Tips for talking to students about gender and sexuality – University of Colorado Boulder

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The University of Colorado community abhors the horrific and senseless violence that struck Colorado Springs in the early morning hours.
Just as we grieve with our family, friends and neighbors, we also stand resolute that violence and hate will not prevail, including hate directed at the LGBTQ+ community. Significantly, as we recognize Transgender Day of Remembrance, we are sadly reminded of how much work remains.  
Love will overcome. Unity will prevail. We support those affected, directly and indirectly and in our communities. We remain committed to fostering a culture across CU that enables everyone to feel safe and to be seen, heard and supported.
If you or those close to you are impacted, please find campus resources available below.
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We are excited to celebrate our LGBTQ+ communities during Pride Month in June. This can also be a great time to start a conversation with your student about gender and sexuality.
Students typically start figuring out who they are, who they are attracted to and how they want to express themselves during adolescence and young adulthood. Having a supportive and open family can make all the difference in a student’s academic performance, mental health, self-esteem and quality of life. In fact, families can play a key role in helping students navigate their identity in a positive and healthy way.
If you’re not sure how to broach the subject or need guidance on where to begin, these tips can help you make the most of your conversations.
Preparing for conversations in advance can make us feel more comfortable in the moment and help us avoid unintentional misunderstandings. Before you sit down with your student, try to do your homework first. Familiarize yourself with common terms and concepts related to sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
Here are a few basics to help get you started:

What is sex?
Sex typically refers to our sex assigned at birth based on one’s genitalia, reproductive anatomy or chromosome makeup. While sex can describe terms like “male” and “female,” it’s important to remember that some people are born “intersex,” meaning that they may have both male and female anatomy or ambiguous anatomy.

What is gender?
Gender represents the societal construct of norms and expectations related to sex. While gender is often viewed as a binary with only two choices (man or woman), many people have a more complex relationship with their gender or feel that their experiences do not conform to any single gender group.

What is sexuality?
Sexuality (also known as sexual orientation) refers to a person’s romantic, sexual or emotional attraction to others. Individuals may be attracted to the same gender, another gender, all genders, or they may not experience sexual or romantic attraction at all. Common terms that describe sexuality include gay, lesbian, straight, asexual and bisexual, though there are many others.
Youth.gov is a great resource if you would like to brush up on additional terms related to gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. It’s also important to keep in mind that some terms used in the past may be improper or outdated to use now. Take some time to ensure you’re using the proper terminology and allow your student to correct you if they are uncomfortable with a specific term.
While preparing in advance can help us kick off the conversation, it’s also okay if you don’t know or understand everything you read. Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself and your student about the things you don’t know or don’t understand. In fact, being open and curious can provide you with more opportunities to engage your student, ask questions and learn about how they view or experience these topics in their life.
Additional tip: Reflect on your own views
The way we see gender and sexuality may be different from our student’s views. Take some time to evaluate and reflect on your own views. Keep in mind that our perspecitve is often shaped by religion, cultural outlooks, upbringing or other experiences. Ask yourself how these have shaped your perceptions and how they may differ from your student.
While Pride Month is a great opportunity to start the conversation with your student, it’s also important to look for other opportunities throughout the year to engage with them and discuss important topics related to their experiences and identity. Similarly, don’t worry about having one big conversation with your student. Instead, focus on ways that you can break it up into multiple conversations that may feel less overwhelming. Remember, it’s also okay to start the conversation, take a break and come back to it another time if needed.
Forcing a conversation without permission can be off putting and feel invasive, especially for LGBTQ+ students. Instead, create emotional safety and look for natural opportunities to have a conversation. If a student discloses an identity to you, or talks about gender and sexuality, invite them to talk with you further. Let them know that you’d be open to discussing gender and sexuality, and that you have interest in knowing them as a person. Be mindful of your own identities and assumptions. Take some time to determine if having this conversation would be in service of and helpful for your student. Many of these conversations happen informally, between scheduled events. For instance, you can chat over coffee, go for a short walk or talk over a meal. However, if your student prefers, you can schedule a time and space to talk further.
Asking open-ended questions can help you better understand your student’s views, opinions and experiences. It also gives you both an opportunity to deepen the conversation, ask follow-up questions and share your perspectives.
Here are a few example questions that you can ask your student:
Allow your student to speak and share their personal experiences or opinions without judgment. If you’re uncertain about something, ask follow-up questions to get a better understanding of what your student is saying. Try to avoid formulating a response while they’re speaking or interrupting them before they’re finished. Approaching the conversation with genuine curiosity and willingness to listen can help you both understand each other better. 
If your student opens up to you about a piece of their identity, lean into the moment. Let them know that you support them and appreciate their vulnerability in sharing this piece of their life with you. If your student isn’t comfortable opening up, let them know that you support them and you will be there for them if they ever need someone to talk to. Keep in mind that the conversation doesn’t have to go perfectly to be meaningful. Give yourself and your student grace when discussing potentially sensitive topics. The most important thing is to let your student know that you love them and are there for them.
If your student is struggling or wants to explore their gender and sexuality more, there are support resources available on campus.
CISC provides services, advocacy, programs and events to support undergraduate and graduate students across multiple intersecting identities in their academic, personal and professional lives. CISC is committed to providing educational experiences, community building, involvement opportunities, resources and gathering spaces for students on campus.
CAPS offers confidential mental health services for students, including:
Recognized as a Top Performer for LGBTQ+ Health Care by the Human Rights Campaign, Medical Services provides comprehensive and affirming medical care for LGBTQ+ students, including:
OVA works to create a safer, more socially just and supportive campus community by providing culturally relevant trauma response and prevention services. OVA provides free and confidential information, consultation, support, advocacy and short term counseling services to University of Colorado Boulder students, graduate students, faculty and staff who have experienced a traumatic, disturbing or life disruptive event.
Don’t Ignore It is a web resource that provides options for seeking confidential support on and off campus, skills for helping others and reporting options related to sexual misconduct, harassment and discrimination.
The Rec Center provides an inclusive and welcoming community for students to stay active and build community. They offer LGBTQ+ services and opportunities, including:
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