Navigating the world whilst being a transgender teenager can be hard, especially in school. Not only must we come to terms with and figure out our gender, but we are also expected to somehow deal with transphobia and cisnormativity and still maintain high grades and performance.
It’s hard sometimes just getting out of bed and going to school when the world is constantly telling us that we’re deceitful Peeping Toms who are all mentally ill as a result of our ‘transgenderism’. And that’s the nice way to put it.
That being said, not everyone wakes up planning to ruin some trans person’s day. Indeed, some of the oppression we experience is unintentional. I would definitely like to believe that the average cisgender person is well-meaning and just oblivious to how the way they use language and refer to us could potentially be harmful. This applies to teachers, who are benevolent in their intentions but sometimes just don’t know how to best accommodate for and support transgender students. Below, I have compiled a list of 5 ways that you as a teacher can be more inclusive and respectful to transgender students in your classrooms.
1. Use the name and pronouns we tell you to use.
It sounds simple, but by using the name and pronouns we ask you to use when referring to us, you are showing the most basic form of respect. We know ourselves best, and it really isn’t that hard to just change one or two words here and there. It might take some time to get used to and you’re bound to make mistakes, but putting in the effort to respect our name and pronouns is the best way you can show your support for us.
2. Don’t conflate gender with gender expression.
Just because we present ourselves in a way which conforms to a stereotypical idea of what another gender traditionally looks like, that doesn’t mean that we are that gender. For example, my gender is non-binary, but I was assigned male at birth and am generally perceived as a cis man. While I do have my more androgynous and feminine days, much of my wardrobe and indeed my ‘aesthetic’ is overall quite masculine, however that doesn’t invalidate my gender as being non-binary. Anyone of any gender can wear make-up, have a beard, dye their hair, and still be whatever they define their gender as.
3. Singular ‘they’ is grammatically correct.
There has been much hesitation towards non-binary people and anyone who uses ‘they/them/their’ pronouns, mostly stemming from the idea that the singular ‘they’ is not grammatically correct. This is false. For example, take the sentence:
“My family is arriving tomorrow and they will be so pleased when I give them their presents”.
In the above sentence, ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ are used when referring to the singular noun ‘family’. If we were to replace them all with ‘him or her’, the sentence would be clunky and just wouldn’t work. Additionally, many revered and celebrated writers throughout history have used the singular ‘they’ when writing their works in English, such as William Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll, and the singular ‘they’ was even named the 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.
Furthermore, ‘they’ is a completely valid and common pronoun that many people of non-binary genders (but not necessarily exclusive to them) use as their pronouns. It might take some time to wrap your head around using ‘they/them/their’, but it gets easier and easier the more you use them.
Please also check out Riley J. Dennis’ video on using the singular ‘they’.
4. Represent and support the work of transgender people.
Representation is vital for allowing transgender youth come to terms with who we are, and seeing ourselves authentically and positively portrayed in the media has numerous benefits. Even if much of the work you provide in class is pre-chosen according to the curriculum, if you ever have the opportunity for yourself to choose an article by a trans writer to discuss, or perhaps use music by a trans artist to analyze, not only are you diversifying the content you provide for your students, but you are also supporting the work of transgender people.
5. Don’t enforce the gender binary.
Most transgender people who have been at school for a while will be aware of the infamous and dreaded separation of ‘boys and girls’ in sport classes. This leaves people who do not strictly fall into the binary boxes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ very confused and uncomfortable (even possibly causing some dysphoria). This also tends to usually be fed by misogyny in that boys will play traditionally stronger and more brutal sports while girls will play traditionally weaker and softer sports.
However, even as someone who quit sport the moment they could, there are still times when the gender binary is enforced in my normal classes. I’ve literally had teachers break up the class into ‘men’ vs. ‘women’, and in one rare case, a teacher forcefully told me that I was a man and had male privilege.
While our genders are still valid whether or not cisgender people understand and recognize them, enforcing the gender binary is still harmful. This enforcement is unnecessary in the context of a classroom and I’d generally just warn against doing it. In all cases where I have been misgendered in class, I’ve lost interest in whatever was being taught and as a result was unable to properly learn and do the work. It’s really in your best interest as a teacher to steer clear of enforcing the gender binary, as otherwise you’re not doing your job.
This all being said, the general response to being inclusive of transgender people in classrooms has been positive from many of my own teachers. Even if you make mistakes with pronouns or don’t know what language is the best to use, so many of you have been willing to learn and listen, to which I am grateful for. If you ever have any questions, feel free to ask us, but also remember that google is your friend.
Below is a short list of transgender YouTubers who have super accessible and educational content, if you wish to know more about transgender issues.