How to Create Gender-Affirming Classrooms

How to Create Gender-Affirming Classrooms

In 2021, the ACLU won a lawsuit against a Virginia school district that had disallowed a transgender high school student from using the boys’ bathroom. The Supreme Court upheld the decision after an appeal, giving a much-needed boost to LGBTQ+ students and their families. 
Despite the high-profile victory, advocates still have work to do in school communities as some continue to implement discriminatory policies such as book bans, restrictive dress codes and the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law. The ACLU reports dozens of policies affecting LGBTQ+ students were introduced nationwide in 2021:


states introduced, considered or implemented legislation excluding transgender youth from athletics


states introduced or considered legislation that would prohibit healthcare for transgender youth

Inclusivity is everyone’s responsibility, but schools are uniquely positioned to help students feel affirmed in their identities and safe to be themselves, especially because young people spend so much of their time at school or at extracurricular activities. Advocacy is important because all students can thrive when they are learning and developing in welcoming environments.

For educators, the advocacy can start in the classroom.

What Is the Difference Between Sex and Gender?

Clarification can be helpful when it comes to the definition of sex versus gender.
At birth, the “sex” or “assigned gender” of a child is designated as male or female based on their physical characteristics, according to the American Academicy of Pediatrics (AAP). A person also can be born “intersex,” a term describing someone who is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.

“Gender” or “gender identity” refers to an internal sense people have of who they are that comes from an interaction of biological traits, developmental influences and environmental conditions, the AAP says. Understanding the difference between sex and gender can help teachers, administrators and support staff be more inclusive.

At birth, the “sex” or “assigned gender” of a child is designated as male or female based on their physical characteristics.

“Gender” or “gender identity” refers to an internal sense people have of who they are that comes from an interaction of biological traits, developmental influences and environmental conditions

While sex is assigned at birth, “gender identity is how we put words to how we identify and feel later on in life,” said Ace Schwarz (they/them/theirs), 7th grade science teacher in Pennsylvania and 2019 Educator of the Year for GLSEN, a national organization founded as the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

The “gender spectrum” includes a range of gender identities that are more fluid and less restrictive than the binary categories of male and female. Identities can differ across cultures and among various groups. People who do not want to limit themselves to a specific identity might identify as nonbinary.

“Gender identity is a really personal thing,” said Schwarz, whose website Teaching Outside the Binary supports LGBTQ+ students. “The Human Rights Campaign describes it as one’s innermost self, and I just think that is really beautiful because that’s something that … only we can decide.” 

List of Gender Identities

Educators can be more affirming of students’ identities by understanding and respecting accurate terms that students use to identify themselves. Some important terms to know:

Cisgender: people who exclusively identify as their sex assigned at birth.

Gender Binary: system of viewing gender as limited to two categories, “male and female.” 

Gender Dysphoria: anxiety or discomfort about one’s sex assigned at birth.

Gender Expression: physical manifestation of one’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body shape and so on.

Genderqueer: people who identify as neither male nor female. They may see themselves as outside or between the binary gender boxes or may feel restricted by gender labels. 

Nonbinary: people who do not feel like the words “girl” or “boy” fit or may feel like both or neither.

Plus (+): term also used as a written character that is inclusive of community members who use different language to describe identity.

Queer: word used as a way to identify with and celebrate people of all gender identities and all the ways people love each other. When used in a mean way, it is a word that hurts.  

Transgender: people whose gender identity (how they feel) is different than what doctors/midwives assigned to them when they were born (girl/boy or sex assigned at birth).

LGBTQ+ Family: family in which some people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary or queer. This could include parents, guardians, foster parents, children, chosen family, siblings or grandparents who are LGBTQ+.

Common Sexual Orientation Terms

  • Asexual: people who do not feel sexual attraction to others.
  • Bisexual: people who love people of more than one gender.
  • Gay: people who love people of the same gender.
  • Heterosexual: people who feel sexual attraction to people of a different gender.
  • Lesbian: people who love people of the same gender—two women. 
  • Pansexual: people who love people of any gender.


What Are Your Pronouns?

Understanding and using the correct pronouns also can make a positive impact on LGBTQ+ students. Adaptability and a willingness to continue learning is helpful as vocabulary and terminology evolves. For example, the language is shifting from using the term “preferred pronouns” to “pronouns” because a person’s pronouns are not just preferred, but they are what must be used (PDF, 373 KB), according to GLSEN.

Pronouns can be especially important for the 1 in 4 LGTBQ+ youth who identify as nonbinary, according to The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth, which comprises data from 34,759 respondents (ages 13–24).

From The Trevor Project survey: “This data supports policies that encourage respect for nonbinary youth’s pronouns in settings where youth most often interact, such as schools, medical facilities and social service organizations. Further, there is a need for training of teachers, coaches and all adults who work with youth about how to include and affirm nonbinary young people. Understanding and respecting the pronouns of nonbinary youth can be life-saving.”

