Diversity advice for university instructors

Here are some tips to help non-heterosexual students feel welcome.

James Castle

Being non-heterosexual in a large university setting can be a very positive experience with lots of potential for self growth. This is especially true for those of us who come from rural or not-so-accepting areas where we had limited opportunities to engage with other non-heterosexuals.

What makes that experience even more positive, however, is having instructors who acknowledge our contribution to a diverse classroom setting in affirmative ways. Here are some tips for instructors that might be useful in affirming non-heterosexual students.

Make homophobic language unacceptable in your classroom.

You may feel it’s unlikely that one of your students will say something homophobic or transphobic to another student.  And it may be true that it’s unlikely. Making a simple declaration in your syllabus that you will not tolerate homophobic language in your classroom, however, allows students who are not heterosexual know that your classroom is a safe space for them. At the very least, they will be less likely to be afraid to share personal experiences that often make class discussions so rich.

Don’t let homophobic behavior go unnoticed. 

If you do happen to catch homophobic remarks from another student, perhaps the worst thing you can do is let it go unnoticed. Depending on what you perceive to be the intent of the offender — whether their behavior was clearly malicious or unintentional — certain responses may be more appropriate than others. In the event of a malicious homophobic remark by a student, it may be appropriate to call that student out in class or ask him to leave.  On the other hand, if the remark is homophobic but unintentional, it may be more appropriate to address what was said and explain to the class the implications of that particular language and why they might be more careful.

In a third scenario, you might simply voice your support for non-heterosexual people in more indirect ways. I can recall a situation from my undergraduate experience. It was the first day of a discussion section for a course on Western civilization. The instructor, being a movie guru, asked each of us to give introductions and provide some information about ourselves, including our favorite television show. I remember telling the class that my favorite show is “Will & Grace,” an NBC sitcom with two main characters who are openly gay. Some guys behind me started laughing, and I felt very uncomfortable and quickly regretted mentioning the show. But the instructor took notice of the laughter and went on to explain to the class in detail how much he loved the show. He was pretty awesome.

Watch your word choice.

Perhaps you’re making a personal anecdote about the conversation you had with your husband or wife that morning. Instead of using husband or wife, try using more neutral terms, such as partner. Not every consenting adult can become someone else’s husband, wife or spouse. It might seem a little silly to some, but these sort of nuances can make a big difference for that small portion of your audience who may not be straight.

Use same-sex or transgender examples.

If you’re preparing for class and brainstorming examples or hypotheticals for a discussion session, from time to time, try using some examples or hypotheticals that include same-sex couples or couples where one partner is transgender. The sexual orientation or gender identity of the fictitious characters in your example may not be material to the subject or point you are trying to make, but it might catch the attention of certain students and engage them in the discussion.  

Avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes.

This might seem like a no-brainer for some, but it might happen more often than you might think. For example, when I wrote for another college newspaper, a faculty adviser was discussing professional attire for interviews and made a joke at orientation about how men can’t tie bow ties properly, but women can. Although I understand this was in good spirit with no intention to slight women or men, when you state that, “women tend to be good at this” or “men tend to be better at this,” you’re really talking about stereotypes that apply to heterosexual men and stereotypes that apply to heterosexual women. My friends and I, who happen to be gay, happen to wear bow ties quite a bit, and we’re actually pretty skilled at tying them. Statements like the one by my former adviser, aside from the problem that they involved stereotypes, made me feel a little excluded from his hetero-centric world where women are always helping their men with tying their bow ties. A former boyfriend of mine taught me how to tie a bow tie, actually. 

Some of these tips may seem subtle and insubstantial, but they might mean a lot to members of a non-heterosexual subculture. Similar subtleties can mean a lot to members of other groups, too.

Being conscious of diversity can be a bit complicated, but perhaps even more challenging is acting prudently around diverse groups and effectively welcoming diversity, especially when one is a leader of that group. If you would like to learn more about diversity and how you can better communicate across differences, consider the University of Minnesota’s Equity and Diversity Certificate Program. You can learn more about this certificate program by visiting the University’s diversity Web page.