How to Support 2SLGBTQIA+ Students in the Biology Classroom

Photo credit: Ricardo Seah Photography

By Christine Goedhart

Being sexually or gender diverse in a heteronormative society can be difficult, and 2SLGBTQIA+ students face unique challenges both inside and outside of the classroom, such as negative stereotypes, discrimination, lack of visible role models, incompatible structures, and unsafe spaces.

It’s no surprise then, that students who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to report higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and isolation than their peers, and the risk of these negative mental health outcomes can be greater for those who hold additional marginalized identities, such as IBPOC, woman, or disabled.

Unfortunately, biology classrooms often present extra challenges that cause 2SLGBTQIA+ students to feel unwelcome, unsafe, and unseen. For example, sex and gender identity are commonly portrayed incorrectly or in oversimplified ways, and sexual diversity is frequently left out of biology course curricula.

To gain insight into how we can better support 2SLGBTQIA+ students in biology classrooms, I recently interviewed six UBC Science students who identify as queer and/or gender diverse. These students generously shared a number of ideas and recommendations for how biology instructors can make their courses more inclusive, safe, and welcoming for sexually and gender diverse students. Here are seven things that these students recommend we do:

1. Explicitly acknowledge that sex and gender are not the same and are not binary

While often used interchangeably, in reality sex and gender are distinct from one another, and although sex can be aligned with gender identity (e.g., a biological female [sex] identifies as a woman [gender]), this is not always the case. Additionally, sex and gender both occur on a spectrum and are much more complex than the oversimplified and incorrect binary model would have you think.

Making these two points clear to students is a critical step toward accurately representing these concepts in your class and making sexually and gender diverse students feel validated and welcomed. Here are some ways to do this:

    • Share a Sex and Gender Acknowledgement statement with students at the beginning of the term or relevant unit of the course. You can also include this statement in the syllabus and/or course Canvas site and provide resources for students who would like more information.
    • Showcase the complexity involved in defining sex and gender. The Gender Unicorn and this infographic offer visual representations of the scope and complex nature of sex determination and gender identity, and additional teaching resources can be found on the Project Biodiversify and Gender-Inclusive Biology websites.
    • Remind students of these two points when necessary, such as each time the topic arises in class or when you hear someone confuse the two concepts (e.g., “Remember, we’re talking about sex here, not gender, which is different.”).

2. Use specific language when talking about concepts related to sex and gender

Because sex and gender are distinct and complex (see #1 above), it’s important to be as specific as possible when talking about these concepts and to only use gendered language when it’s appropriate. And because students come into the course with varying backgrounds and understandings about sex and gender, it’s also important to provide them with instructions and guidelines for how to accurately and respectfully talk about these concepts.

Language matters, and here are some ways to ensure that everyone in the course is using specific and accurate language regarding sex and gender:

    • Instead of using male/female when talking about sex or reproductive systems, talk about the specific structures or biological mechanism (e.g., instead of saying “female reproductive organs”, use the terms for the specific organs you’re talking about, such as vulva, vagina, uterus, and ovaries). See this language guide for additional examples.
    • Avoid using gendered language when talking about sex or things that are non-gendered (e.g., avoid using the term “daughter” or “woman” when talking about someone with XX sex chromosomes, use “newly formed cells” instead of “daughter cells” when discussing mitosis/meiosis).
    • Be explicit with students about what terms to use/not use when talking about sex and gender. Model this language as you teach so that students become familiar with it, and gently correct students when they say something inappropriate (e.g., “Hermaphroditism is not an appropriate term to use for humans.”).

3. Make space for people to share their gender identity (if they want to)

You may have heard the old saying that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and this is definitely the case with sex and gender. Because sex and gender are not always aligned and one’s gender expression might not correspond with their gender identity, you can’t know someone’s sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation based on their physical appearance, behaviours, or name.

