Queer Identities in the Music Classroom

Mia Ibrahim • CommentaryJune 2021 • June 12, 2021

Music educators are provided with the ability to select repertoire that is reflective of our students’ many identities. However, some educators may struggle with representing various gender and sexual identities alongside our carefully planned culturally responsive curriculums.

I have been teaching music longer than I have been out of the closet. I can empathize with how daunting it is to look at 100 young faces a day and curate lessons that are authentic to each student individually without appropriating any one culture yourself. My coming out journey coincided with so many of my students’. I have learned alongside my students how to live authentically and create a classroom space that is safe for us all. Music ensembles have served as a catalyst for my transparency, vulnerability, and acceptance of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual+ (LGBTQIA+) identities in my classroom.

Understand Identities and Terminology

In order to bring LGBTQIA+ identities into the classroom in a way that honors all individuals in a compassionate manner, we must first unpack the terminology. Note: The University of California, Davis has created an LGBTQIA+ glossary and many comprehensive resources that can be accessed online¹.

When discussing trans identities, there are a plethora of gender identifiers and pronouns you can utilize, and the only way to know what students (and colleagues) prefer is to ask. I practice asking pronouns by striking up conversations with my local baristas and making a habit of asking them their pronouns to normalize the question as an integral component of conversation.

Children as young as two years old can express their gender identities, and all students should be taken seriously when making the brave leap to transition. If this entails a change in name and pronouns, it is important to reaffirm these changes in front of the class regularly and lead by example by correcting yourself promptly when miss-pronoun-ing or dead-naming². I have recently begun aiding student transitions by providing a folder of pronoun stickers near my classroom door that students can grab and wear throughout their school day, so teachers and peers do not continue to miss-pronoun them.

Know Your Rights as An Educator

In being this transparent with students, you should understand your rights. Take the time to read up on Title IX, which is a civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools or education programs that receive federal funding. A portion of the law states that you are entitled to a Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) in some form at your school and must receive the same funding other comparable extracurriculars receive. I encourage all educators to start a GSA at their school, even if there are feelings of trepidation, because creating a safe space for students is impactful regardless of your LGBTQIA+ knowledge. The law also reinforces the need for educators to adhere to student name and gender preferences.

Center Queer Musical Voices

A few tools I utilize in the classroom are artist biography and compositional transparency. In being transparent about all aspects of the music we make; I find that students are appreciative and less inclined to stumble upon information that could be construed as crass themselves. I am sure to elevate queer voices in the classroom as I would any other artist. Then, I discuss queer aspects of the artistry openly with students.

I recently played Kygo and Kim Petras’ “Broken Glass” for students. Kim Petras is the youngest person in the world to undergo a gender confirmation surgery (sex change operation) in 2008 at the age of 16. Discussing her life with students helps foster discussions about authenticity and the many struggles someone with gender dysphoria may go through, regardless of age.

Find local organizations to partner with that expose your students to myriad identities within the art world. Last year I took my music students to a Lena Horne Prize workshop for artists creating social impact. The inclusivity in the songwriting processes they demonstrated inspired my students in our annual protest songwriting unit that helps students express themselves and hurdles they’ve overcome. By seeking out inclusive performance spaces and experiences for my students, they are exposed to new perspectives that aid in empathy.

I want my students to live in a world surrounded by the same bliss that authenticity brings us.

It’s up to us, then, to make the most of relevant repertoire and artist experiences to highlight the many LGBTQIA+ identities that are all around us.

It is the willingness of our society to evolve and include queer people like me in the narrative that allows me to marry my fiancée Chelsea, that allows my student Leo to change his name and pronouns his senior year of high school, and that allows the singer Sam Smith to embrace their gender-neutral pronouns.

¹ https://lgbtqia.ucdavis.edu/educated/glossary

²When a transitioning student’s name changes, their previous name is a “dead name” as it is exactly that to the student—dead. Teachers and students should avoid saying the dead name at all costs, even if in private, as this is very offensive.


Mia Ibrahim is a queer, Lebanese high school music educator and department head in the south Bronx of New York.

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