Being an ally to LGBTQ+ people doesn’t have to be hard or scary. If you’re feeling a bit lost on how to make your classroom a safe space for LGBTQ+ people, then you are probably starting your journey into allyship. Allyship is defined by the actions we take rather than an identity. Since actions come from awareness, expanding our knowledge is the first step.
Diversity and inclusion educator Aaron Rose says the best place to start is to, “Move from assumption to connection, really practice not assuming that you don’t have LGBTQ+ people in your classes already and practice not assuming people’s sexuality, gender identity, and pronouns upon seeing them. Leave space for people to tell you who they are.”
This shift in awareness and how we view people in our classrooms is the first and most important step to creating a welcoming and safe space. The following suggestions are from LGBTQ+ yoga teachers, practitioners, and advocates who offer ways you can begin to shift that awareness into action.
Share Your Pronouns
You can’t tell someone’s gender by looking at them anymore than you can tell by first glance if someone is an only child. The easiest way to open dialogue with your students about pronouns is to normalize the conversation. For example, begin class with, “Hi everyone, my name is Sarah, my pronouns are she/her. Today we’re going to focus on….” and continue to set the intention for class. This lets LGBTQ+ people know you acknowledge you can’t see gender and it normalizes discussion about pronouns for everyone.
Use Non-Gendered Language and Cues
Ask yourself how assumptions about gender and gender expression influence your cues. For example greeting the room with “Hi friends/folks/everyone” instead of “ladies, guys, etc” is a great way to be inclusive. Avoid statements like “the ladies/guys will love/hate this pose” and try to make cues more comprehensive. An example of a comprehensive non-gendered cue would be, “People with tight hips will find this helps relieve tension.”
Seattle-based teacher Michelle Sciarappa says that the “worst case scenario is that folks won’t notice any difference and you carry on knowing you’ve made an effort to be inclusive. Best case scenario is that folks feel comfortable and welcome in your classes.”
Establish Consent In the Classroom
There are multiple ways to engage in dialogue about consent that range from asking people before touching, flipping the palms up in child’s pose, or using consent cards. The goal here is giving people the space to advocate for themselves; empowering them to make their own choices and to not have that choice taken away from them. The acronym Planned Parenthood uses to discuss consent is FRIES. Consent should be Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic and Specific. Libby Nicholaou founder of Setu—an inclusive online yoga community—suggests that the method isn’t necessarily as important as your attention to it. Says Nicholaou, “Choose something that makes you more aware that there are people in the room.”
For many LGBTQ+ people, physical adjustments are not always welcome or helpful. Body dysmorphia, effects of HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy), and healing from sexual/physical traumas are all points of consideration when offering physical adjustments.
Teacher Adam Barrameda advises: “Try not to gender bodies as you approach adjusting them but rather treat all bodies with the same respect.” It’s considered best practices to avoid adjustments of the chest area. Students may have had top surgery, be wearing a binder that limits thoracic movement or have body dysmorphia or trauma in that area. It’s also worthy to note that the effects of HRT are poorly understood and documented and students undergoing HRT may experience joint pain, muscle fatigue and could be prone to ligament and tendon damage.
The best way to know what a student needs is to foster opportunities for communication. In the same way that you may ask, “Please let me know if you have any injuries or are pregnant,” it’s easy to add on “are going through HRT, or don’t like assists” to your class opening.
Advocate for LGBTQ+ People
While changes in your classroom are important, what happens when you expand your awareness to the studio environment? Does your studio have private gender neutral bathrooms and changing rooms? Are there any LGBTQ+ teachers on staff and are they supported by management? Says practitioner Kiyoul Lucas Huh, “Teachers who are vocally queer/out makes the space more welcoming.” If you are a well-received and respected teacher in your community, advocating for diversity in the staff can make a big difference.
Be A Student
Every yoga teacher knows that to be a teacher is to be a perpetual student. To best serve your student base it’s important to listen to LGBTQ+ people who are advocates in the community. Be aware that not all LGBTQ+ people have the same experiences or needs. The best way to be an ally is to listen and learn from generations of LGBTQ+ people who have a wealth of knowledge and experience in creating and advocating for inclusive spaces. As you continue on the path of allyship remember to never speak for LGBTQ+ people but rather support and turn up the volume on the voices who are already speaking.
These are just a few ways that you can begin to take actions in allyship to LGBTQ+ people. The Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu mantra encourages us to ask how our thoughts, words and actions lead to the happiness and freedom of others. Ask yourself how you can broaden your awareness and education to ensure that your classroom is not exclusionary. Look at allyship as something to add to your daily yoga practice. Ask “What is something I can do today?” What small change in the way you view and interact with the world, what assumptions about gender and sexual orientation can you shed, so that you are contributing to that happiness and freedom we are all seeking?
Monica Pirani is a Queer Femme (she/her), writer, LGBTQ+ advocate, educator, and creative based in Brooklyn. Monica is passionate about education and fostering community. In her spare time she teaches yoga and meditation and is an avid plant person growing her collection.