Supporting LGBTQ+ Students

LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance have shown enormous progress in recent years; however, many students still face challenges in their social, academic, and home lives. This newsletter emphasizes the importance of creating a warm and supportive classroom climate for LGBTQ+ students to be healthy and successful. At Brown, 24% of undergraduates and 18% of graduate students reported that they identified as LGBQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, etc.), and 3% of both graduate & undergraduate students indicated that they identified as transgender or gender nonbinary (Brown 2018 Climate Survey). (For key terms named in the newsletter that may be unfamiliar, please see Brown’s LGBTQ Center’s helpful “key terms” webpage.)

I think one of the most important things you can do as a teacher/mentor is to let students - from absolutely all walks of life - know that you are there to support them: that your door is almost always open, that you will not judge them and will give them honest feedback, and that they can discuss problems with you in a completely confidential fashion... For LGBTQ+ students, I always hope that this enables them to come as they are and not to have to hide from their identities.
-Brenda M. Rubenstein, Assistant Professor of Chemistry

LGBTQ+ individuals are often subjected to discrimination and bias in home, social, and academic settings. A majority of LGBTQ+ youth have heard their families make disparaging comments, and many report they cannot openly be themselves at home (Kahn et al., 2018). At Brown, LGBTQ+ students reported higher incidence of bias on campus compared to straight and cisgender peers (Brown 2018 Climate Survey). Bias experienced by LGBTQ+ students has a negative impact on their ability to thrive in the academic environment. Hearing homophobic microaggressions has been associated with lower college GPA scores (Mathies, 2019) and a positive campus climate is associated with greater academic success for LGBTQ+ students (Garvey, 2018).

The discrimination and biases experienced by LGBTQ+ individuals can have a negative effect on mental health. LGB+ students report higher levels of psychological stress, depression, isolation, and other mental health challenges as compared to their heterosexual peers (Greathouse et al., 2018; Kirsch, 2015), and the difference is even greater when comparing mental health indicators of trans students to those of their cisgender peers (Connolly, 2016, Lipson et al., 2019). These mental health disparities have been shown to impact academic performance and retention (Oswalt, 2011).

By affirming your support for your LGBTQ+ students, you can help mitigate the potential negative impacts that emotional and psychological stressors have on their academic and personal success. This newsletter focuses on inclusive practices instructors can implement in three actionable areas of inclusivity: Language, Role Models, and Curriculum Content (Table 1). Each of these approaches can be pursued at different levels of inclusivity: Increasing Awareness, Additive Approaches, and Transformative Practice. At a most basic level, increasing awareness focuses on acknowledging diversity in gender and sexual identities and avoiding discrimination. Additive approaches actively seek to increase the visibility of LGBTQ+ identities, while transformative practices focus on representation, engagement, and social action (Ward & Gale, 2016).


Heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions, policies, and practices are pervasive in our society. Heteronormativity refers to the false belief or assumption that all people are heterosexual, and cisnormativity refers to the false belief that there are only two genders (male and female), and that gender is fixed and defined by one’s biological sex (Enke, 2012). When heterosexual and cisgender identities are centered as the default, LGBTQ+ individuals are othered and excluded. Many heterosexual, cisgender people remain unaware of heteronormativity and cisnormativity in their daily lives. However, the impact of these beliefs and assumptions can be significant for LGBTQ+ individuals.

