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How Can One Create Safe, Caring and Inclusive Educational Environments for LGBT Students and Teachers?

This article has been adapted from a publication by the California Department of Education entitled “Hate-motivated Behavior in Schools: Response Strategies for School Boards, Administrators, Law Enforcement, and Communities (1997).”

In keeping with law and educational policy, administrators, teachers, counselors, students and district-level personnel each have legal, ethical, and professional responsibilities to ensure that all students—including those who are, or are perceived as being, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans-identified (LGBT)—are provided with safe, caring, and inclusive learning environments that respect and affirm their individual identities and experiences.

A Suggested Process

Create and specify clear policies and rules of conduct that expressly protect students and teachers on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation1 and/or gender identity2. These policies should include specific language that explicitly prohibits homophobic3 language and behaviour. Specify these policies and codes of conduct in documents, speeches and at orientation sessions that are held with students and school- and district-level personnel. Mention the activities that are considered to violate these policies and constitute unacceptable behaviour (i.e., using the words fag, gay, or dyke in a negative and demeaning way). Outline the procedures for reporting inappropriate behaviour and the consequences for those who commit homophobic verbal, physical or emotional assaults.

Assess the existing school climate by performing a school climate survey4 concerning LGBT issues. Use the information gathered from these assessment tools to develop strategies to help reduce homophobic and heterosexist5 behaviours within your school environment.

Adapt curriculum by using educational materials that enhance the visibility and understanding of different cultural, ethnic and sexual minorities. Use teachable moments, as they arise, to discuss stereotypes, discrimination and prejudice directed at visible and invisible (i.e., LGBT) minorities.

Provide staff training to give educators the knowledge and skills to respond immediately and appropriately to homophobic language and behaviour. Training should model age-appropriate ways to intervene in harassment and clearly outline how to accurately report and address homophobic incidents in ways that provide appropriate assistance to the victim and the offender.

Provide workshops and information sessions for school administrators, teachers, counsellors, parents and community members that teach the importance of using inclusive language and the value of setting positive examples that affirm and embrace differing sexual orientations and gender identities within the school, home and community. Safe, caring and inclusive environments that are designed to embrace, affirm and protect all students and all teachers are the responsibility of everyone.

Involve community partners, such as local LGBT youth and community agencies, school resource officers and health care professionals as important educational resources. These community partnerships serve as valuable resources in developing knowledgeable, respectful and inclusive school climates in which diversity and difference are affirmed.

Support student human rights groups and peer education projects that promote appreciation and respect for LGBT persons. Become a faculty advisor for the creation of a Gay–Straight Student Alliance6 (GSA) in your school. Celebrate National Coming Out Day on October 11th. Organize information bulletin boards and/or displays that raise the visibility and awareness of LGBT students and their issues. Network with existing student groups and programs to include the voices and experiences of LGBT youth.

Important Policies and legislation

The Alberta School Act, the ATA Professional Code of Conduct, the Declaration of Rights and Responsibilities for Teachers, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Criminal Code of Canada and the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act all serve as important policies and legislation that reflect the need for Alberta teachers to teach in a manner that is inclusive and respectful of students and teachers having different sexual orientations and gender identities. These documents serve as important guidelines that reflect the legal, professional and ethical responsibilities of teachers to create safe, caring and inclusive school environments for LGBT students and staff.

The Alberta School Act Section 45(8) leaving the ATA website

A board shall ensure that each student enrolled in a school operated by the board is provided with a safe and caring environment that fosters and maintains respectful and responsible behaviours.

In the context of education, courts have held that publicly funded schools, school boards and the actions/non-actions of school officials are subject to Charter scrutiny. As a result, all students have the right not to be discriminated against in school settings; this right is often violated with respect to LGBTQ students. Teachers, administrators and school boards have a mandated responsibility to ensure that LGBTQ youth and their families are treated with respect and integrity. Addressing homophobia and heterosexism is vital to the health and safety needs of all students and teachers.

The ATA Code of Professional Conduct leaving the ATA website

The teacher teaches in a manner that respects the dignity and rights of all persons without prejudice as to race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical characteristics, disability, marital status, family status, age, ancestry, place of origin, place of residence, socio-economic background or linguistic background.

The Declaration of Rights and Responsibilities for Teachers leaving the ATA website

(9) Teachers have the right to be protected against discrimination on the basis of prejudice as to race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical characteristics, disability, marital status, family status, age, ancestry, place of origin, place of residence, socio-economic background or linguistic background and have the responsibility to refrain from practising these forms of discrimination in their professional duties.

Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms leaving the ATA website

Section 15 (1) of the Charter states that:

Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Although Section 15(1) of the Charter does not explicitly refer to sexual orientation in its equality provisions, the courts have regarded sexual orientation as analogous to the other personal characteristics listed. The inclusion and the accommodation of difference are the spirit of Section 15.

Bill C-250 – An Act to amend the Criminal Code (Hate Propaganda) leaving the ATA website

Bill C-250 was passed in the House of Commons in February 2004, amending Section 318 (Hate Propaganda) and Section 319 (Incitement of Hatred) of the Criminal Code of Canada to include sexual orientation within the listing of identifiable groups against which hate propaganda is deemed a criminal offense.

Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act leaving the ATA website

Although not expressly stated in the Act, as of April 2, 1998, sexual orientation is read in to the Act by the Supreme Court of Canada as a protected ground of discrimination in Alberta.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited in such areas as publications (s. 3); goods, services, accommodation or facilities customarily available to the public (s. 4); employment (s. 7); and employment applications or advertisements (s. 8).

While s. 11 of the HRCMA, provides that there is no contravention of the Act if the conduct was reasonable or justifiable in the circumstances, where the inherent dignity of all persons in the context of public education is at issue, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should not be viewed as justifiable.

Teachers, administrators and school boards have a mandated professional responsibility to ensure that LGBT youth are treated with respect and integrity within their classroom and school communities.

Resources for Further Inquiry


1Sexual orientation is defined as “the fact of being [emotionally and physically] attracted to people of the opposite sex, of one’s own sex, or both sexes” (Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2000).

2Gender identity is defined as one’s “personal sense of being male or female” (Ryan & Futterman, 1998).

3Homophobia/homophobic behaviour can be defined as the “irrational prejudice, fear, hatred or negative attitudes toward homosexuals or homosexuality” (Ryan & Futterman, 1998).

4For more information on assessing school climates with regard to LGBT issues, visit the website of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s leaving the ATA website (GLSEN) and/or obtain a copy of GLSEN’s booklet, “A Developmental Model for Assessing, Describing and Improving Schools for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) People (2001).

5Heterosexism is defined as “Denial, denigration and stigmatization of non-heterosexual identity, behaviour, relationships or community; often expressed in subtler forms than homophobia (i.e., absence of support and neglect rather than overt prejudice)” (Ryan & Futterman, 1998).

6For more information on GSA’s visit the website of the Gay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia’s (GALE-BC) leaving the ATA website.