Editor’s Note: Many of you have written to us for help answering questions about gender identity in your classroom. Whether you’re addressing this complex issue in a lesson or simply need to support a student one-on-one, we hope this Tough Topics Guide will give you the background you need. Special thanks to The Trevor Project for helping us put it together.
Exploring and determining one’s identity is a lifelong journey--one that is often particularly painful in the teenaged years. Your students are trying to figure out who they are, and studies show that for this generation, gender is an even more shapeless piece of the puzzle. Over half of gen Z say they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns such as "they," and nearly 70 percent believe that public spaces should offer gender-neutral bathrooms (full survey available here).
Of course, transgender and gender topics are made all the more complicated by the fact that administrators, parents, and state governments may each have different ideas of how to handle them. In the interest of helping you create a classroom that is inclusive and welcoming to students of all genders, we reached out to The Trevor Project, the leading organization dedicated to crisis intervention for LGBTQ youth, to answer some frequently asked questions.
1. What does it mean to be transgender?
Transgender is an umbrella term to describe the experience of a person’s gender identity being different from what they were assigned at birth. When a baby is born, doctors typically determine its sex based on one thing: its genitals. If sex refers to one’s body parts, then gender encapsulates literally everything else. Some people are assigned a gender at birth and continue to identify with that gender for the rest of their lives. Those who don’t might identify as transgender or gender neutral.
Importantly, one’s gender identity does not automatically correspond to their sexual orientation. Sexual orientation refers to whom someone feels attracted, while gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of gender or self.
2. How many transgender teens are there?
It’s difficult if not impossible to set a number of transgender teens or to assess the percentage of the general population who does or does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. A more striking statistic is that 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetimes.
3. What pronouns do I use?
At the beginning of the school year or term, you may consider distributing worksheets to learn about each student, including items like nickname, favorite color, allergies, and which pronouns they’d like use to use in reference to them. Keep in mind that their answers might change during their time in your classroom, and that declaring one’s pronouns can be a sensitive milestone in the life of a transgender or gender-neutral person. In particular with teenagers, it’s possible that they might use their preferred pronoun with their group of friends, but their parent or guardian might not yet be aware of this.
4. How can I create a classroom that is inclusive?
You can teach students to think critically around the ways gender and the gender binary are social constructs. You can include LBGTQ characters and histories in your curriculum. A simple way is to use gender-neutral language when addressing the class in person or on forms, such as saying "everyone" or "folks" to get their attention instead of "boys and girls." Outside of teaching, you can make it clear that you are available as a supportive and private resource. The Trevor Project also features online seminars and simulations for youth-serving professionals.
5. How do I address students (or parents) who say being transgender is "wrong?"
You can immediately intervene to explain that someone’s identity can’t be right or wrong, and that you prefer open-minded and kind discussion in your classroom. In terms of suspected or overt bullying, you can work within your administration’s bullying policy and remind both parties that you are available for separate and private discussion.
6. How can our school better support transgender students?
You may want to examine or reevaluate your school’s policies on student health, safety, bullying, and parental relationships to make sure they are up-to-date and inclusive of gender and sexuality issues.
7. What resources should I be providing to transgender students?
Teachers can order free Trevor Project Resource Posters here to make sure LGBTQ students know they are not alone and that there is someone they can reach out to 24/7. Trevor Project’s Pinterest page also includes educational resources, infographics, films, and more.
More resources for teachers from Choices and The Trevor Project:
- To help your students better understand socially constructed gender roles, consider using our May 2016 cover story, Who Said It?, as part of your lesson.
- Interested in spearheading a training program to help your school's staff better understand and connect with LGBTQ youth? Visit The Trevor Project's training page for more information on its in-person or online training programs.
- For help teaching this topic, The Trevor Project also has a fantastic hub of activities for your curriculum and classroom.
- As mentioned earlier, 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide in their lifetimes. Check out The Trevor Project's Suicide Prevention Page, which outlines a model school district policy for suicide prevention--and how to create your own.