For All Students, Including Trans and Nonbinary Kids
Gender is something that traditionally has been taught in very simple ways. Penis means boy. Vulva means girl. Men are taller and stronger. Women are curvier and can get pregnant. People can be either male or female.
When someone who does not fit these rules joins or reveals themself to a group that has been taught these rules from early childhood, it creates a fundamental friction for some people, which essentially boils down to a feeling that, “This isn’t right, this person isn’t following the rules.”
But the rules are wrong. Gender is not simple. Gender is a social construct. So is binary sex. Physical sexual characteristics can run such a huge gamut that there is often as much variation within a “sex” as there is between sexes. There are many individuals who simply do not have bodies that line up well with our basic assumption that XY means male with penis and scrotum and XX means female with vagina and uterus and breasts. Chromosome variations exist, ranging from Turner’s Syndrome (single X) to almost any variation of XXY, XYY and other duplications. Androgen resistance can make someone with XY chromosomes appear female by normative standards. Some babies are born with truly ambiguous genitalia, which in the past has been “treated” with surgical gender reassignment at birth, though the thinking on that is changing and many parents are deciding to let children decide later.
Remember that not all people with uteruses are fertile or choose to have babies, and that not all people with penises are fertile or choose to have babies. Many, many many people born with uteruses spend more than half their lives without them, because hysterectomy is so common. We cannot reduce gender or sex to “whether or not someone is capable of procreating in a particular way.”
To really understand how gender works, let’s start with definitions.
First of all, those studying gender identity and expression refer to children not as “born female” or “born male” but as “assigned female at birth” (AFAB) or “assigned male at birth” (AMAB). People who are comfortable with that birth assignment are referred to as “cisgender”, or “cis’’. So if you were assigned male at birth, and as an adult you are still comfortable being identified as male and think of yourself that way, you are a cis male. Someone assigned female at birth who is comfortable with a female identity is a cis female.
Cis means “same” and is simply “the opposite of trans” (the terms come from chemistry) and is a way of avoiding words like “normal” which tend to isolate and “other” transgender (trans) people. Trans is a very large umbrella which may not mean what you think it means. And trans is not abnormal.
So what does transgender mean? Trans simply indicates that someone’s gender is not the same as the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans does not necessarily mean someone who has had surgery to change their body’s shape, though it can. It does not necessarily mean someone is taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT). It does not necessarily mean that they identify as the “opposite” gender from the one they were assigned at birth. In fact, the idea of gender “opposites” is a gross oversimplification that can be downright harmful and toxic even to cis children.
Trans boys and men were AFAB and identify as male. Trans girls and women were AMAB and identify as female. But there’s a whole other category which is currently most commonly referred to as “nonbinary”. Nonbinary people were generally AFAB or AMAB but don’t fit well into boxes that have only one gender label (or any gender label) on them. Nonbinary people might identify strongly with both “male” and “female” traits, or they might just not identify with male or female at all. Or they may consider the gender binary to be an artificial and harmful construct that ill-defines them and the people around them, or merely consider gender irrelevant to their identity. Trans men and cis men are men, and most, but not all, use he/him pronouns. Trans women and cis women are women, and again, most, but not all, use she/her. Nonbinary people use a wide range of pronouns. More on that later. Nonbinary people are trans unless they identify themselves otherwise—they just don’t slot neatly into stereotypical categories.
Gender identity and gender expression are also not the same thing. It is possible for a cis man to wear a dress and not be trans. Cis women can wear tuxes, cut their hair short, paint on beards, and still be women. Trans men can wear dresses. Trans women do not have to wear makeup or skirts or heels. It is possible to have a gender non-conforming expression while having a cis gender identity.
But while gender is complicated, being respectful is not.
- The only person who can define someone’s gender is them. Do not assume based on someone’s gender expression that you know their gender. It is not unreasonable to make a best guess, but you need to be aware that unless someone tells you outright what their gender is, you cannot know it.
- If someone asks you to use specific pronouns to refer to them, the only polite response is to use those pronouns. This is not something that should be argued about or debated. Pronouns are a personal decision. It is normal and human to make occasional mistakes with people’s pronouns, but the polite response if you make a mistake is to apologize, correct yourself, and move on. It may take you some time to get past the incorrect rules you were taught as a child, but it is worth learning the new rules, as misgendering hurts people.
- The only time it is any of your business what is between someone’s legs is if you are going to have sex with them or if you are their doctor. It simply does not matter otherwise. So we don’t need to teach people that “boys have penises and girls have vaginas”, we need to teach them, “Gender is about how you feel, not what you look like, and there are a lot of ways to feel. If someone calls you a boy and that feels right, you’re probably a boy. If someone calls you a girl and that feels right, you’re probably a girl. If both are almost right, or neither is quite right, you might be nonbinary, or there might be another word that feels better for you. You are the ultimate authority on your own gender.”
