So you want to be a trans ally…

How Can I Make My Classroom Trans-Friendly?

A question most teachers probably don’t consider — until they have to

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Image: Zackary Drucker, The Gender Spectrum Collection

So… where to begin?

I’ll mostly cover basics here — things any teacher is likely to say “I already knew that” or “I already do that” — but it never hurts to remind ourselves, right? Besides, if you’re anything like me, you might just find it humbling to really pause and reflect. We tend to think “yeah, I’d do that for any student anyway,” but implicit bias is something that we all have; prejudice against certain “types” is something that we all struggle with, and these things are more common than we’d like to admit.

So you have a trans student. What now?

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Image: Zackary Drucker, The Gender Spectrum Collection

First, remind yourself of these 3 things:

1. All behavior is communication

Looking back over my (unfinished) journey of parenting a trans kid — who’s a high schooler now— I can see clearly how often my child was attempting to communicate gender dysphoria over the years, without having the language or skills to communicate that. And all along, my husband and I had simply chalked the behaviors and mood swings up to “anger issues.” Moodiness. Melodrama. For a long time we had no idea how much more complex it was than that.

2. It’s important to challenge gender (or sex-based) stereotypes every time you see and hear them

Many times in the past, I’d look at my youngest — assigned male at birth but always feminine — and think, “I’m pretty sure I have a future gay son.” And I still may have a gay, trans teen — any combination is possible. But my frame of reference when this child was younger was that feminine boys = gay.

3. Just because a student “fits” a gender stereotype (like hyper-masculine or feminine), that doesn’t always mean that’s who they are at their core

When I first got involved in trans advocacy, I remember feeling floored by the number of trans women I’d gotten to know, who, before transitioning, were what we’d likely see as “hyper-masculine” in a gender stereotyped world. They were decorated military and war veterans, auto-repair enthusiasts, large company CEOs. They were associated with labels in high school like “Alpha male,” or “the ladies man” on college campus. Many were in heterosexual marriages with children and even grandchildren.

Here’s why this matters:

As a teacher, you may have trans students — even very young ones — who are masking, have not come out yet, don’t yet realize they’re trans, or are in denial, but are still very much internalizing the damaging and mixed messages of gender stereotypes that we tend to dole out without even realizing. (In one of my child’s early schools, I counted the number of times I heard or saw things that were gender segregated. I’d counted 47 separate instances — and that was only before lunch).

A few practical ideas any teacher can do right now to create a more trans-friendly classroom

Again, these are not just good practices for trans students; they’re good practices for all students. And while cis students may not notice or care about some of these differences, trust me, your trans students — including those you don’t know are trans — will value your class more than you’ll ever know, and as a result, are more likely to perform better all around, including academically.

1. Choose language carefully

As much as you can (I know this one’s hard), avoid addressing students by gender. Instead of “boys and girls,” or “ladies and gentlemen,” say “friends,” “class,” “scientists,” “writers,” “calling all learners,” etc. Invite younger students to join you at the carpet by calling their table color or number, team names, or birth months. For addressing older students, say “folks,” “you all,” or “hey everybody.” You have generally more options with older students, and you can even invite them to come up with ideas of their own for classroom language.

2. Avoid segregating groups by gender

Similar to number 1 above, why do we need a “boys” team and a “girls” team when we can make groups any number of other creative ways? Sure, it’s quick and easy to split boy/girl, but for trans students (which, again, includes non-binary, agender, two-spirit, and other gender identities that aren’t necessarily binary), it’s a microaggression (or worse). It’s needlessly inducing stress and anxiety every time these students are forced to be segregated into a group that’s either the wrong gender for them, or does not include them at all.

3. Use gender-inclusive signs & visuals whenever possible

Remember, if your elementary classroom is equipped with a single-stall/one person bathroom, you already have a gender neutral bathroom. Why not hang a sign that reads “all gender bathroom?”

4. Find ways to integrate notions of gender into the material you’re already teaching

Do you give spelling tests and use example sentences? Switch them up. “The word is ‘athlete.’ She was the best football player on the team.” Middle schoolers might enjoy finding gender stereotypes in pop culture, advertising, social media, and TV. For older students, give writing prompts or hold socratic seminars that explore topics like, “do you see toxic masculinity portrayed in the media, and how might it be harmful to all genders?” In science, touch on biodiversity and normalize things in this world that go beyond the binary.

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Seen in HuffPost, Scary Mommy, etc; heard @ NPR, SiriusXM, TIFO podcast & more. Gender dismantling trailblazer. Political news junkie. TikTok aficionado. Mom.