By Kelly Huegel, author of GLBTQ
Never have transgender issues been in the mainstream as much as they are now. When I first wrote GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens in 2003, relatively few people, even in the gay community, understood or paid much attention to transgender issues. But today, transgender issues have come out from the shadows and into our living rooms: from legislative skirmishes over bathrooms to celebrity Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner’s before-our-eyes transformation to the hit Amazon show Transparent, which depicts an aging father’s journey into life as a woman.
Because of increased awareness of what it means to be transgender, people are recognizing they are trans at younger and younger ages. And that means more and more schools are faced with the issue of how to support growing populations of trans and gender-nonconforming students.
Without a doubt, issues around gender identity can be complex, but with some practice and sensitivity, schools can do a lot to help trans and gender-nonconforming students feel safe and accepted.
1. Have zero tolerance and nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity and enforce them.
Schools may have zero tolerance or inclusion policies but often fail to enforce those policies. Rogue teachers may refuse to use desired names or pronouns, or other students may bully and harass trans students. In all cases, it’s critical that administrators hold everyone at school accountable for following the policies, otherwise the policies are useless.
2. Use students’ preferred names and pronouns.
A trans student who is identified as Shawn on the birth certificate may wish to be called Shawna, and fellow students, staff, and teachers should be instructed to use the student’s preferred name along with the pronouns “she,” “her,” and “hers” rather than “he,” “him,” and “his.” Students who are gender-nonconforming may not identify as male or female. In these cases, the appropriate pronouns are “they,” “them,” “their,” and “theirs.” (English teachers, I understand that the idea of using “they” as a singular pronoun may be like nails on a chalkboard, but there is some precedent. In fact, in 2016 the American Dialect Society voted singular “they” as their word of the year.)
3. Make sure the dress code is inclusive of trans students.
Many school dress codes make distinctions about appropriate attire for male and female students. Trans students should be permitted to dress in accordance with the gender they identify as, and policies should accommodate gender-nonconforming students who do not identify as male or female.
4. Make gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms available.
This is what got the country riled up in the first place—fear that the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms would endanger women and children. In a controlled environment like a school, these fears are especially unfounded, and having gender-neutral private spaces available for trans students is an essential part of supporting them. Having gender-neutral bathrooms available also supports trans staff and teachers as well as trans parents who may visit the school.
5. Hire openly trans staff and teachers.
Give full and fair consideration to applicants for staff and teaching positions who are openly trans, gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Having staff and educators who reflect society inside and outside school walls goes a long way toward engendering a climate of openness and acceptance for all students.
When it comes to complex issues, communities often learn together. Take time to discuss trans-inclusive policies at parent-teacher and community meetings and send home letters explaining the policies. For staff and educators, provide special training and/or welcome a trans person to be a guest speaker to talk about trans experiences so that employees can gain a richer understanding of the issues at play and put a human face to them.
7. Include trans people and issues in the curriculum.
A great way to normalize the subject and educate students—and educators—is to include trans people and issues in the curriculum (as well as gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and issues). For example, when studying Native Americans, include mention of two-spirit people. When assigning speech and debate topics, include the issues of transgender bathrooms, trans people in the military, or similar topics and let students explore the issues and educate one another.
8. Support GLBTQ student groups.
Many schools have GLBTQ student groups (often called GSAs or gay-straight alliances). Being supportive of these groups—such as inviting them to put together special school projects for Pride month (June)—shows the whole school that these students and their allies are welcome and supported.
9. Realize trans students may be struggling at home.
Though our understanding of trans issues is increasing, gender identity is still a confusing topic for many. Lots of trans students are not fully supported by their families, and that can be extremely distressing for young people. Additionally, some students may be taking hormones as part of a physical transition process, so they may be experiencing challenging mood and physical changes. Trans students might benefit from extra support from teachers or guidance counselors. Even an extra effort to be friendly and check in with trans students can go a long way toward helping them feel welcome and accepted.
Laws and regulations regarding protections for trans students vary widely from state to state. Lambda Legal provides some excellent resources on legal and other issues surrounding transgender people. Additionally, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) offers a great deal of school-specific information.
Kelly Huegel Madrone is a freelance writer, editor, and educator. She has worked for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., chapter of PFLAG where she helped provide support and educational services to GLBTQ people and their families. The author of two books and more than one hundred published articles, Kelly holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in Colorado with her wife, Margaret, and daughter. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her on Twitter at @GLBTQguide or visit her website at www.evolvedanimal.com.
Kelly is the author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.
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