- It is not necessary to divide groups by gender for activities, and should be avoided, especially when there are trans people involved (and you may not be aware of trans people, unless they tell you.) But if someone does suggest a “boys line” and a “girls line”, you might make people feel a lot more included if you have “a line for everyone else.” And you might be surprised at who takes that option. You could have a trans girl in the girl line (and why not? She’s a girl.) You could have a child you thought was cis male take the third option. My four-year-old child decided that there are boys, and there are girls, and there are kiddos, and he feels like all of those things. He might well take the third line. Better to avoid the pressure, and skip this kind of artificial division.
- It is more important to teach children to respect other people’s boundaries than it is to worry about whether children are using the “right” bathroom for their gender identity. Some children have a strong gender identity from a very young age. Other kids go back and forth and then settle. Some people never settle, and move fluidly between genders quickly or very slowly or simply don’t adhere to clear lines at all. A child might want to use the girls’ room one day and the boys’ room the next. If you can, have options that are unisex or nongendered, but if there are gendered bathrooms, please do not force children to use one or the other based on arbitrary external ideas of gender. Telling a child who presents as masculine who was AFAB—whether that child is trans or gender non-conforming—that they must use a gender neutral bathroom rather than the boy’s room is problematic at best and damaging at worst. If the focus is kept on training kids to treat each other well, then any child should be as physically safe as any other walking into any bathroom. If you can’t guarantee a trans child’s safety in a bathroom, you can’t guarantee anyone’s safety in a bathroom.
- It is a natural part of the world for there to be gender and sex variations. Every culture has different ideas about what gender means. Some cultures have always had a “third gender” or more than three genders. Part of what makes humanity so diverse is that we each have different DNA and our epigenetics vary wildly as well. This is part of what makes us so adaptable. And it means there are a lot of reasons why people might not neatly fit into socially constructed categories. Physical differences of sex organs and a disconnect between the social expectation of the behavior of people with outies vs. people with innies are absolutely to be expected. And remember, we were taught the wrong rules. So even if it feels “icky” to you, that’s more about you and your training than it is about the person you think is “wrong”.
- Dress codes should not be set along gender lines, and they should not be enforced differently based on gender expectations. Do not insist that boys dress one way and girls dress another. Make consistent rules, enforce them consistently, and make it clear that each person is responsible for their own behavior. If you’re going to ban tank tops for girls, ban them for everyone. If shorts must be a certain length, that rule should be for everyone. (And I recommend looking at the Portland Public Schools new dress code for an ideal model.)
- It is impossible to create safety for trans students without addressing inappropriate sexual aggression and gender-based harassment in all people and toxic masculinity in particular. Trans people are no more likely than cis people to be sexual predators, and in fact, are much more likely to be victims of sexual predators. We have ample laws making it illegal for people to molest or sexually assault other people in public and in private, but those laws are not well-enforced, especially when the victim is trans. Inappropriate touching, inappropriate sexual behavior and gender-based harassment need to be addressed in terms of teaching children how not to hurt others, rather than trying to teach children how to avoid being hurt. You cannot stop rape from happening by changing how girls dress. You cannot stop trans girls from being bullied if you don’t address how our culture systematically and routinely discriminates against girls. Blindly insisting that everyone is equal without acknowledging that women are treated differently from men allows the problem to perpetuate. It needs to be okay for little boys to be gentle. For little girls to speak up without being called bossy. For a child to like sports and tutus and super heroes and trucks and princesses all at the same time without being called names. Teachers need to consciously work to break down their own biases they’ve been taught since birth. Transphobia is an extension of sexism, and as much as we desperately want to think that sexism and racism don’t exist anymore, we know that identical resumes sent out with male-sounding, white-sounding names are more likely to be read and get a callback than any resume with a female-sounding or Black-sounding name. Step one in solving a problem is identifying that there is a problem.
- It is not bad to be cis, or to like having a traditionally gendered presentation. It is very bad to insist that everyone adhere to the gender they were assigned at birth, even if that is not how they identify. Forcing kids with trans identities of all kinds to “pass” as either binary gender is, for many children, deadly. So is not addressing transphobia. Trans kids historically have much higher rates of suicide, depression, anxiety and a host of other stress-related medical issues. PTSD is common. They are more likely to be sexually assaulted, battered, or murdered. This doesn’t mean “we need to fix them”. They are not broken. Society is. We need to fix society.
