In high school, I took a course called, simply, Debate. We were instructed to analyze an issue, formulate an argument, and convincingly convey a position. A feature of this course that stuck with me was that we were routinely assigned our positions on a given issue by the teacher, rather than allowed to select them based on our existing opinions. The idea was that, when it comes to controversial issues, almost by definition, there are multiple complex angles, and we should be trained to consider each one for validity.
Many of the international schools where I work as an LGBTQ+ consultant follow a similar tradition of thought, that robust debate and reflection on a range of perspectives is healthy for intellectual development. Therefore, it is not surprising that I regularly hear from clients that they are hoping to ensure that “all voices are heard” as they grapple with building safety, equity, and belonging for LGBTQ+ students and community members. Indeed, it is not uncommon for this intention of “hearing all voices” to even be formalized in institutional equity statements. Clients are sometimes surprised by my response. Schools do not need to provide a platform for every opinion to be heard.
It's not that I’ve turned my back on our cultural traditions of debate. Rather, when the subject of the debate is somebody’s humanity, I suggest we draw the line. School is not a place where anybody should be subjected to an attack on their identity because it makes for an interesting intellectual exercise.
Including LGBTQ+ matters in international school settings is a relatively recent conversation for many educators, so let me offer an example that may feel more relevant to our collective experience. Imagine, for example, a student who espouses white supremacist ideology. While educators are not responsible for what takes place in the privacy of a student’s thoughts, I do believe (hope?) that most would decline to open classroom time and space for students to promote the merits of white supremacy. Whether or not there are children of color in the classroom at the time, we can recognize white supremacist talking points as harmful and inappropriate. This is an example of where we do not need to hear all voices.
Let us be clear that the child who wishes to advance white supremacy is not being wholly denied an opportunity to participate and to be listened to at school. However, the particular view that white people are superior and should, therefore, be dominant in society, causes harm and should not be elevated for the sake of both side-ism in spaces where children come to learn. Similarly, voices that express disapproval of LGBTQ+ people, whether for religious, cultural, or other reasons, do not merit a platform in school. Note that I recognize schools as places where white supremacy, homophobia, and transphobia live today, embedded within the culture and institutions, even when not explicitly named, such as in the hidden curriculum. Protecting students from overt discriminatory speech is the bare minimum, and we must continue to actively and intentionally work toward identifying and correcting all forms of identity-based discrimination and harm.
For some, this position may constitute a slippery slope, fearing that the ideology of individual educators or leaders within the school will become a required lens for decision-making more broadly. In response, I counter that this is already happening. The dominant ideology blanketing so many of our schools today is one that suppresses, erases, marginalizes, excludes, and even harasses LGBTQ+ people and people of color. I’m asking that we acknowledge that educators already weave values into our work, that we make those values more transparent, and that we examine whether these are indeed the values we claim to believe in.
There is some irony in how my assertion that not all voices should be equivalently weighed within educational settings means that some readers of this piece will call for my voice to be the first to be de-platformed. This is, of course, their right. However, if the goal is to build safety, equity, and belonging at your school, that objective is incompatible with giving airtime to anti-LGBTQ+ voices. If you are aspiring to achieve safety, equity, and belonging at your school or organization, allow yourself to take a firm position that does not endorse identity-based marginalization as a matter for debate.
Link to download and share the free You Belong Here poster collection, available in multiple languages.
Emily Meadows (she/her) is an LGBTQ+ consultant and published author specializing in international schools.
Twitter and LinkedIn: @emilymeadowsorg