Activity 1


Examining Language at School


Language shapes how people perceive themselves, others, and the world at large. The purpose of this activity is to help students make explicit the denotations and connotations of the words they see, hear, and use to describe lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.



  • To examine the power of words to shape how we come to understand sexuality
  • To challenge harmful connotations or stereotypes in language used to describe sexual orientation
  • To gain sensitivity and multiple perspectives on language used to describe sexual orientation

Age Level: High School to adult

Time: About 60 minutes



Part 1: Collecting data

Important: This part must begin one week before the rest of the activity.

One week prior to the activity, students should work individually to record any example of language they see, hear, or use in school connected to lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender persons during the week. In some cases, language may be used to describe a particular person, while in other cases, it may be used to describe either a real or abstract group of people. In still other cases, the language may be used to describe something that has no connection to people (e.g., a student may hear a classmate describe a homework assignment as "gay"). The language may be positive, negative, or neutral in its connotations.

Distribute Handout 1: Words Around Us and review with students how to collect data.

Students should record the data so they can get a sense of how often words about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons are used. It may not be practical (or safe) for students to record information in the presence of the people using it. In such instances, they should record the information later. They may want to record all the information at once at the end of the day, doing their best to recall as many specific instances of language as possible. At the minimum, students should record information on a daily basis. Waiting until the end of the week will probably lead to forgetting many particular incidents.

Students should record the exact language they see, hear, or use, even though they may be offended or have very strong feelings about the words they see or hear. Stress the importance of recording accurate data.

Under the heading "Who used," students should NOT write anyone's name. Instead they should record whether the language was used by a student, teacher, staff person, or administrator. Under the heading "Where used," students should record in what part of the school the language was used (e.g., hallway, playground, locker room, classroom, cafeteria).

Students should also record under the heading "Intention" the intention of the speaker using the language. Was the language used to describe without placing value on lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender persons? Was it used to hurt, demonize, or portray people in a negative light? Was it used to praise, celebrate, or portray people in a positive light? Was the language used seriously, mockingly, or comically? If students are uncertain or have contradictory ideas about how the language was used, they should note that here.

Remind students to make note of their personal response in the last column labeled "Reactions" in a phrase or two. Tell students that in one week, the class will be compiling all the individually collected data, analyzing it from different perspectives, and drawing conclusions.

Part 2: Compiling and analyzing data

As a whole class, compile the data individually collected by students during the past week. Use a transparency or a large butcher paper version of Handout 1: Words Around Us to record the class data. Ask a student volunteer to state one word or phrase he or she heard during the past week and write that phrase in the second column. Ask for a show of hands by other students who heard the same word or phrase and record that information in the same column next to the word or phrase. Check to see how many days during the past week the word or phrase was used and record that information in the "Word/Phrase" column. This will illustrate how frequently this language is used. Under the column Who used, record the various types of people who used this language in the past week. Similarly, record where the language was used. Under the "Intention" column, list the ways the language was used. In some cases, the same word or phrase may have been used with different intentions.

After students have volunteered all the examples of language they heard in school, discuss the following questions:

  • What words and phrases are most commonly heard at our school to describe lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender persons?
  • In general, how are these words used? (What is the intention?)
  • In what parts of the school is the most negative language used?
  • By whom is the most negative language used?
  • What is your personal reaction to these data?

Part 3: Defining words

During Part 1 of this activity, students will have recorded a number of words used to describe lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. Tell students that in the next part of this activity, they will become sensitive to how they use language and to the meanings of words that the class will use to discuss sexual minority youth, including some words that they may have recorded earlier.

Give each student one of the cards from Handout 2: Defining Terms. Ask students to find another person in the class who has a card that makes a match between word and definition.

After all the students have found a classmate whose card makes a match with their own, ask one pair of students to read their word and definition. Follow by asking another pair to read a different word and definition until all seven words have been defined.


A person attracted physically and emotionally to some persons of the same sex. Usually used to describe men.


A woman attracted physically and emotionally to some other women.


Differing from the heterosexual norm. Although sometimes used in a derogatory sense, the word is also used without any negative intentions in colloquial and academic settings as an umbrella term to describe gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender persons.


