such as lesbian, bisexual, gay and two-spirited. Ensure that the person you are describing feels comfortable with the language you are using. Most importantly do not ‘out’ a student/colleague unless you have received their permission to do so.

Most likely if you hear a term that sounds like a taunt, then it IS a taunt regardless of what the word is. Make your class aware that it will be the tone of the comment that will receive punitive action. If it sounds degrading, and especially if the person on the receiving end feels harassed, it will be seen as degrading. Human rights case law says that discrimination is not determined by the intent of the harasser, but by the effect it has on the victim.[6]

Jubran[7] (discussed above) is a clear demonstration of this. Students in that case said that they did not intend to be calling Mr. Jubran a homosexual. They simply used the word ‘gay’ and ‘fag’ to describe anything that they did not like.  The Court of Appeal stated, “The effect of their conduct, however, was the same whether or not they perceived Mr. Jubran to be homosexual.” By using homophobic terms that are associated with negative characteristics, Mr. Jubran was denied full participation in school. This impacted his dignity and caused people to equate Mr. Jubran with the negative perceptions students had about homosexuality. Therefore it is important for students to understand that it is the effect of their words that will be punished, not the intent.

Homophobic and transphobic language is aimed not only at LGBT people, but also at heterosexual students who do not ‘fit’ in with what is perceived as popular or mainstream. By eliminating taunting language from your classroom and school you are not just protecting LGBT students, but all students. You will be protecting students’ rights to freely express their gender, whether that means girls playing football or boys wearing pink. In addition you will be creating an example of respect that is due to all students regardless of their sexual orientation, race, ability, sex or other unique characteristic. It is impossible to create this kind of environment if teasing is allowed on one of these grounds, but prohibited on another.