Back-To-School with “Rainbow Connection”

By Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson

“Rainbow Connection” is the new NJEA Review column that focuses on LGBTQIA+ issues in our schools. As we prepare for our first interactions with students this school year, let’s consider some best practices for making education spaces queer inclusive and affirming. One way to get started is by honoring the gender identity and gender expression of our students with special attention to their use of personal gender pronouns (PGPs).

Personal gender pronouns (PGPs) are pronouns that people want us to use when we refer to them without using the proper noun that is their given or chosen name. Female and female-identified people (whether cisgender or transgender) commonly use she/her pronouns. Male and male-identified people (also cis or trans) commonly use he/him pronouns. People who are gender nonbinary (GNB) or otherwise do not identify as female or male might use they/them pronouns, and there are many other pronouns used by nonbinary folks as well.

For those who find using “they” as a singular pronoun a little challenging, consider the noun “deer.”’ That word refers to a single animal (“that deer”), a pair of animals (“those deer”), or even a whole herd of animals (“all of the deer in the herd”). The word “deer” is easily used in the singular or the plural. The same is true for “they” when referring to a single gender nonbinary person or a group of people.

When we learn, affirm, and use our students’ PGPs we demonstrate that we listen…and care.

Some teachers are learning their students’ pronouns (rather than assuming them) by distributing an information request card or form at the beginning of the school year or whenever a new student joins the group. Allison Connolly, District Equity/SEL Coach and former social studies teacher in Ocean Township Schools, uses this form. With guidance from students, we can join Allison in affirming their identities within classroom settings. This is because we know that students who face adversity—like many students who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community—develop resilience with the presence of one strong, supportive adult in their lives. Demonstrating that you accept and affirm your students’ identities has measurable results: they come to school more reliably and have higher GPAs than those who aren’t affirmed in those same ways (See Try these additional methods:

  • Gender-inclusive ways to address a group – Instead of binary language like “ladies and gentlemen,” “boys and girls,” or “guys,” try gender-neutral options, like “scholars,” “creators,” “scientists,” “Team 305”, or your school mascot! Non-academic options include “folks,” “everybody,” “athletes,” “colleagues,” and–one of our favorites— “y’all.”
  • Grouping students without using sex/gender – When organizing group activities, it might seem easy to group participants according to their (perceived) sex/gender. This can backfire, and students who are uncomfortable with binary labels find themselves boxed in, or like it draws attention to them unnecessarily, or that it’s just not a fit. Their attention is focused on managing discomfort rather than on full participation in learning. Invite students to break into groups by hair length, height, clothing color, birth month, or something light-hearted like sport teams or potato chip preference.

Chris Cannella, teacher of Social Studies and local association president in Cedar Grove, addresses his students with, “All right folks! Let’s get ready to learn!”

Affirming pronouns in schools goes beyond just what we say.

Individual educators have the power to affirm students’ PGPs in their classrooms, but the school culture can be enhanced with PGP affirmation as well. For instance, consider creating a professional learning community (PLC) to examine gendered language your school uses on its new student registration forms, the attendance and gradebook systems, within teacher teams, in your own plans for a substitute teacher, and with your colleagues who may be transgender or gender nonbinary.

Making Your LGBTQIA+ Support Visible

In addition to your care and sensitivity around students’ gender identity and personal gender pronoun use, consider ways of visually signaling that you and your classroom are safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ people and ideas. Maybe put a Safe Space rainbow sticker on the window of your classroom door, or perhaps a print out of the Progress Pride flag. You could post an inspirational quote by a famous member of the LGBTQIA+ community, note important LGBTQIA+ people on your classroom calendar, or ask your high school or middle school Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club for suggestions!

What is the LGBTQIA+ curriculum inclusion mandate?

In 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law S-1569, which “requires boards of education to include instruction, and adopt instructional materials, that accurately portray political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people” across all content areas in middle and high schools starting in September of 2020, and it’s up to school districts to interpret this mandate in their content areas.

Some districts and teachers are extending this work in elementary grades as well in order to affirm LGBTQIA+ elementary students and LGBTQIA+ families, to improve classroom and school climate, and to support the social/emotional learning of all students as 21st-century learners. Inclusive approaches and materials in earlier grades also prepare students for such practices and ideas—not only about LGBTQIA+ people—that they will be engaging with from middle school grades and beyond.


National Hispanic Heritage or Latinx/Latine History Month

(Sept. 15-Oct. 15)

Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002), born to a Puerto Rican father and Venezuelan mother, was a transgender woman and activist known for her involvement in the 1969 Stonewall riots. Having fought for inclusion of transgender people in New York’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, Rivera’s activism helped pave the way for LGBTQIA+ rights as we know them today. Rivera also co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with fellow trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, which supported homeless queer youth and sex workers with housing and other resources in Lower Manhattan.

Check out these New Jersey-based locations where Ms. Rivera’s work of supporting homeless queer youth is being continued.


Books for the Month:

Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution!

By Joy Ellison

This is the story of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two trans women of color who sparked the modern LGBTQIA2 movement. Having met in 1969 as homeless transgender girls of color, Sylvia longs for change, saying, “Someday we’ll be able to wear whatever we want. People will call us by our chosen names and we’ll never go hungry.” Together, they make history during the Stonewall Rebellion, kickstarting the movement for acceptance of queer and trans youth.

Juliet Takes a Breath

by Gabby Rivera

This book focuses on Juliet, a Puerto Rican 19-year old queer girl from the Bronx. Gabby Rivera captures what it means to live as an LGBTQIA+ youth and person of color, including the pains of growing up, coming out to family, tackling white privilege and going through long-distance relationships.

Julian Is A Mermaid

by Jessica Love

Julian rides home from the pool with his abuela and notices passengers dressed up in spectacular fashion. Their hair, dresses, and joy all fill the subway car and Julian’s imagination. When he gets home, he can’t stop thinking about dressing up as beautifully as they did, but what will Abuela think about what Julian has done, and—more importantly—what will she think about how he sees himself? This illustrated picture book is a celebration of creativity, self-determination and family love.