Using Pronouns 

Consider these pronoun usage examples derived from the GLSEN Pronoun Guide and from the National Center for Transgender Equality resource Understanding Non-Binary People: How to Be Respectful and Supportive:


Mariah is a social studies teacher, and she is active in her school community. The idea for a voter registration fair was hers.


Frederick teaches music, and he carries a harmonica everywhere with him. Students enjoy his classroom performances.


Mel is a school principal, and they always bring a laptop with them to meetings. The office with the “M” on the door is theirs.

Ze/hir/hirs (pronounced zee/heer/heers):

Charli loves to read, and ze runs a book club at hir library. Last month’s book club pick was hirs.

“Affirming a child’s gender is super important because you want them to have language to describe how they feel. You want them to feel comfortable in their own skin, in the clothes they wear, their hairstyle or things like that,” said Schwarz, whose students address them as Mx. (pronounced mix) Schwarz. 

Titles show respect, too. The nonbinary honorific Mx.(mix), a title used by those who do not wish to be identified by gender, was added to Merriam-Webster Unabridged in April 2016.
Worried about making a mistake? GLSEN’s Pronoun Guide advises that if you use the wrong pronoun, own your mistake by apologizing and use the correct pronoun moving forward. Try not to openly dwell on the mistake because it can embarrass or draw unwanted attention to the person who was misgendered. A simple apology can be sufficient accountability.

Why Is It Important to Make Classrooms and Other Spaces Gender-Affirming?

Inclusive spaces can help produce positive outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth. A study published by JAMA Network Open in February 2022 indicates that gender-affirming healthcare may be associated with lower odds of depression and suicidal thoughts among transgender and nonbinary youth, a population that experiences particularly high levels of self-harm and suicide.

Like healthcare, education is critical to children’s growth and development. Students’ learning experiences will be less stressful when they don’t feel alienated or vulnerable because of their identities across the gender spectrum.

Fostering a welcoming classroom environment can start at the beginning of the school day. Educators can be mindful of how they address students, parents and colleagues. “Referring to a class as ‘boys and girls’ or starting a school meeting off with ‘ladies and gentlemen’ reinforces the gender binary—the idea that there’s only two genders, male and female, and that’s just not true,” Schwarz said. “When we group everyone into those two groups, we’re alienating kids and adults, even faculty, who don’t fit within that.” 

Seeing people and acknowledging their identities can save lives.

The Trevor Project survey shows that among nonbinary youth who didn’t have anyone in their life who respected their pronouns, 27% attempted suicide in the past year. When all or most people respected their pronouns, that rate dropped to 10%. Nonbinary youth who felt like no one respected their pronouns had more than 2½ times the rate of attempting suicide as those who reported that “all or most of the people” they know respected their pronouns.

If you or someone you know is having a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. (As of July 16, 2022, the dialing code will be 988.)

How Do Teachers and Schools Reinforce Gender Stereotypes? 

Breaking the habit of gender stereotyping is important if educators want to create inclusive and gender-affirming classrooms, Schwarz said.

They recommended teachers and school administrators consider these questions: 

Do you make assumptions based on appearances?

  • Thinking of girls as quieter.
  • Thinking of boys as rowdier. 

Does your vocabulary make assumptions?

  • Referring to “boys and girls.”
  • Asking about “Mom and Dad.”

Do your actions reinforce stereotypes?

  • Having students separate into boys’ and girls’ lines.
  • Alternating boys and girls in seating assignments. 

Schwarz cautioned teachers not to be hyper-focused in grouping students in any certain way. Casting assumptions aside allows for discoveries and learning. Instead of putting students with similarities next to each other, randomly seat them. “Why not? It’s good for them to talk to people that are different,” Schwarz said.

What Can Teachers and Schools Do to Ensure Gender Inclusivity?

Communicating clearly at the beginning of the school year can facilitate efforts to create an inclusive and gender-affirming classroom.

Schwarz typically starts the school year with a self-introduction that includes name, pronouns and reasons why they are sharing their pronouns. “Cisgender teachers who might introduce themselves with their pronouns can still offer an explanation,” they said, describing one way to do so: “I don’t want you to make assumptions about me based on how I look or what my name is, so that’s why I share this with you.“

The pronouns discussion is a good segue to distributing a brief questionnaire that provides students an opportunity to let their teacher know how they want to be recognized. Schwarz’s Get to Know You Sheet asks students to fill out names and pronouns and indicate if their pronouns can be used in class and in front of caregivers. “That gives students autonomy over their identities and how they share their identity with me,” they said.

Schwarz said conversations about pronouns and identities extend throughout the school year with their middle school students, and they emphasized that the discussions can happen at all grade levels.

“Elementary school discussions might take a little more scaffolding, using lots of books to help explain what pronouns are and taking more time to clarify, but teachers could absolutely have those conversations in elementary school. It just might look a little different,” Schwarz said.

They said building an inclusive classroom experience for students should be intentional and progress can be made if teachers:

Keep learning.

Respect others.

