DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Kids who identify as LGBTQ are more likely to be bullied at school. Researchers say that can lead to missed classes and also a higher risk of suicide. We're about to meet a teacher who tries to make the classroom a safe place for everyone. Here's Jenny Brundin from Colorado Public Radio.
JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: Today, everyone in Mary Gilreath's first-grade class is wearing a blue T-shirt. Her Boulder school assigned each class a color to celebrate Peace Day. Gilreath tells her students she heard a grown-up worry over whether the girls had blue shirts in their closets. She asked them what they think of that.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Maybe it's because girls mostly wear dresses.
MARY GILREATH: Oh, is that true? What do you all think?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: No.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: No.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: No.
BRUNDIN: Gilreath reminds her students of a book they read recently about a boy wearing a tangerine dress.
GIANNI: Also "The Princess Boy" (ph)
GILREATH: And we read "The Princess Boy." And he...
GIANNI: And some boys wear dresses.
GILREATH: Some boys can wear dresses. That's right, Gianni.
BRUNDIN: Gilreath tells them that some kids might not know if they're a boy or a girl. Or they may feel like a bit of both. And that's OK. For Gilreath, addressing gender identity in her classroom is...
GILREATH: A safety issue and a mental health issue for kids.
BRUNDIN: She points to the recent suicide of a 9-year-old Denver boy who was bullied after he came out to his classmates and began wearing fake fingernails. But many teachers aren't sure how to support LGBTQ students. They struggle with how to address kids who use gender-neutral pronouns like they and how to be there for students who identify as genderfluid or pansexual.
BETHY LEONARDI: And when they realize I don't know what I'm doing, you know how vulnerable that feels? It's a big deal. They need support.
BRUNDIN: Bethy Leonardi is a co-founder of A Queer Endeavor, an initiative of the University of Colorado Boulder. At a June teacher training, her team shared tips for making classrooms more LGBTQ-friendly. Those tips include allowing kids to identify themselves and their pronouns on the first day of class, addressing students with gender-neutral alternatives like scholars or scientists rather than boys and girls.
Meghan Mosher, a high school science teacher from Louisville, attended the training. She says she works hard to make her class a place where kids feel free to ask questions. Once during a lesson about chromosomes, she heard a boy put one such question to his classmate.
MEGHAN MOSHER: And he was whispering across the table and said, is that what makes you gay?
BRUNDIN: She used it as an opportunity to clarify that many factors determine sexual orientation and gender identity. In the past, when Mosher heard slurs in class like that's so gay, she'd talk to kids individually, until one day she heard it in the middle of a lab.
MOSHER: And I stopped everybody. And it was dead silent. And I, you know, said it's not OK to use someone's identity as an insult. And finally, I brought my own identity into it.
BRUNDIN: The slurs stopped after that. She knows not all teachers can bring their personal lives into the classroom. But she says it's important to tell kids what's appropriate and what's not. Asher Cutler agrees.
ASHER CUTLER: Don't fear that. Go for it, please.
BRUNDIN: Cutler is a recent Denver high school graduate who identifies as genderfluid. At the training, they said they know it can be uncomfortable to intervene. But...
CUTLER: Your role as an authoritative figure means that you can save someone's life. And you have to, as a teacher, say, no, we don't talk like that in my classroom.
BRUNDIN: Cutler says when a teacher gives a child one hour out of the day that's free from bullying, it's a big deal.
For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin in Denver.
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