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Can This Denver Teacher Make Biology Class More Inclusive?

Samuel Long has a history of working for equity for LGBTQ students and staff in education. His work on gender inclusive biology carries on that tradition.

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Samuel Long had always loved science. But in 2015, when he began his career as a high school biology teacher at DSST Stapleton High School (now called DSST Montview High School), he started to notice details in the curriculum that didn’t sit right with him. Classroom materials never defined the difference between sex and gender, for example, and they consistently used words like “male” and “female” without much nuance. “Readings called testosterone a ‘male hormone’ even though it plays a role in every person’s development,” Long says.

At first, Long didn’t say anything. This was how biology had been taught for a long time, after all, and he figured students wouldn’t be interested in digging deeper into research about the complexities of gender and sex.

But then, during one lesson, a reading referred to intersex chromosomal arrangements—sex chromosomes other than XX or XY—as “disorders of sexual development.” The phrasing, while accepted in some medical literature, obscured the robust debate being had amongst researchers, doctors, and advocates about the proper way to classify members of the intersex community. Many argue that the phrase “disorder” carries a negative connotation and obscures the fact that some intersex people live perfectly happy and healthy lives. Others point out that certain chromosomal variations do lead to health consequences, like short stature and heart defects associated with Turner syndrome (when a female is missing some or all of an X chromosome).

Long didn’t want to gloss over those conversations or risk alienating or invalidating his intersex and transgender students, including those who were not yet out. So, one day in 2015, he began class by telling students that sex and gender are separate, and that both can be on a spectrum. He was nervous, but the class was unfazed.

“I remember that day was the first time I had ever heard about chromosomes as they really are,” says Max Gregg, then a student in Long’s class. “There is all of this complication. And you can actually wind up having an unusually high number of sex chromosomes and have a completely normal and human life.”

And thus, an initiative to change how biology is taught was born.

Gender Inclusive Biology

The high school biology curriculum most teachers and schools use still takes a highly binary approach to sex, gender, and sexuality, even though scientists are learning more about how complex these topics can be. Students themselves, Long says, can undoubtedly see the shades and colors of sex, gender, and sexuality all around them.

Teaching biology the traditional way can leave students who aren’t straight or cisgender confused, isolated, disenfranchised, and disinterested in engaging in the classroom, Long says. According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN)’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, “LGBT high school seniors were more likely to be interested in studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) in college if their relevant high school classes had included positive LGBT content (35.8% vs. 18.5%).” The report also noted that LGBT students at schools with inclusive curricula were less likely by about half to have missed school in the past month and felt more connected to the school community.

Reading materials that emphasize that the male/female binary is rooted in biology can lead to more prejudice against trans people, according to research published in 2018.

A 2019 study from Colorado Springs’ BSCS Science Learning (the nonprofit studies and improves science curricula and instruction), came up with a similar finding: Something as simple as teaching high school students about plant sexual differences made students more likely to believe in neurogenetic essentialism—the idea that the differences between men and women can be solely attributed to innate, biological variations in their genes and brains, even though most researchers agree that external factors like societal expectations play a role. One problem with neurogenetic essentialism? It can often lead girls to believe incorrectly they aren’t well-suited for science. “It’s validating a broader cultural idea they’ve acquired by growing up in our sexist society,” says Brian Donovan, a senior research scientist at BSCS that worked on the study. “The kids take that knowledge, and it reinforces their underlying ideas about gender.”

That’s why, in 2019, Long and two other biology teachers (Lewis Stellar, in Seattle, and River Suh, in San Francisco) co-founded Gender Inclusive Biology (GIB), an initiative aimed at developing, promoting, and training educators on teaching biology in a way that is inclusive of LGBTQ identities. They run a website with resources for other teachers, curate a monthly newsletter that reaches 322 educators across the United States, and lead workshops for educators, curriculum developers, and administrators both privately and at conferences.

GIB’s tools provide educators with actionable, accurate methods for making the curriculum more inclusive. The language guide, for example, points out binary terminology normally used in textbooks and classrooms, such as “Women produce eggs and men produce sperm.” The guide suggests focusing on “the organ, functional activity, or role,” instead of gender. So, a teacher might say “ovaries produce eggs.” It’s scientifically accurate, and won’t leave a young trans woman feeling less-than.

Transgender Visibility

Long knows all too well the challenges of being a trans kid in non-supportive environments. When he came out as a transgender man in high school and began gender-affirming treatments, he faced push-back from his school’s principal. “She said you shouldn’t use the boys bathroom because you’re not a boy. But you shouldn’t use the girl’s bathroom because your appearance is going to scare other girls. And so that didn’t leave me with any options,” Long says.

After graduating in 2009 from Don Mills Collegiate, a high school in Toronto, Canada, he got in touch with the Ontario Human Rights Legal Support Center and filed a lawsuit against the school. The suit was settled out of court, but Long says it created change for other students like him. “The school district had to create a policy for exactly how to accommodate trans students in restrooms and other places,” Long says. The school district declined to comment.