Rather than making assumptions, it is best to provide people with a safe and optional way to share whatever sexual and gender identities they are comfortable sharing. Here are some ways to do this:

    • Encourage members of the teaching team (faculty, TAs, peer tutors, staff) to include their personal pronouns during classroom introductions, on the syllabus/Canvas site, and in their email signature. If you identify as a member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, consider “coming out” to the class.
    • Invite students to share their personal pronouns with you and others in the course, but make it clear that it is optional. This can happen during class (e.g., can be shared during introductions or using name tents), in a get-to-know-you survey, and/or on Canvas.
    • Let everyone know about gender-based opportunities and allow students to self-select based on their own personal gender identity (e.g., scholarships designated for women).

4. Include sexual and gender diversity in course content

The content we choose to include (or not include) in our course signals who and what we value, and influences how students understand and feel about the topics being covered. If the course material only includes binary examples of sex and gender (or skips these concepts altogether) it sends the message that sexual and gender diversity is non-existent or not important. This can be misleading and can make 2SLGBTQIA+ students feel marginalized or excluded.

Even if it is not initially clear how sexual and gender diversity relate to your course, with a little bit of exploration and creativity you’ll find that these concepts can be incorporated into any biology course. Here are some ways to do this:

5. Encourage and solicit student feedback

You’re not always going to get it right. There may be times when you say or do something that displays ignorance or makes your students feel uncomfortable or offended. Also, our understanding of these complex topics is constantly changing as we continue to learn more, so what you think you know today may be out-of-date at a future point.

Students, especially those with lived experiences of sexual or gender diversity, tend to be up on current understandings of sex and gender and can help us know when we’re getting it wrong or missing the mark. Here are some ways to empower students to provide you with feedback:

    • Let students know that you are still learning and explicitly invite them to correct you when you get something wrong. Remind students as necessary throughout the term.
    • Conduct a mid-course student feedback activity. You can find UBC Science-specific information, tips, and templates at this site.
    • Establish a forum where students can provide you with ongoing, anonymous feedback. You can set up an ongoing Qualtrics survey or Padlet (just remember to check it regularly) or put a “feedback box” by the classroom door so that students can discreetly drop in a note as they leave.

6. Create a welcome and safe classroom environment for sexually and gender diverse students

2SLGBTQIA+ students generally do not perceive biology classrooms to be accepting of their identities, and the extra cognitive load that these students experience in trying to navigate their place in the course, especially when interacting with others, can interfere with their ability to participate and perform at their best (Cooper and Brownell, 2016).

While all of the previous recommendations will help to create a welcome and safe classroom environment for these students, here are some additional things you can do to establish a classroom culture that signals to sexually and gender diverse students that they belong there:

7. Seek out and engage in personal and professional development about sex and gender

Learning about the complexities of sex and gender and figuring out how to create a safe and welcoming classroom environment for sexual and gender diverse students is a journey. We’re all at different places in our understanding, based on our own personal background and experiences, and there will always be more to learn.

The good news is that you don’t have to do this alone. There are a lot of resources available to help you deepen your knowledge and learn how to teach in a way that is inclusive of sexual and gender diversity. Here are some ways to improve your understanding and practice:

    • Attend workshops and educational events to increase your knowledge about 2SLGBTQIA+ issues and how to best support 2SLGBTQIA+ students (e.g., Positive Space workshops, UBC SOGI events).
    • Identify your own positionality and privilege in relation to how sex and gender are (or are not) represented in the courses you teach. Share your own positionality and acknowledge the limitations in your understanding regarding these topics when talking about them with students.
    • Seek out support from a student, science education specialist, or colleague who’s “in-the-know” when developing strategies and materials to support 2SLGBTQIA+ students in your course.

How we acknowledge, represent, and talk about sexual and gender diversity in our biology classrooms can make a big difference in how students relate to our courses and to the larger discipline. STEM fields are generally seen as unfriendly to sexually and gender diverse people, which may be driving students away, so anything we can do to intentionally signal that we see and value 2SLGBTQIA+ students can go a long way in helping them to feel welcomed, supported, and included in our courses and in the field of biology.

I encourage you to try out one or more of the above recommendations that were generously shared by our students. Even starting with just one action is a move in the right direction, and you can build upon it over time.

Which recommendation(s) are you already using? Which recommendation(s) would you like to implement in your course next term?

If you’d like support, please reach out – I’m happy to help in any way I can.

Here are some additional resources that you might find helpful:

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