A person attracted physically and emotionally to some men and some women.


A broad term used to describe individuals whose gender identity and expression, when measured against conventional notions of sexuality and gender, do not correspond with their biological sex.


A fear or hatred of homosexuality, especially of others but also in oneself.


An overt or implied bias against homosexuality, stemming from the belief that heterosexuality is superior or the only acceptable sexual expression.

Biological Sex

This can be considered as our "packaging" and is determined by our chromosomes, our hormones, and our internal and external genitalia. Some people can be defined as intersexuals born with biological aspects of both sexes to varying degrees. So, in actuality, there are more than two sexes.

Gender Identity

This is the individual's innermost concept of self as "male" or "female"-what we perceive and call ourselves. Individuals are conscious of this generally between the ages of 18 months and 3 years (though many researchers report it may be formed before birth). Most people develop a gender identity aligning with their biological sex. For some, however, their gender identity is different from their biological sex. We sometimes call these people transsexuals, some of whom hormonally and/or surgically change their sex to more fully match their gender identity.

After students finish reading the definitions, ask them the following questions:

  • How are these definitions different from the use of some of these same words when you recorded them in the first part of this activity?
  • When is it appropriate to use these words?
  • What are some examples of inappropriate uses of these words?

Tell students that all these words will be used during this and other activities, so they should understand their meanings. They should also be sensitive to HOW these words are used. None of the words in this exercise should carry a negative connotation or stigma, although when students recorded these words in Part 1 of the activity, they may have been used as insults or put-downs.

Set ground rules about using these words in your classroom, paying attention to why it is important to be sensitive to language as well as to consequences for students who do not respect the ground rules.

Part 4: Generalizing to the larger society

Share with students the findings in Handout 3: GLSEN'S National School Climate Survey. This handout also includes a shorter, one-page summary of the survey at the end.

As a class, discuss the following questions based on the findings of the national survey:

  • How does your school compare to the national data?
  • Why is homophobia so pervasive in schools?
  • How does homophobia affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students?
  • How does homophobia affect straight students?

To answer the next question, ask students to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This document, written in 1948, is still the most commonly accepted statement of all people's fundamental human rights, which they enjoy by virtue of being a person, not because they are granted by a government as is the case with constitutional rights.

In what ways do the examples of homophobia you documented and which are described in GLSEN's survey constitute violations of human rights-both of sexual minority and straight students?

Ask students to refer to specific articles in the UDHR in their answer. Possible articles describing rights which are violated regularly in schools include:

  • Article 1: The right to be considered free and equal to all other humans
  • Article 3: The right to live, to be free, to feel secure
  • Article 12: The right to privacy
  • Article 18: The right to freedom of thought
  • Article 19: The right to freedom of expression
  • Article 20: The right to assemble
  • Article 26: The right to an education
  • Article 29: The duty to respect the rights of others.

Part 5: Interrupting human rights violations in school

Because the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in schools, in some cases, constitutes human rights violations, it is important to interrupt such treatment. That means not participating in such violations and doing what we can to stop others when we see them perpetrating such acts. All students, not just sexual minority youth, have a responsibility to protect the human rights of all students in schools. For straight students and teachers, this means acting as an ally, someone willing to speak up for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. Taking a stand is not easy, however. In some cases, students might fear for their own safety. In other cases, allies might fear being labeled gay or lesbian.

As a class, discuss some of the examples of homophobia recorded in Part 1 and how students and teachers, individually and collectively, can interrupt human rights violations. As you brainstorm, think not only about how to react to violations as they occur or after the fact, but also about how to create a climate in school that supports respect for and celebration of students' human rights. Discuss the relative risks of the actions generated by students, given the climate of their school.

Using the matrix below, drawn on the chalkboard or on butcher paper, may help the class organize its thoughts. Included are possible responses that students may generate.

Stress the importance of being proactive. Point out that students and teachers have only a limited number of responses AFTER human rights violations of sexual minority youth occur. When students and teachers act BEFORE, they have a wider range of options that can prevent violations from occurring in the first place.


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