Issue 2.1: LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Online Classes 

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Welcome to Digital Dialogues!

It’s the start of fall semester, and that means we are ready to start regular publication of our Digital Dialogues newsletters for the MSU Denver department of Social Work.  We are excited to support you in your online teaching adventures this semester, and look forward to connecting with you about a variety of topics this semester.  This newsletter typically comes out once a week, and addresses a variety of topics relevant to online teaching.

LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Online Classes 

A guest post by:

  • Nicholas Hamblin, MSW
  • K Scherrer, PhD, LCSW, MA
  • Tomi Weinbaum, MSW (expected 2021) 

A note on the authors: All authors identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community and are sharing here about their experiences as social work educators or students. All authors contributed equally to the creation of this document and are listed alphabetically.

Why is this important?

As classes get off the ground this semester, there are a million things to think about and prepare for, from learning how to use Canvas to navigating working from home. With so much on your plate, it can be easy to forget that many students at MSU Denver are dealing with additional stressors, such as worrying about how they may be treated by instructors or fellow students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Believe it or not, there are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual and other sexual and gender minorities (LGBTQIA+) students in your classrooms, even if they do not to openly share their identities with you. Creating a welcoming and empowering learning environment is critical to supporting the success and wellbeing of these students. Through modelling inclusive language, examples, and dialogue surrounding LGBTQIA+ identities, you can create increased safety for students of those identities while at the same time supporting the development of cultural competence in all students, regardless of their program or professional goals.

A report from the Human Rights Campaign (2018) on LGBTQIA+ youth found that only 26% of youth surveyed regularly felt safe in their classes. Our aim is for LGBTQIA+ students to not only be included in MSU Denver classrooms, but for them to feel welcomed and affirmed in these spaces in order to support them in achieving their educational goals. It takes a combination of education, self-reflection, and intention to create a learning environment which does not other or tokenize students of marginalized identities, and we’d like to offer you some guidance on how to begin (or continue) integrating this essential skill set. Creating welcoming and affirming classrooms will not only support your LGBTQIA+ students in their educational pursuits, but it will also support cisgender and heterosexual students by providing understanding and skills to competently engage with this population in their future professional lives.

In some ways, the online learning environment can make it easier to normalize inclusive strategies such as sharing names and pronouns. In face to face classes, we have visual stimuli that may lead us to make assumptions about others’ gender identities or pronouns. It’s easier to avoid these assumptions in a digital environment. At the same time, it can be easy to overlook or forget pronouns when we are reading multiple introduction posts and don’t have a face and voice to attach them to – especially if the name shown in Canvas or other technological platforms doesn’t match the name the student goes by! This blog will provide some ideas about how to incorporate awareness and inclusion of LGBTQIA+ identities into your curriculum and classroom, particularly in an online learning environment. We hope that you find this information useful, and encourage you to continue to explore ways in which you can adapt these ideas to your future teaching (whether that’s online or face to face)!

Before the first day of class

So, you’re preparing for the upcoming semester and you want to be welcoming to the LGBTQIA+ students who will be in your classes. But where do you start? Here are a few suggestions of how to prepare before classes begin.

First, pronouns are important. While it may seem trivial to someone new to the concept, pronouns and gender identity are an integral part of how we perceive ourselves. Being validated and affirmed in our identities can support us in feeling seen, valued, and safe. Conversely, regular mis-gendering (the experience of being called by a gendered word or pronoun that one does not identify with) can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, lack of trust and openness, and other emotional responses which affect how learners engage in the classroom. Before the first day, familiarize yourself with different pronouns, and get comfortable using them in conversation and writing. At the very least, practice using the gender neutral pronouns they/them/their(s), as many non-binary and gender diverse students will use these pronouns. You can use this handy online activity to practice, and we also recommend trying it out with colleagues, family, and friends to help you become more comfortable using them.

Second, modeling the sharing of pronouns can be one important way to signal inclusivity to LGBTQIA+ students. There are several different ways you can model pronouns before class has even started in online courses. When setting up your class in Canvas, include your pronouns in your “Instructor Introduction” section of the “Course Information” module. Additionally, adding links to campus LGBTQIA+ resources in the Student Wellness Resources section of your Canvas class can help connect students to the valuable resources that MSU Denver has to offer. Another way to signal your intention to be inclusive and intentional regarding pronoun use is to add your own pronouns to your email signature or Zoom name. This can signal to students that you understand the importance of pronouns and this can also normalize the conversation when it emerges on the first day of class.

For synchronous online courses, make sure you know how to add your pronouns to your display name in Zoom. This can be done by adding your pronouns in parenthesis [e.g., (she/her)] after your last name in Zoom settings. This can also be done by clicking the […] in the top right corner of your Zoom window and choosing “Rename” while in a meeting. Encourage and educate students about how to add their pronouns to their Zoom display name, as well. For asynchronous classes, include pronouns while introducing yourself to the class, whether this is through a discussion post, video, or other format. Set up your introductions to encourage students to include their name and pronouns.