- It is absolutely clear that the difference in outcomes for LGBT kids between depression and happiness, between social difficulties and social integration, between suicidal ideation and good adjustment has nothing to do with whether a child is gay, bi, straight, trans or cis, and everything to do with how well that child is supported, respected, and protected from people who wish them ill or don’t understand. As many as 42% of trans adults have attempted suicide. 42%. That’s huge. And we can fix it, simply by not telling them that they’re born wrong, by not making them feel “gross” or “unnatural” and by not assuming that they are monsters who are a danger to the children around them. They are not. Children with supportive families, schools, and communities do very well no matter their gender identity and presentation.
When it comes to making school a safe place for all kids, there are heroes, there are villains, and there are potential victims. There are no innocent bystanders. It is not innocent to stand by while someone is being mistreated.
If any kids are being hassled by other children, the solution is not to start meting out ever more severe punishments. Yes, you need to protect the child from the bullies. But you also need to enlist other children and adults in the protection of the child. There needs to be a shift in thinking from “Don’t bully” to “Be an ally.” Train kids how to be supportive. Train kids to mediate disputes. Actively train kids to be defenders of those who are targeted. Ask the kids to help protect everyone. The number one thing that helps people feel safe is to not feel alone, and that means training kids to understand boundaries, consent and appropriate behavior.
Do not just give them a list of rules.
Help them understand why we need rules.
Do not just tell them, “Don’t harass people if they’re a different race.” Don’t just tell them, “Don’t harass gay people or trans people.” Don’t make laundry lists of “protected classes” in your no-harassment policy. Tell kids this:
We don’t treat people that way. We don’t allow others to be treated that way. We don’t allow our friends to treat people that way. We know better. We can do better. We can be heroes.
Ask your kids to be helpers and allies for those who are under attack. Teach them how to get help. How to defuse situations. These are incredibly valuable life lessons for children to learn, and will make them better human beings.
You do not have to understand what it feels like to be trans in order to treat trans people well. Just call them what they want to be called. Use the pronouns they ask you to. Let them pee. Remember that they’re people too, and maybe they’re different, but they’re neither broken, nor threatening.
On nonbinary pronouns
There is no one accepted nonbinary pronoun. Singular “they” is quite popular, because it has a long history, has lots of parallels with other pronouns, and most people already use it in a limited way.
“You” used to be only the second person plural pronoun, and it had “ye” along with it in the nominative case. “Thou” and “thee” were the second person singular. “You” is now used in all of those cases. Of “You/ye/your” and “Thou/thee/thine,” only “You/your” remain. So a plural pronoun gaining usage as a singular pronoun has a long history in the English language.
But moreover, singular “they” is already widely used. “Someone forgot their lunch,” is a perfectly comfortable construction for most people, and far less awkward than “Someone forgot his or her lunch.” I’ve used singular they throughout this, and you might not have even noticed.
Don’t worry about conjugations. They’re the same as plural “they”, just as plural “you” and singular “you” have the same conjugations. That’s why it’s “you are” and not “you am” or “you is” in standard English. When I refer to my eldest child, I will say to my youngest, “Your sibling is coming over. They’re going to play with you all afternoon.” The only exception I make is that I will say “themself” rather than “themselves”.
But singular “they” can take a lot of retraining time. If you’re like me, and were taught that “they” is always plural and that you must use “he or she” for indefinite singular pronouns, it might take you a lot of effort and time to make the mental shift. Most of us learned about pronouns and gender when we were very young, two or three years old. That means a lifetime of rewiring.
But… even though it might be hard, you need to do it anyway. Be awkward. Go slow. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, but apologize, correct, move on. If you cannot get your mouth to make the noises at first, explain that you are trying and failing, and that that’s your process, not their problem. Spend time with people using nonbinary pronouns. Listen to them do it. Make yourself do it. You’ll gradually start succeeding more and more. You’ll make mistakes. Everyone does, even trans people sometimes misgender other trans people by accident, I’ve seen it happen. That doesn’t mean it’s okay, or that you don’t have to bother, it just means that like your students, you need practice to learn something new and perform it accurately. Modeling perseverance is a huge favor you can do the kids around you.
It may help if you make a conscious effort to use nonspecific singular they whenever you might otherwise use “one” or “he or she”, or really any situation in which you are uncertain of the gender of the person. I had a month or two where I mostly used singular they for everyone when not talking about them in person, simply to get over that mental barrier. It turns out to be a useful verbal tool. Also, remember that using “he or she” is actually exclusionary language, as not all people use those pronouns.