The language that you adopt can either reinforce or reject heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions. By choosing to incorporate gender-inclusive and gender-affirming language, you send a clear signal to your students that you acknowledge and respect gender and sexual diversity. Tips for incorporating LGBTQ+ inclusive and gender-affirming language include:

  • Wherever possible, use gender-inclusive language when referring to your students en masse, such as “folks,” “friends,” “y’all,”  “everyone,” “scholars,” or “first-years” instead of gendered language such as “you guys,” “ladies & gentlemen,” or “freshmen.”
  • When you do not know someone’s gender or sexuality, avoid making assumptions. You can refer to people by their first names when you do not know their pronouns. You can also use they/them/theirs or identifiers like “partner” instead of “girlfriend/boyfriend,” until you are signaled otherwise.
  • Include your pronouns when you introduce yourself, in your syllabus, on name tags, and in your email signature.
  • Give students the opportunity to provide their names and affirmed pronouns on the first day of class, if they are comfortable doing so. If you ask students to share pronouns with the class, be sure to make it optional. To avoid pressure on students, you can give students the option to submit their pronouns in writing on a general information form on the first day. By providing this opportunity, you can reduce anxiety for nonbinary or trans students by taking the burden off of them to approach you to disclose their gender identity (Goldberg, 2019).
  • Do your best to use students’ affirmed pronouns. However, if you make a mistake, simply apologize and correct yourself.

Be aware that a student’s gender marker in Banner may not reflect their true gender identity. Brown’s LGBTQ center provides more information on different options for student name changes.

Role Models

As a role model or ally, you have the opportunity to make a difference for students during their transformative college years. Knowing just one accepting adult has been shown to reduce suicide attempt rates among LGBTQ+ youth ages 13-24 (The Trevor Project, 2019). The most important thing is to make your support and acceptance visible and explicit so that students feel supported and included in your classroom. If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community and you feel it is safe to do so, being out in the classroom can provide your students with confidence, validation, and a supportive person to talk to if they are not ready to share their identity with others (Ward & Gale, 2016).

The support shown by all the professors who attended the “Out in CS” event was very meaningful... I think the most effective thing I've seen professors do is just show up and try to learn! That means so much.
Arthur Borem, Computer Science concentrator, ‘20

Tips for being a visible ally or role model:

  • Join oSTEM’s visibility campaign and get a “You are Welcome Here” sign for your door.
  • Signal in your syllabus.
  • If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community and have decided you want to be out to your students, you can signal this by including your LGBTQ+ identity in your introduction slide on the first day of class along with other information about yourself.
  • Attend LGBTQ+ events, seminars, panels, and trainings.
  • Create opportunities for LGBTQ+ students to connect with role models and allies in their discipline by organizing events such as panels, round-tables, or socials or by inviting speakers who have been vocal about LGBTQ+ issues related to your field.

At the School of Public Health, we have recently formed an LGBTQ+ Affirmative Health Research Group, which consists of faculty at the school who identify as either LGBTQ+ or as an ally. The purpose of the group is to show our support of the community by providing a safe and inclusive environment for all students, staff, and faculty who identify with these groups to meet and socialize with one another.
-Jacob van den Berg, Assistant Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences (Research), School of Public Health

Curriculum Content

The most validating moments have been when professors make a point to acknowledge that heterosexuality and being cisgender are not the default and to recognize prominent queer members of their field when appropriate.
-Douglas Shea, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology concentrator, ‘19

Heteronormativity and cisnormativity manifest in the curriculum at many levels - from the topics and people we study to the stock photos in our powerpoints and textbooks. In some disciplines, such as humanities and social sciences, LGBTQ+ topics may be logically incorporated into the existing curriculum. However, in fields such as physical sciences and engineering, finding a direct curricular connection may be more challenging. In both academic and industry settings, STEM environments have been identified as particularly hostile or “chilly” to LGBTQ+ individuals. Recent evidence shows that LGB+ students are 7% less likely to persist in STEM majors as compared to their heterosexual peers (Hughes, 2018). If you reflect critically on your own discipline and defaults, you can find opportunities to increase the visibility of marginalized identities in your teaching and make your discipline a more welcoming environment.

Tips for inclusion in curriculum and teaching include:

  • Critically examine the heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions of your discipline. Resources can be found here.
    • In your class, read and discuss articles pertaining to the marginalization of queer identities in your field and look for opportunities to highlight the work of individuals from underrepresented identitites.
    • Look for specific cases in your discipline where heteronormative or cisnormative biases have influenced scholarship.
  • Diversify hypothetical scenarios or fictional examples in a problem set or language exercises and avoid heteronormative or cisnormative stock photos, cartoons, or icons.