Third, in addition to your own modeling of pronouns, you should also provide an opportunity for students to share their pronouns with you and with one another. Prepare to ask students to include their pronouns in their introductions, whether vocally in a synchronous online platform or in an introductory discussion post. Consider the following questions: How will you convey the importance of asking pronouns as a sign of respect? How will you intervene if students begin to laugh or make derogatory comments towards their gender diverse peers? The ways that professors model this conversation and hold the classroom standards of respect will set the tone of creating an inclusive classroom for the semester. Take time to consider how you will approach this important conversation, and check out our Best Practices for LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Classrooms guide for some additional ideas.

Finally, consider the upcoming readings, assignments and other materials presented in the class (e.g., videos). In what ways are they inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people, either in content or in authorship? Are there any modifications in writing prompts or assignments that could be made to include people of diverse sexual and gender identities (e.g., gender neutral language)? Do the readings in the class include authors in the LGBTQIA+ community? How could the curriculum include LGBTQIA+ people and topics? Being intentional from the beginning will show students that you take their LGBTQIA+ identities seriously, and allow for dialogue when a question or concern about inclusivity arises. Similarly, it is important for LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized people to see themselves reflected in their field of study, and so it’s important for you to include them in the curriculum and course materials.

First day

You’ve prepared for it and it’s here! (That was a quick summer…)

The first day of the semester can shape students’ expectations of the course, you as an instructor, and of their interactions with one another. In this section we provide some examples of ways that you can set the tone to affirm LGBTQIA+ people on the first day of class.

First, not only do you want to set up your course to introduce yourself with your pronouns, but you also want to integrate this activity into your first day of class. We suggest introducing yourself with your pronouns, as well as sharing a little bit more about why this is important. This could be something as simple as saying, “I don’t want to make assumptions about others’ gender identities or pronouns. So that’s why I share mine, and why I’ll make sure there’s some space in the introductions for you to share about your pronouns.”  There are some excellent posts about “Why I share my pronouns” that could be a helpful resource to include for students who want to read a little bit more about pronouns.

Second, sometimes student’s names in Canvas or on other official MSU Denver materials do not match the names that they go by. In an online class, students’ officially registered names are presented by default to all students, which can be particularly challenging for some members of the LGBTQIA+ community. For example, a transgender person who has not legally changed their name assigned at birth may have their former name presented on University documents, their email address, and their default name in Canvas. In the first week of class, encourage students to share the names that they would like to be addressed by. THEN make sure to emphasize to students that these are the names we will be using throughout the course, even if they are different from the names shown in Canvas. Setting the intention to call students by the names and pronouns they use will help create additional accountability later if you need to correct a student for using an incorrect name or pronoun. **Students can change their outward facing names, pronouns in Canvas Account User Settings, see Link.

One way to support LGBTQIA+ students is to share information about MSU Denver’s official name change process in systems such as Canvas and email. MSU Denver has a policy which allows students to change the first name displayed in these systems to use the name they go by, rather than their legal name. Students need to fill out a Change of Information form with their “preferred first name” and submit this to the registrar’s office for this change to be made.

Last, the first day of class can also be an important time to set a broad tone of inclusion in your class. For instance, you may want to share with students either in a pre-recorded video or in a discussion board that this class recognized the diverse lived experiences that students bring into the classroom, including their experiences of race, class, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, nationality, and other social identities. You might share that the class will discuss issues pertinent to these identities and students should assume that there are individuals who fall into these different identity categories in this class. Therefore the goal in the class is to create a space where students can feel comfortable bringing their whole selves into classroom conversations about social theory/writing/professionalism/research (or whatever the relevant class content is). Setting this tone of inclusion at the beginning of the semester will help to create space for students to share about their identities and experiences, and connect to the course content in meaningful ways that will drive their curiosity and connection to the materials.

Ongoing Online Considerations 

 There are some simple yet impactful ways to make your classroom more inclusive on an ongoing basis. First, visuals in learning materials can be easily adjusted to include examples of marginalized populations (check out this collection of queer stock photos!). When you create handouts or powerpoints, add photos or images of LGBTQIA+ couples and families, as well as images of diverse people in other ways (e.g., racially diverse, diverse ability statuses). This will help normalize the diversity of human experience and enable the visibility of people with marginalized identities. When making groups for classroom activities, avoid segregating or grouping students by sex, gender, or other identities. And remember, no student should be asked to speak on behalf of their identity groups.

Language is important. Beyond pronouns, there are many opportunities to use more inclusive language in your classrooms. Avoid referring to students as “Mr.”, “Miss”, “ladies”, “gentlemen,” “sir”, “guys,” or other gendered language. Good replacements are “folks,” “everyone”, “students,” “class,” and “you all.” Some other examples and alternatives are “sibling” instead of brother or sister, “spouse” or “partner” instead of husband or wife, and “parent” instead of mother or father. Finally, work on specifying when you are speaking about cisgender people as well as specifying when you speak about transgender people. This challenges the assumption that all people are cisgender unless otherwise stated. (A related example is to be explicit when the people you are talking about are White or caucasian, thus challenging the assumption that whiteness is the norm unless specified.)

