A consistent finding in research on LGBTQ+ youth is the disproportionate bullying and victimization faced by trans students (i.e. transgender, gender nonconforming, and non-binary students). Even when compared to gay and lesbian students, trans students fare worse—if not worst among all other demographics. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Network’s 2015 national climate survey paints a picture of this grim reality.
Their survey found that a whopping 75 percent of trans youth felt unsafe in school, and that trans students were more likely than others to experience harassment and rejection. This same survey revealed that “42.2 percent of transgender students had been prevented from using their preferred name, 59.2 percent had been required to use a bathroom or locker room of their legal sex, and 31.6 percent had been prevented from wearing clothes considered inappropriate based on their legal sex. To top it off, many school leaders reported to be ill-equipped to address this crisis.
I don’t know everything about supporting marginalized students, but one thing I know for sure is that ending transphobia in schools is more than a watered-down diversity or multiculturalism project. What’s needed is a trans-inclusive perspective on diversity and inclusion that centers equity and justice—both of which entail responding to prejudice and discrimination within a sociopolitical context.
In other words, educators and students alike must understand that transphobia is not just bad behavior, but oppressive behavior that leads to fatal life outcomes for trans people.
For example, when it comes to young people, 28.9 percent of trans youth and 41.9 percent of non-binary youth attempt suicide. Not only that, but the statistics for adults only seem to get worse. Trans people are overrepresented among the homeless, incarcerated and unemployed, as well as the mentally ill and victims of violence. The average life expectancy for trans women of color is 35.
Few educators would feel right about perpetuating these outcomes; yet, prevention requires more than just sympathy or passive tolerance. It requires intentional, proactive anti-transphobia.
In light of this, I created this resource, which provides practical recommendations for fostering equity for trans students. It’s my hope that with a particular understanding of trans-specific equity, schools can evolve into spaces that are safe and welcoming for all.
1. Respect pronoun choice and own up to misgendering. Always remember: what you don’t say about trans inclusivity sends just as clear a message as what you do say. With regard to pronoun choice, ignoring a student’s agency to define themselves can have a significantly negative impact on their sense of belonging. In the same way, glossing over instances when you forget or mix up a trans student’s pronouns—known as misgendering—can threaten a student’s sense of safety and trust around you. If you’re wondering how to repair this misstep, a simple acknowledgement and straightforward apology will suffice. With students who are accustomed to feeling unseen, your willingness to take accountability, empathize and learn counts for a lot.
2. Increase representation with trans-specific “inclusion signals.” Research shows that LGBTQ+ students automatically scan school environments for safe havens, which are usually demarcated by what I call “inclusion signals.” LGBTQ+ friendly pins, stickers, mugs, cups, books, posters, Pride flags etc., are all inclusion signals. As an adult, it can be hard to comprehend that such little trinkets have so much meaning; but for LGBTQ+ students, navigating school without them can feel like tiptoeing on a minefield. By the same token, you may not be perceived as a trans ally without clueing students in to your allyship via trans-specific inclusion signals. GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) and TSER (Trans Student Education Resources) are good places to start for paraphernalia like buttons, coloring books, pencils and pens, and stickers.
3. Help students unlearn transphobia with restorative discipline. In the aftermath of bias incidents, there’s a major difference between punitive discipline and restorative discipline. On one hand, punitive discipline deters targeted harassment like deliberate misgendering or hate speech, but doesn’t necessarily expunge biased attitudes and mindsets. On the other hand, restorative interventions like peace circles and peer mediation provide students an opportunity to initiate accountability, and unlearn biased conditioning from home, the media or peers. The former leads to the mere performance of tolerance, while the latter leads to the change of heart that can revolutionize the culture of a school.
Please note: by no stretch of the imagination am I encouraging you to jeopardize the safety of trans students. I’m only asking that, with permission of trans students, you consider a restorative approach when a perpetrator or group of perpetrators would take a restorative process seriously.
4. Monitor bullying hotspots. In the bullying prevention field, there has been an increasing focus on “bullying hotspots.” These are areas of the school that tend to be least supervised, such as bathrooms and locker rooms, cafeterias, hallways and stairwells, outside areas, and school buses. Research shows that trans, nonconforming and non-binary students youth are especially vulnerable to being bullied in these areas, but thankfully, the solutions are quite simple.
One easy thing you could do is offer your classroom as an alternative to the cafeteria. Another idea—given that LGBTQ+ students are overrepresented in the school-to-prison pipeline—is to advocate for trans students who defend themselves or who report bias incidents that occur in unsupervised areas or areas where there are no cameras. And yet another easy fix is to be more intentional about monitoring these hotspots, instead of hypersurvelied areas, and putting trans-specific inclusion signals there. Since bullying can be fatal or result in suicide, monitoring hotspots could mean the difference between life and death.
5. Ensure that GSAs are trans-inclusive. Because of cisgenderism, even within the LGBTQ+ community, trans folk are alienated and shunned. Trans students know this, and therefore would be both surprised and thankful to see themselves finally reflected and respected in the work of an LGBTQ+ organization like a GSA. So, if you’re a sponsor, be sure to urge the organization to craft a mission and vision that is trans-inclusive. Trans-inclusive GSAs not only provide trans students with a safe haven from violence, but also an opportunity to build the 5 C’s of positive youth development: competence, confidence, connection, character and compassion.
Our trans, gender nonconforming, and non-binary students add such rich diversity to our schools, epitomizing what it means to be courageous and self-empowered. This example is exactly what all students need to see, in order to grow into themselves. We owe it to trans students to help create conditions that allow them to not just survive, but to thrive—and in the end, we all benefit.