While teaching Japanese at Brown, I found some of the images used in our textbooks to be possibly problematic - particularly those pertaining to family and work situations. I called attention to this issue to my colleagues, who were very supportive, and we collectively agreed to use alternative images in our class slides to better promote inclusivity. For example, images of ‘marriage’ need not only include heterosexual couples, but also [same-gender] and non-binary couples. Additionally, I paired these revisions to our pedagogical materials with an effort to promote more inclusive dialogue and activities. For example, now when discussing romantic relationships or marriage, I use terms like ‘partner’ alongside ‘wife’ and ‘husband.’
-Nahoko Collis, Visiting Lecturer (Japanese)

Resources to Learn More


This newsletter was authored by Kristina Cohen with input from the Brown LGBTQ Center and oSTEM at Brown.

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Works Cited

Connolly, M. D., Zervos, M. J., Barone, C. J., Johnson, C. C., & Joseph, C. L. M. (2016). The mental health of transgender youth: Advances in understanding. Journal of Adolescent Health, 59(5), 489-495. doi:

Enke, A. (2012). Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies: Temple University Press.

Garvey, J. C., Squire, D. D., Stachler, B., & Rankin, S. (2018). The impact of campus climate on queer-spectrum student academic success. Journal of LGBT Youth, 15(2), 89-105. doi:10.1080/19361653.2018.1429978

Goldberg, A. E., Beemyn, G., & Smith, J. Z. (2019). What Is needed, what Is valued: Trans students’ perspectives on trans-Inclusive policies and practices in higher education. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 29(1), 27-67. doi:10.1080/10474412.2018.1480376

Greathouse, M., BrckaLorenz, A., Hoban, M., Huesman Jr., R., Rankin, S., & Stolzenberg, E. B. (2018). Queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum student experiences in American higher educaiton: The analyses of national survey findings. Rutgers, New Jersey: Tyler Clementi Center.

Hughes, B. E. (2018). Coming out in STEM: Factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students. Science Advances, 4(3), eaao6373. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aao6373

Kahn, E., Johnson, A., Lee, M., & Miranda, L. (2018). HRC 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report.

Kirsch, A. C., Conley, C. S., & Riley, T. J. (2015). Comparing psychosocial adjustment across the college transition in a matched heterosexual and lesbian, gay, and bisexual sample. Journal of College Student Development, 56(2), 155-169.

Lipson, S. K., Raifman, J., Abelson, S., & Reisner, S. L. (2019). Gender Minority Mental Health in the U.S.: Results of a National Survey on College Campuses. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 57(3), 293-301. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2019.04.025

Mathies, N., Coleman, T., McKie, R. M., Woodford, M. R., Courtice, E. L., Travers, R., & Renn, K. A. (2019). Hearing “that’s so gay” and “no homo” on academic outcomes for LGBQ + college students. Journal of LGBT Youth, 16(3), 255-277. doi:10.1080/19361653.2019.1571981

Oswalt, S. B., & Wyatt, T. J. (2011). Sexual orientation and differences in mental health, stress, and academic performance in a national sample of U.S. college students. Journal of Homosexuality, 58(9), 1255-1280. doi:10.1080/00918369.2011.605738

Russell, S. T., Pollitt, A. M., Li, G., & Grossman, A. H. (2018). Chosen name use Is lnked to reduced depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior among transgender youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 63(4), 503-505. doi:

The Trevor Project. (2019). National survey on LGBTQ mental health. New York, New York: The Trevor Project.

Ward, N., & and Gale, N. (2016). LGBTQ-inclusivity in the higher education curriculum: A best practice guide. Birmingham: University of Birmingham.