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Seven Ways Educators Can Foster Safe Schools for Transgender Students

Because many people lack the knowledge or experience to respond to issues that trans students face.

By Jessica Toste & Brandon Beck


(Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

While state legislatures are busy deciding who is allowed to use the bathroom, students who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming continue to walk through the halls and sit in the classrooms of K-12 public schools—often at their own peril. Trans students report alarming rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent), and sexual violence (12 percent). Of course, the danger extends out of the schoolyard as well: There have been 11 known murders of trans people in the United States in 2016 alone.

President Barack Obama’s widely publicized advisory earlier this month forces those institutions receiving federal money to confront bias to make school safe for trans students. And from now on, gender identity will be considered for purposes of enforcing Title IX of the Education Act of 1972.

Telling schools, teachers, and officials what to do is one thing. But what about other students’ discriminatory practices? While Obama may know the answers, many people lack knowledge or experience in responding to issues that trans students face. Here are seven best practices to get started:

  • Respect Names and Pronouns: For transgender individuals, an important part of the gender affirmation process often includes changing names and pronouns to better match their gender identity. This means school records might list a name assigned at birth while a student is asking to be called something else. It is important schools have a policy to help address trans students’ name change needs. It is also important to practice using all types of individual pronouns, as some trans students might choose to use gender-neutral pronouns such as the singular they or zie/hir or even a pronoun of their own invention.
  • Educate Yourself: Transgender individuals have a gender identity that does not align with their sex assigned at birth, and may not necessarily conform to conventional notions of male and female. A transgender woman identifies as female, while a transgender man identifies as male. Gender non-conforming individuals, or people with non-binary identities, may identify in many different ways. Some common terms in the gender non-conforming/non-binary community include agender, genderless, androgynous, bigender, gender fluid, genderqueer, and so forth. It is important to remember an individual self-identifies; we do not identify them. Also, gender is fluid and many people move across the gender spectrum across time. Sexual orientation is a separate identity piece from gender identity — some transgender students identify as straight, while others may identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (or something else entirely). Realize that your transgender students are not there to educate you and their peers about their experience and their identity; they should never be tokenized or put on the spot to explain themselves. As an ally, you can connect with national organizations such as the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network, National Center for Transgender Equality, or PFLAG.
  • Challenge Your Assumptions and Maintain Confidentiality: Your words and actions should be safe and affirming whether or not you knowingly have transgender or gender non-conforming students in your class. It is imperative educators create safe spaces whether we know there are transgender students present or not. Challenging your assumptions about what transgender students “look like” or “act like” is a first step.
  • Review Federal, State, District, and School Policies: Schools should ensure policies related to transgender students are compliant with both federal and state law. Teachers will want to be sure to review local guidelines — at the district and school level. If local guidelines do not exist, talk to your administration.
  • Recognize and Challenge Transphobia: Language and stereotypes based on gender binaries can wreak havoc on transgender students. “Only girls wear earrings,” “only boys play football,” or “you throw like a girl” are microaggressions that begin transphobic thoughts and feelings. In schools, we can encourage diversity of gender expression to be an accepted concept by including books in our libraries such as My Princess Boys, 10,000 Dresses, Parrotfish,and Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. Challenging transphobia can also include the representation of transgender and gender non-conforming people in our fields as possibility models in our lessons. Be prepared to interrupt experiences in school where students or other teachers are using inappropriate language or uninformed language around trans students.
  • Be Aware of Gender-Segregated Spaces and Activities: Students should be permitted to meet the dress code, participate in physical education, and attend extracurricular sports in accordance with their gender identity. The use of restrooms and locker rooms by transgender students should consider an individual student’s preference, protecting privacy and ensuring safety. Some trans students may express a desire for increased privacy, such as access to a single-stall restroom or private changing area. Arrangements should be discussed on a case-by-case basis, but under no circumstance should a trans student be required to use a restroom or locker room that conflicts with their gender identity.
  • Understand That There Is No Single Story: No two transgender people transition in the same way. Respect each student as an individual and trust that they know and understand themselves. If they trust you enough to talk to you, your best effort is spent listening to them and caring about their safety and welfare. If you can work with them to help them be confident and secure in their identity, as you would want each of your students to be, then you have succeeded.