From bullying to isolation, transgender students face a variety of obstacles both in and outside the classroom. Teachers are in a unique position to create a classroom environment that’s safe, supportive, and affirming for these vulnerable students, becoming an important ally on their journey of self-discovery and acceptance. This brief guide introduces important background surrounding transgender issues at school and supplies educators with strategies they need to develop an inclusive environment.
As defined by the Human Rights Campaign in their “Schools in Transition” guide, “transgender” is an adjective that describes someone whose gender identity is different from the gender associated with their sex at birth. To understand the term “transgender” fully, it helps to know the difference between gender and biological sex. Someone is defined as being of the “male” or “female” sex based on their physical characteristics. Gender, however, is determined by a person’s complex relationship between their physical characteristics, their gender identity (i.e. their internal sense of self as it relates to male and/or female, or the full gender spectrum), and gender expression (how the person chooses to present themselves and behave). Someone’s gender does not necessarily determine someone’s sexual orientation. Sexual orientation refers to one’s romantic or sexual attraction to a certain gender.
Gender identity starts to be expressed in children as early as two years old. In young children, a transgender identity may be expressed by a child’s propensity to crossdress and through expressions that suggest internal and external gender conflict — for example, a child might tell a parent, “I have a boy brain in a girl body.”
Over the past few decades, the discourse has shifted away from defining gender identity in terms of a strict “man/woman” binary. Now, a gender nonconforming person, or someone who expresses gender variant interests and behaviors, is recognized as someone whose behaviors and interests don’t align with what’s expected of someone with their assigned sex at birth. For example, a boy who primarily enjoys playing with other girls and traditionally girl toys like baby dolls exhibits gender variant behavior. Just because someone exhibits non-binary or gender-variant preferences and behaviors, however, does not mean they’re transgender.
Recent studies have delved into cultural perceptions of children who don’t exhibit behavior and interests considered typical for their gender; terms like “tomboy” or “sissy” have negative connotations. Although, young boys who exhibit gender variant behavior seem to have it worse. Writing at CNN, Emanuella Grinberg reports that psychologists suggest that “boys are more likely to get picked on for stepping outside of the box to play with dolls or wear a pink backpack than girls are for playing with cars or wearing jeans.” Internalized misogyny may be to blame; traditionally male traits have long been more valued and aligned with strength than traditionally female traits.
The HRC reports that children who exhibit gender variant behavior, and transgender children in particular, often experience acute distress when they don’t get the support they need. Unsupported transgender youth may lose interest in school, become involved with alcohol and drug use, and even experience mental health issues and suicide. Gender-based bullying can have long-lasting effects. “[S]tudents who experienced higher levels of victimization based on gender expression were twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue post-secondary education”, according to a report by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Part of transgender children’s discomfort and distress comes from the myriad harmful myths surrounding being transgender. As Brynn Tannehill, the Director of Advocacy at SPARTA, reports, these myths include that transgender children became gender-nonconforming based on the actions or teachings of their parents, that children are too young to know what their gender identities are, and that there are ways to “fix” the “problem.” Some parents and teachers believe that encouraging gender variant behavior in children who exhibit non-binary preferences just sets them up to be bullied throughout their school years — but that just places the blame on the victim, rather than addressing the root issue of bullying.
These myths can be dispelled through more support for gender nonconforming students and more education and programming for teachers of these students. Changing laws, too, can help alleviate the harassment and isolation many transgender students face. Amid some controversy, President Obama recently directed all public schools to allow transgender individuals to use the bathrooms that correlate with their gender identity, citing the safety of the children as a top priority.
There are ways that teachers can become a part of the solution, by creating a safe and supportive school environment for all students. First and foremost, a teacher can foster a culture of respect and acceptance in the classroom by creating a nurturing atmosphere, and by refusing to tolerate bullying of any kind. It’s important that teachers respect their transgender students’ preferences, including clothing choices and prefered pronouns. Pronouns that misidentify can be a sore spot for those in the transgender community; teachers can ask their transgender students which pronouns they prefer, and then consistently use those pronouns to show support for and affirm the student’s gender identity. Finally, teachers can educate themselves on the issues that transgender students face and the appropriate vocabulary and definitions used when discussing transgender topics. That way, the teacher not only shows understanding and support for the transgender student, but they can answer questions from other students as well. However, the privacy of a student who doesn’t publically identify as transgender must be maintained in these conversations.
If a student is undergoing the transitioning process at school (i.e. the process that transgender people go through as they begin to live as the gender they identify with) the teacher can develop a tailored gender transition plan in collaboration with the student and school administrators. The plan would establish a collaborative and ongoing process for ensuring the student’s safety and privacy during the transition. Ideally, the student’s family would be deeply involved in this process, but it’s important to remember that not all parents and family members are supportive of non-binary gender identities and the transitioning process.
Many students face discrimination at home. If a teacher wants to reach out to a student’s family about the student’s identification as gender non-binary, he or she should only do so in consultation with the student. Supportive parents may choose to help the student through the transitioning process at school by penning a letter to other parents or school staff, fielding questions, or helping with lesson plan topics surrounding transgender issues.
Some students may wait to publicly transition to their transgender identity until college. Due to the lack of support at home and/or at school, these students view college as a chance to “start over.” Many colleges also have more robust resources for transgender students, including LGBTQ centers, inclusive nondiscrimination policies, and even gender-inclusive housing on campus. Primary schools may consider adopting some of these more inclusive policies and programs themselves to provide a more nurturing environment for transgender students.
While the world seems to be becoming more accepting — or at least more aware — of gender variant individuals, educators still face major obstacles. For one, as more and more celebrities and officials come out as transgender, teachers may face more questions from students about transgender topics in the classroom. That’s why it’s important to remain informed on this evolving subject. The good news is that the changes teachers should make in the classroom to support transgender students — like fostering a culture of respect for differences and not tolerating bullying — actually work to better support all students, regardless of their race, gender, or social or economic status. Support for transgender students results in more support and a more welcoming atmosphere for all.