7 Non-Negotiables for Supporting Trans & Nonbinary Students in Your Classroom
Transgender educators and former students reflect on their experiences and offer tips for creating a respectful and compassionate gender-inclusive environment.
Transgender and nonbinary students face many difficult challenges that affect their ability to perform well in school.
The statistics are staggering. According to data collected in 2020 by The Trevor Project, 61% of trans and nonbinary middle and high school students reported being bullied in the prior year–the highest rate of all LGBTQ students surveyed. Trevor Project data also show that transgender and nonbinary youth had the highest rates of suicidal ideation (52%) and of experiencing symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (77%) compared to their LGBQ peers.
Struggles that gender diverse youth experience are compounded by the devastating news that 2021 was the deadliest year on record for transgender people. Last year was also a record-breaking year for anti-trans legislation.
Several states have introduced or passed legislation designed to restrict discussions and books about sexuality and gender in school. More than 145 bills directly targeted trans people last year–including bills that restricted trans youth from using gender-affirming bathrooms or playing on sports teams that align with their gender. Thirteen of them have been enacted into law. Meanwhile, a recent directive in Texas calls for state investigations of parents or caregivers for child abuse for providing transgender youth with gender-affirming care (the order has since been temporarily blocked by a judge). In Idaho, a bill would make it a crime–punishable by up to life in prison–for anyone who helps a minor travel to another state to receive gender-affirming care.
All of these actions make trangender and nonbinay students everywhere feel unaccepted, attacked and unsafe.
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We know from our own experience that educators have the opportunity to offer a beacon of hope for students who need it most, especially in troubling times. As transgender educators and former transgender students, we compiled the following list of strategies for teachers who hope to better support trans and nonbinary students.
1. Start With Self-Education
One of the first steps to support any community unlike your own is self-education. Self-education is three-tiered: You must determine how much you do not know, unlearn harmful misconceptions, and acquire new knowledge. Participating in trans-specific professional development is an excellent first step (GLSEN has compiled a webinar and workshop resource list). But these trainings will not suffice on their own. Educators must familiarize themselves with trans and nonbinary students’ needs before providing direct support. Being prepared can help teachers avoid embarrassing themselves and their students. Trans and nonbinary students are usually capable of telling others how they want to be treated. Still, it is the educator’s job to create a welcoming environment where students feel empowered and invited to share their needs.
2. Consider the Accessibility of Your Resources
Gender diverse students’ lives are greatly impacted by the treatment they receive at home, especially if they are rejected by their parents or guardians. Parents and caregivers of all backgrounds and experiences, including those who are immigrants, deserve basic, culturally relevant education on transgender identity that is ADA accessible and available in multiple languages.
Parents of trans children and even trans children themselves are not immune to internalizing the negative portrayals of trans people in the media. Sometimes guardians’ fear for their children’s safety may look like mistreatment or rejection. Educators must be careful not to blame a family’s cultural background for their lack of support. Instead, seek ways to meet the family where they are. Find resources in their native tongue and trans LGBTQ+ educators from a similar background who are willing to guide you.
3. Create a Mental Health Crisis Plan
Familiarize yourself with the support services of local LGBTQ+ organizations in order to create a plan should a mental health crisis arise. Your crisis plan should be available to all students at any time. Mental health crises are sure to arise, and it is imperative that we do not expose students to additional violence by recommending resources that may put them in danger.
Reconsider any mental health crisis plan that includes police involvement. Persons with physical and cognitive disabilities, as well as Indigenous, Black, Latine, and Asian LGBTQ+ youth and their families, experience disproportionate rates of contact with the criminal justice system. About 40% of girls in juvenile justice facilities identify as LBQ/GNCT (gender nonconforming and transgender) and 85% of those youth are of color, according to a survey analysis in LGBTQ Policy Journal. Please understand the risk of traumatizing already over-policed communities in your efforts to provide support. You may risk damaging the trust of a student and their family by inviting law enforcement to their home without consent or notice. Involuntary mental health detainment can be a traumatic experience in and of itself, any crisis plan must center harm reduction at all cost.
4. Shift the Culture of the Learning Environment
Think about your classroom or office. When a trans or nonbinary student enters, what nonverbal clues do they receive that let them know they are safe? How does your learning environment signal safety and belonging for students like them? These signals can be small or large. You could wear a pronoun button pin on your lanyard, display LGBTQ+ children’s literature, hang up posters of gender-diverse historical figures, and discuss the contributions that transgender individuals have made in the fields of science, mathematics, medicine, literature, or technology.
Despite all of your efforts to create safe places for trans and nonbinary students, bullying and other forms of violence may persist. How will you model the behavior that you expect of your students? Your support, or discomfort about transgender people is communicated just as clearly through silence as it is through words of affirmation. Using a trans student’s chosen or affirmed name and pronouns consistently is a non-negotiable for establishing a safe learning environment. A 2018 study found that the consistent use of a trans child’s affirmed name can reduce suicidal ideation by 29 percent and reduce suicidal behavior by 56 percent. Conversely, the consistent misgendering of a student can have a profoundly negative effect on their ability to learn in your classroom.
Trans and nonbinary students are not suffering because of who they are; they are suffering because of how they are treated. How they are treated in your classroom is completely within your control. Allyship is an active, ongoing effort and action, not an identity.
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Jubilee Otero Bravo, a trans woman and college graduate, shares a moment of allyship when a professor recognized she was in distress.