Advocate for inclusivity for staff.

Add LGBTQ topics into lessons.

Schwarz incorporates LGBTQ topics into their science curriculum by implementing the following:

  • Equity and STEM discussions that explore possible reasons that at least 50% of scientists are white men, as reported by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)—and yet, anybody can be a scientist. 
  • Fact-based human body and genetics lessons from a gender-inclusive perspective. Examples from the National Science Teachering Association (NSTA): Ovaries produce eggs; testes produce large amounts of testosterone.
  • Intentional language that doesn’t make assumptions. Instead of saying “the mom” and “the dad,” say Parent One and Parent Two. If data is about heart rate and there are no identifiers, use the singular “they” instead of “he” or “she.”

Topics can be continuously integrated into discussions instead of condensed into just a one-off activity or exercise. “All of those little lessons sprinkled throughout the year are important. It’s not that I’m talking about this stuff all the time, but there’s definitely ways that I can weave it in really naturally,” Schwarz said.

25 Resources for Creating an Inclusive and Gender-Affirming Classroom

Because education is important in creating a welcoming school environment, teachers, administrators and other adults can learn more from the following online resources:

Organizations and Websites

Bisexual Resource Center: information, support and activities to support members of the bi+ community. 

Gender Spectrum: online and in-person training, referrals and other offerings to support parents, teachers, faith leaders and youth advocates trying to create more inclusive environments for children and teens.

GLSEN: information and material to support LGBTQ students by encouraging school environments free of bullying and harassment from the organization formerly known as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Support LGBTQ+ Students and Educators, NEA EdJustice: checklists, guides and policy news to protect and empower students from the social justice arm of the National Education Association.

Teaching Outside the Binary: tools, blog posts and reading lists to help understand the gender binary and create a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students from GLSEN 2019 educator of the year Ace Schwarz.

National Center for Transgender Equality: videos, FAQs, self-help guides and more that provide helpful information about policy and raise awareness and acceptance of transgender people.

Trans Student Educational Resources: meetings, training, outreach, scholarships and more from a youth-led organization.

Welcoming Schools: LGBTQ+ and gender-inclusive professional development training, lesson plans and book lists from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation program.



5 Ways To Make Classrooms More Inclusive, NPR: accounts from teachers on their experiences implementing practices for inclusive classrooms. 

Get The Facts About Trans Youth, Movement Advancement Project (MAP) (PDF, 457 KB): brochure with helpful data and support strategies from MAP, the Biden Foundation and Gender Spectrum.

How to Be an Ally to People Who Are Bisexual, Social Work License Map: description of bisexual erasure and how it affects bisexual people and the LGBTQ+ community. 

How to Support LGBTQ Children, Child Mind Institute: tips for parents on how to keep kids safe and telling other family members when a child is coming out. 

Let’s Talk About Nonbinary, Learning for Justice: strategies and lesson plans to support LGBTQ students from the group founded as Teaching Tolerance, which is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Separation and Stigma: Transgender Youth and School Facilities, MAP and GLSEN: report about the dangerous effects of not allowing transgender students to use school facilities that match their gender. 

Teaching My Preschooler About Gender Identity, Planned Parenthood: information on explaining different family structures and how to know if your child is transgender or gender nonconforming.


Guides and Toolkits

Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, Learning for Justice (PDF, 2.5 MB): guide covering policy checkup, classroom culture, instruction and family/community engagement as key areas to address to create an inclusive classroom environment.

Creating an LGBT-Inclusive School Climate. Learning for Justice (PDF, 712 MB): gay-straight alliance clubs, clothing policies, bullying hotspots and other considerations for schools to support inclusion.

Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Classroom Resources, GLSEN (PDF, 266 KB): more tips for educators to navigate and incorporate LGBTQ+ lessons.

Glossary of Terms, PFLAG: different terms defined with an explanation about sensitivities and the continuing evolution of how to use them or not use them from the organization formerly known as the Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

How Can I Build an LGBTQ+ Inclusive Classroom? The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University (PDF, 1.1 MB): suggestions for higher education instructors on how to be more inclusive by providing a diversity and inclusion statement with their syllabus, being mindful of preferred pronouns and more.

Lesson Plans to Create LGBTQ+ Inclusive Classrooms and Schools, Welcoming Schools: drawing exercises, videos, discussion prompts and other tools for teachers to use to create a more inclusive classroom experience.

LGBTQ Inclusivity in Schools: A Self-Assessment Tool, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (PDF, 6.3 MB): a tool to quickly assess level of LGBTQ inclusivity across different components of school environment and staff practices.

LGBTQI+ Youth, tips to prevent bullying and overview of federal civil rights laws from a website run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Media Reference Guide – Transgender People, GLAAD: terms and guidance for writing about transgender people from the group formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. 

Supporting and Caring for Transgender Children, Human Rights Campaign: explains the difference between children who are gender-expansive and those who are transgender, outlines why experts are embracing a “gender-affirming” approach and more.