Some nonbinary people aren’t comfortable with using, or simply don’t want to use singular “they” for their own pronoun, and they don’t have to. Some use “it/its” instead of “they/their”. Some use recently invented (i.e. in the last hundred years or so) pronouns like ze/zir. Some use no pronouns at all. And some honestly do not have a strong preference. Try to use the pronoun you are asked to use, and keep trying until you get it right. It is better to get it wrong and correct yourself then to go through verbal acrobatics trying to avoid pronouns. Getting the pronouns right is such a small thing compared to how much it hurts when people get them wrong.
And not every nonbinary person cares. Personally, it doesn’t faze me to be called she or they. Either is fine. That doesn’t make me “more cis”, it just means that I don’t care enough to ask people to use one or the other. I’m used to “she”, but “they” is also fine for me. But I do care about the feelings of my eldest child. I want them to be happy, and to feel welcome, and to know they’re important and that I see them for who they are. So while I don’t care if people call me “Ma’am” or “Sir” (this has happened) or even, “Hey you,” I absolutely care about what people call my eldest child, because they matter to me, and it hurts them when people get it wrong, and yes, I will correct my own family (who are making the effort) when they get it wrong.
A magical thing happened when I sat my kid down and said to them, “I know it doesn’t look like I’m supporting you using singular they, but I want you to know that i support you 100%, I’m just failing a lot in spite of trying. You’re fine. I’m the one screwing up here.”
They started coming over more. They started talking to me more. They started spending more time with the family. They started being happier to be around us. A friction I didn’t even know was there disappeared. I got my kid back, and I didn’t even know they were gone.
Now imagine what such a tiny thing can do for a child struggling with gender identity and facing judgment everywhere. You can be the spark of acceptance for that child, the person who lets them know, “Hey, there is nothing wrong with you. The rest of us just haven’t caught up to your awesome yet.”
Nonbinary is a big umbrella
There are as many gender labels for people who don’t fit the gender binary as there are pronouns. http://gender.wikia.com/wiki/Non-binary provides a useful introduction to some of them. Some words, like genderqueer are very broad and inclusive (though some people dislike being labeled as queer, historically a slur, while others embrace the word.) Some, like agender or neutrois, are more specific and do not encompass the gamut of nonbinary people. (There’s also no grand agreement about whether nonbinary should be hyphenated or not.) Regardless, do not assume that you can identify someone else’s gender for them. Which label to use is a very personal choice.
Explaining Gender to Children
For younger children, I simply say, “Most boys have penises, but some don’t. And most girls have vulvas, but some don’t. What makes us a boy or a girl has to do more with how we feel than how we look. Some people don’t feel like they’re a girl or a boy, and we call them nonbinary.” My son parsed this into “Boys, girls, and kiddos”, but really we’re just talking about “boy, girl, child.” And for adults, “Man, woman, person.”
For children old enough to have a preconception about what gender means in terms of what people do, you may need to have more discussion about how there are so many differences within genders that the difference between genders can’t be easily distinguished. Think about how some women and some men are very good at sports, while some women and men aren’t. How every area typically thought of as “boy” has girls involved, and vice versa. If they are insisting that “Only boys do…” or “Only girls like…” you can reframe the discussion to talk about why they think that and why it’s not accurate. Examples abound in every area.
For kids old enough to understand a more nuanced discussion, it is worth talking about bias and discrimination. Talk about the difficulties people face, and how much harder people might be working to not only do well in a chosen field or role, but to do so while fighting other people’s preconceptions.
If a child comes out to you or questions their gender when you are with them, it is important to tread carefully. It is not always safe for children to come out as trans to their parents, and you should not out them. There are no easy answers if a child’s parents are not accepting, but it is vitally important to listen, and to avoid judging or pushing your own expectations on the child. Each child as they grow and mature is going to be changing their own understanding of gender over time. This doesn’t mean that they’ll ‘grow out of it’, but rather that you can’t make assumptions about how a child will express their gender or understand their own gender over time. The list below will guide you, but you may need to ask them if there’s anyone they don’t feel comfortable telling.
If a child is introduced to you by a parent as trans, then your job is simple, and guidelines are clear.
- Use the name they want to use.
- Use the pronouns they prefer.
- Don’t question or second-guess their stated gender based on gender expression, gender assigned at birth or other preconceptions.
- Correct other students, teachers and administrators who misgender or mispronoun the child, if the child is out to those people.
- Let them use the bathroom they choose.
- Teach other kids to do the same.
- Don’t make a big deal about it. Be matter-of-fact and treat it as an ordinary thing. Because it is.
© 2016 Jennifer Rosenberg
Art © 2016 saltkettle
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