That victory showed Long the benefits of advocacy. When he moved to Colorado to start his first teaching job, he surprised himself by coming out to the staff the summer before classes started. “I didn’t expect that I would do that so soon. But I really felt in the midst of all these icebreakers and reflectiveness and getting to know people, that it was what I wanted to do.” His fellow teachers’ reactions were positive, and with the support of the principal, Long decided he would come out to not only his students but to the whole school that November.

The school invited the students’ parents and family members to an assembly about transgender issues. There, Long came out, taking care to teach the students the correct definition of transgender and making it clear that his story was personal to him, not universal. “I rehearsed what I said so much that I even remembered it the next year and said the same thing,” Long says.

Some students watched silently. Others snapped emphatically in support when Long mentioned returning to his high school to file a lawsuit and became even more emphatic when he told them he won and got to consult on creating new policies for the district. Several students and parents came up afterward to shake his hand. Later, Long met with some queer-identifying students who wanted to ask more questions.

Long points out that many of the themes of his story resonate with high school students. He tells them about his arguments with his mom. “She would say ‘I’m losing you.’ And that just made no sense to me because I was right there. But I realized that she couldn’t see me for who I was,” Long says. “I think a lot of high schoolers have an experience where they aren’t being seen for who they are. And similarly, I think a lot of people in high school can relate to this idea of having to live with injustice, and trying to think about what you can do about it.”

Along that vein, Long advocates for the rights of trans educators. “Trans teachers fill a role that nobody else really can, which is to show young people who are trans or questioning that it’s possible to have a happy life,” Long says. But he knows many who moved to tutoring or left teaching entirely because of pushback when they wanted to come out. “That’s a big loss for schools in Colorado,” he says.

To make sure more trans teachers can be true to their identities at work, Long founded the Colorado chapter of the Transgender/Nonbinary Educators Network (TEN). Last year, TEN successfully advocated for a change to Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission rules and regulations that meant schools can’t prevent educators from being open about their gender identity.

The Future of Gender Inclusive Biology

Long and his team are just one part of a growing movement to make biology education more affirming. BSCS founded an Equity and Social Justice Initiative in 2018 that focuses on making sure science education is “inclusive, relevant, and actively antiracist and anti-oppressive in all its forms.” Long works with BSCS as an advisor and consultant on certain initiatives, and BSCS now uses the GIB’s language guide.

Donovan, the researcher from BSCS, points out that Long is ahead of BSCS’s research, but hopes to see studies done on the GIB curriculum. “Do those changes when implemented in the curriculum itself lead to feelings of greater social belonging among trans students?” Donovan asks.

Still, others in the education world continue to seek out Long’s knowledge. He consults with textbook and curriculum developers like Gale In Context, Gale Health & Wellness databases, and OpenStax. The GIB founders have presented at conferences and written feature articles for the National Science Teaching Association. Long is currently consulting on interactive biology lab simulation software for HHMI Biointeractive, a philanthropy that creates classroom resources based on peer-reviewed science. He received and Upstander Award from the Human Rights Campaign last year, and the National Education Association awarded him the NEA Human and Civil Rights (HCR) Award, the group’s highest honor, this month.

That doesn’t mean GIB is free from pushback. “Sometimes students or their parents ask why we’re learning about gender in science class,” Long says. Usually, explaining that the content is scientifically accurate and inclusive quells concerns, but Long once had a GIB workshop canceled because schools were worried they might face backlash.

One teacher spoke to 5280 anonymously to avoid possible vitriol. After many years of teaching, she is adapting some of her lessons because she wants students “to feel like they’re part of the community and the learning environment, not just observers, not just outsiders.” She wants people to understand that educators like her aren’t changing the science. “We’re including this gender identity in the curriculum, just as we included material to empower girls, just as we’re including material to empower Black scientists.”

She notes that she has seen queer-identified students in her class cringe and get uncomfortable when she teaches about “something as simple as pedigree analysis, where the square means male, the circle means female.” If a student isn’t comfortable in the classroom, their ability to learn is harmed,” she says. “You lost them, you lost the education. And we would like to develop these future scientists no matter what their gender identity is.”

Long hopes to play a part in revising the Colorado state science standards to include gender inclusive biology. He also envisions something similar to the 2019 law, HB19-1192 Inclusion Of American Minorities In Teaching Civil Government, which requires Colorado schools to teach the history, culture, and social contributions of minorities in social studies curriculum. (Long is a representative on the commission that was created by that bill.)

But for gender-inclusive biology, Long intends to take a slightly different tack. “I don’t know what the bill will be called or anything. It could be similar to the social studies one, but I would like to frame it as a standard of quality in some way. To teach biology in a way that doesn’t acknowledge gender and sexual diversity is not the ‘traditional way.’ It’s of inferior quality and care to our students.”

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