Making Corrections 

We all make mistakes! If you make a mistake with a name, pronoun, or other gendered term, apologize to the individual, correct your mistake, and move on. For example, “Sierra said that she – I mean they, sorry – would like to present first today.” Making a big deal about messing up makes everyone more uncomfortable. Also be aware that language changes quickly and it can be hard to keep up and use terminology you may be less familiar with. If a student asks you to change how you’re referring to their identity, use the language the student requests. If you receive feedback that a word or phrase is incorrect or offensive, take this in stride and make the appropriate changes. Sometimes it may be helpful to seek additional information or support from an outside source if you are struggling to understand.

Students will make mistakes as well. Your willingness to provide corrections to students in regards to names/pronouns of other students or problematic language usage (e.g., transsexual, homosexual lifestyle) will show LGBTQIA+ students that you care. Online, written posts often can’t be edited by and other students may not take note of each others’ names and pronouns if they differ from the Canvas name presented. One of the authors of this document has sent emails to multiple colleagues in online courses to remind them to use the correct name and pronouns, and it doesn’t feel good to have to do so. It can help if you, in the role of professor, can assist with this process through reminding students to use the correct names and pronouns for their classmates, and to bring awareness to where students may be making assumptions.

Given that there are a number of virtual platforms, there are many ways that this correction process can be accomplished. In a synchronous class which is meeting by video chat, if a student has misgendered another student, it is important to offer a gentle correction in the moment. You could also private message that student who mis-spoke through the Zoom private chat function to prompt them to correct themselves. In a discussion board, you may choose to offer the correction in a public response post (“Please remember that Jay uses they/them pronouns”) and/or to email the student to prompt them to correct themselves. In discussion posts where students make statements which are exclusionary to people with LGBTQIA+ identities, it is recommended that you engage and open the dialogue. This can be accomplished by asking questions such as “how do you think this concept would apply to people who are LGBTQIA+?” If it is another student who has corrected a classmate on their use of names, pronouns, or language in any platform, affirm their efforts by thanking them for the reminder.


There are many ways to go about shaping an inclusive classroom and providing corrections. The most important takeaway is to educate yourself so that you feel comfortable to actively engage in the conversation. For additional resources in this area, please read our Best Practices for LGBTQIA+ Inclusive Classrooms resource, and/or reach out to one of our two amazing campus resources: GITA (Gender Institute for Teaching and Advocacy) and the LGBTQ Student Resource Center.

Creating a welcoming and inclusive online classroom for LGBTQIA+ students won’t happen automatically. But with a little bit of time and intentionality, you can set up and carry out your online course in a way that will support the learning and development of LGBTQIA+ students. Thanks for all that you do to honor and affirm the diversity in your online classes this semester. Your LGBTQIA+ students will be grateful for your efforts.

Author Bios: (Authors contributed equally to the creation of this post, and are presented here in alphabetical order.)

Nicholas Hamblin (he/him/his) is a transgender social worker invested in anti-oppressive practice and supporting trans communities. He has been educating on LGBTQ+ best practices at universities and agencies across the Denver-Metro area for the past 7 years. In 2014 he received Campus Pride’s National Voice and Action Leadership Award for his education and advocacy for LGBTQ+ students at Colorado School of Mines. Clinically, his work focuses on the intersection of substance use and the LGBTQ+ community. He is currently working on research examining trans student experiences through a strengths-based perspective. Nicholas received his BS in Social Work from Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2019. Nicholas received his MSW from Metropolitan State University of Denver in May 2020.

K Scherrer (she, her, hers) PhD, LCSW, MA is a member of the LGBTQAI+ community as well as an Associate Professor and BSSW Program Director in the Department of Social Work at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Her areas of expertise in research and practice include gender and sexuality, GLBTQ+ identities, social inequalities, families, gerontology, and intergenerational issues. Dr. Scherrer’s research is published in prominent, peer-reviewed journals such as, Clinical Social Work Journal, Journal of Family Issues, Journal of Marriage and Family, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, Sexualities, Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Sexual Diversity, Sexuality Research and Social Policy and Social Work Research. Dr. Scherrer received a BA in Sociology and Psychology the University of Colorado at Boulder, and conducted her graduate work at the University of Michigan where she received an MSW, a MA in Sociology and a PhD in Social Work and Sociology.

Tomi Weinbaum (they/them/theirs) is a genderqueer MSW student in their concentration year at MSU Denver. Their professional interests are in social justice and anti-oppression, and they are currently interning with Boulder County Public Health’s OASOS program for LGBTQIA+ youth. Tomi has prior experience working in nature-based education, substance abuse treatment and case management, and restorative practices. They are part of MSU Denver’s Building Allies of Diversity leadership team, a member of a housing cooperative, and a HRSA integrative care grant recipient. Tomi received their BA in psychology from Johnson State College in Vermont, and anticipates graduation from Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2021.