How organizations can create safer spaces for 2SLGBTQ people

A Pride flag is not enough

A group of researchers working in LGBTQ studies who are collaborating on various projects in Catalonia. This workshop explored how poetry can be used to highlight LGBTQ stories. (Robert Mizzi is seated third from the right.)

Photo: Sebastià Portell

Every summer, organizations across Canada proudly unveil rainbow versions of their logos and declare their commitment to supporting 2SLGBTQ issues. But once local Pride celebrations are over, how many make good on their commitments and work toward real change within?

Robert Mizzi, Canada Research Chair in Queer, Community and Diversity Education, and associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba, says there’s more to creating a truly inclusive organization than waving a flag and hiring more 2SLGBTQ people. His own experiences as a gay teacher in classrooms around the world opened his eyes to the importance of not just individual behaviour, but organizational systems and spaces.

“I realized that very few organizational leaders think about spaces as being oppressive,” Mizzi says. “They understand the need for diversity and inclusion, but they don’t give any thought to the buildings themselves or how they can be used to foster meaningful dialogue.”

How spaces affect experiences

Mizzi calls these considerations “spatial justice”—and they can have tremendous impacts on people’s sense of safety.

If a school has generally inclusive policies but no gender-neutral bathrooms, for example, transgender and nonbinary people are unlikely to feel truly safe using those facilities, or that they belong in that school, which then affects their learning and socialization. If another school officially sanctions a gender-sexuality alliance, but offers only a small basement room for its rare meetings, and endorses rainbow flags and other visible signs of support only during Pride, it’s not being truly inclusive.

To create genuinely inclusive and safer spaces, says Mizzi, an organization must not only act socially supportive, but also provide supportive infrastructure and actively consider spatial justice in how its spaces are designed and how their use is prioritized and allocated.

Advancing inclusion

A collage made out of origami paper by a British teacher in a Japanese school, who was a participant in Mizzi’s SSHRC-funded research project on international LGBTQ educators. He made the collage to resemble the rainbow colours so that he could feel more comfortable in the school setting.

Photo: “Chris”

As a newly appointed Canada Research Chair, Mizzi will first look at spatial justice on university campuses, examining how their spaces and structures either oppress or emancipate 2SLGBTQ people, including those with intersecting marginalizations, such as race and disability. His goal is to help schools and other organizations better understand how spatial design affects marginalized people.

The work builds on Mizzi’s past research, which looked at the experiences of international LGBTQ educators. He asked 23 LGBTQ teachers originally from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Spain to take photos documenting their lives as they worked in Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Central America and Asia. He found that, while parents, students and school leadership were generally supportive of having LGBTQ educators in their classrooms, fellow teachers were often not as supportive. Colleagues with homophobic views can be reluctant to work with LGBTQ teachers, and sometimes go out of their ways to make life more difficult for them. This can damage LGBTQ teachers’ professional relationships, and even jeopardize their careers.

Mizzi experienced these consequences firsthand during his own time as a teacher. Homophobia drove him out of multiple workplaces and, ultimately, led him to change his profession.

“I’ve found that there’s a lot of interest in enhancing inclusion, but people don’t know where to start,” he says of his current work. “I hope this research helps leaders not only carry on the support they’re already showing, but expand it to teach everyone in the school about 2SLGBTQ realities.”

Educating educators

Mizzi’s efforts promoting 2SLGBTQ topics in educational organizations have earned him induction into the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame (IACE). (Due to COVID, the 2021 induction ceremony slated for the fall  has been cancelled and Mizzi will be inducted into the IACE Hall of Fame at the 2022 ceremony.) He has also co-edited Queer Studies and Education: An International Anthology, due out in fall 2021 from Oxford University Press.

Mizzi aims, through his work, to motivate leaders not only in schools but in all types of organizations to think about how they can create educational opportunities for their staff that engage more deeply with the issues than the usual one-day workshops held every few years do.

“We really need that more meaningful commitment,” he says. “Without it, we’ll never get beyond the status quo, where organizations remain heteronormative and don’t seriously consider 2SLGBTQ perspectives, and start achieving ‘status queer’—with new ways of working that support queer identities and amplify their voices.”

Want to learn more?

For more on Mizzi’s work, visit, where you can sign up for a newsletter, read interviews with local activists and educators, and learn how to make your own organization more inclusive.

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