During my first semester of college, I experienced a moment of allyship from my professor that I will always value. One week my gender dysphoria spiked after a customer at my job misgendered and laughed at me in front of the whole store.
The humiliation from that moment lasted for days, and the depression and social anxiety that resulted from it hindered me from being able to focus on the research paper my English teacher had assigned. I ended up pulling an all-nighter and the result of that was an unfinished paper that I did not want to turn in. Everyone in the class handed in their papers and when it was my turn I decided to ask the professor if I could get an extension. This simple question quickly turned into me crying to my professor about how emotionally exhausted I was and how disappointed I was with my work. My professor was sympathetic and patiently listened to me vent. She gave me another week to finish my assignment and assured me that I could talk to her if I ever needed help or just a listening ear. She also advised me to join a couple of LGBTQ+-centered clubs that I never knew we had in school. I appreciated how much she cared that I was aware that there were other trans students on campus with whom I could relate.
-Jubilee Otero Bravo
5. Create Mirrors and Windows
There is a concept in culturally responsive pedagogy called “windows and mirrors,” first introduced by Emily Style in 1988. Mirrors reflect a student’s lived experiences and windows provide students the opportunity to understand the experiences and perspectives of those who possess different identities. According to GLSEN, “mirrors and windows can help create a more positive environment and healthy self-concept for LGBTQ students while also raising the awareness of all students.”
For example, when a 13-year-old genderqueer Latine student sees a trans or nonbinary person of color positively reflected in curricular materials or instruction (mirrors), they feel a sense of belonging. In the same classroom, a 12-year-old multi-racial cisgender student develops more awareness by seeing the positive representation of an identity that is different than their own (windows). We must proactively plan ways to include both mirrors and windows in our classrooms if we hope for them to be safe and brave spaces not just for our trans and non-binary students, but for all students.
TFA alum Kezia Gilyard describes how they put this into practice when they were in the Miami-Dade teaching corps.
One day I was having a casual conversation with a trans boy in tenth grade. I don’t recall the topic of the conversation, but I will always remember when he said that he couldn’t see himself getting older because he had never seen old transgender people. I had to pause for a moment to compose myself. His words resonated so deeply that I was lost for words. How can trans youth visualize something that they have never seen? I thought back on the previous three years. Our small South Florida trans community had lost three trans people and I had called each of them my elders. None of them had reached the age of 50. I finally composed myself long enough to respond; “Well, there are plenty of us,” with a reassuring smile. For his 17th birthday, I gave my student a copy of the book To Survive On This Shore, by Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre. The book includes 65 portraits and statements of transgender people over the age of 55. I am unsure of who needed that mirror more between the two of us.
This conversation happened in a Florida public school. Over the years I have had similar conversations with students of all ages. There is no age too young to hear from an adult that you are deserving of living a long, fulfilled, and affirmed life. Unfortunately, under Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” bill, parents could potentially sue the school district that employed me because I had these conversations with students in grades one, two, and three.
- Kezia Gilyard
6. Investigate Law & Policy for Bias
Review your school district’s nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies. Are sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression included in the enumerated protections? If so, consider the ways that you can advocate for programming and professional development to better develop competencies for educators who serve students from these communities. Did you know that FERPA forbids educators from “outing” trans and nonbinary students? Most students and families are unaware of their rights as well. Orient yourself with the law and policies in your state and school district from gender diverse students related to dress code, restroom use, sports, etc. When (not if) your gender diverse students need defending, you should know where to find the appropriate information.
It’s also important to keep track of the recent wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and orders–as well as challenges to these bills, laws and actions and their outcomes, such as the Texas state judge recently blocking the directive about state investigations into gender-affirming care for youth.
7. Know Your Etiquette
If you are new to supporting trans and nonbinary youth the following list includes standard etiquette for interacting with gender diverse students in the classroom.
- Don’t assume pronouns, just ask. It is always best to lead by stating your own pronouns.
- Never ask a student about their body parts or private medical information.
- If you misgender or use a student’s birth name (also called a “deadname”) rather than their chosen name, apologize and quickly correct yourself and move on.
- Never allow students or colleagues to debate the humanity of trans people or frame it as scholarship or genuine curiosity.
- Ask students how they would like you to correct other students who misgender or deadname them.
- Don’t designate trans/nonbinary students as the speakers for any and all LGBTQ+ topics.
- Use gender-neutral greetings and comments as much as possible.
- It is ok to not know everything. Ask your students to guide you.
As educators, we must focus on factors within our control. When it comes to supporting trans and nonbinary youth, we must commit to allowing students to be their full selves in our presence, because self-expression is a developmental requirement for mental health. That said, self-expression is not enough—we must first educate ourselves about the lived experiences of trans and nonbinary youth. After this, we can begin the long process of shifting the culture of the learning environment by sharing resources that are accessible for students and families and creating mirrors and windows in our instructional activities.
Trans and nonbinary youth, as with any youth, need to feel safe and supported in their identities in order to engage with learning. By building a culture of learning that celebrates gender diversity and providing accessible resources, we not only improve the lives of our trans and non-binary students but also build awareness and empathy in all students.
Transphobia poisons the learning environment. We cannot improve graduation rates, increase student learning, and close the opportunity gap without intentionally and proactively creating classrooms in which all of our students can reach their full potential.
This op-ed was originally published on Nov. 20, 2020. It was updated on March 21, 2022.
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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.