As trans individuals are becoming more visible, and as more trans young people are coming out as trans, educators and others who work in schools may be wondering how they can best support the trans students in their schools. Here are five ways that you can work to support trans students at school that will also bring you a few steps closer to supporting all young people.
1. Use the student’s chosen name and pronouns
Just as all of us want to be called by the name and pronouns with which we identify, calling a trans person by their chosen name and pronouns shows that you respect them and their gender identity. When someone uses the wrong name or pronouns for a trans individual, it can be an unwelcome reminder of the gender with which that individual no longer identifies. For some, being called by the wrong name or pronouns can feel deeply traumatizing and hurtful. Students who have a non-binary gender identities (for example, those who identify as genderqueer or gender fluid) may use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they/them.” Referring to a single person using gender neutral pronouns like they/them can be challenging at first, but with practice, it will come more naturally. Everyone makes mistakes when they are first getting used to using a new name or pronouns. But it’s important to try your best and to apologize when you get it wrong.
2. Allow trans students to use the bathroom and locker room of their affirmed gender
Allowing trans youth to use the bathroom and locker room of their affirmed gender is another way to show that you respect them and their gender identity. Trans students who are forced to use the bathroom or locker room associated with their assigned sex at birth may choose not to use the bathroom at all, rather than use a bathroom that doesn’t feel right or safe for them. This can lead to health problems, such as eating disorders or urinary tract infections; for example, a trans youth might not eat or drink while they are at school to avoid using the bathroom. Although some schools may feel that allowing trans students to use a faculty bathroom or go to the nurse’s office is a solution, this can often make trans youth feel self-conscious or conspicuous. Allowing trans students to use the bathroom that matches their affirmed gender allows them to be treated equally with their classmates. Schools can take steps to be even more affirming of all gender identities by providing single-stall, all-gender bathrooms in multiple locations around the school that everyone can use.
3. Be flexible and expect change
Childhood and adolescence are a time of growth and change in all aspects of a person’s self—including their gender identity. Although some trans youth realize at an early age that they identify as a different gender from their sex assigned at birth, others may not come to this realization until they experience changes in their body during puberty or even until later in adolescence or young adulthood. In addition, gender identity may be fluid for some individuals. It’s typical for some trans people to try on different names and pronouns before settling with something that feels right for them—and even then, they may feel differently about their gender later. Normalizing the fluidity of gender is an important way to support trans youth, because it allows them to feel comfortable if their gender changes. Asking about a trans student’s name and pronouns periodically can give them a space to change these markers and give others the opportunity to continue using their chosen name and pronouns at any given time.
4. Educate yourself about trans issues
It is not the job of trans youth or their families to educate schools about trans issues. Trans people are as diverse as all people, and trans youth should not have to speak for all transgender people. It’s up to schools to seek out training and consultation to educate themselves about trans lives so that they can be ideally positioned to support their trans students. As trans visibility increases, trans people are coming out at younger and younger ages. If a school doesn’t currently have a trans student (or doesn’t think they do), it is only a matter of time before they will, and it’s best to be prepared to support trans students. Many resources are online to help schools navigate having a trans student. GLSEN’s Educator Guides and the Teachers Section of My Kid Is Gay are good places to start learning how to support all LGBTQ youth.
5. Be a source of support in a trans youth’s life
Unfortunately, many trans youth do not have the support from family that they need to thrive in their affirmed gender. Schools should be places where trans young people—and all young people– feel supported. In fact, schools are uniquely positioned to provide support to trans youth that they may not be getting elsewhere. Having a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) or Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) shows trans students that there is a safe place where they can go at school. On a larger level, working toward cultivating a school climate in which gender diversity—and all diversity—is celebrated will help create a safe space for trans students to explore their gender identity and feel supported while they are doing so. Schools that celebrate diversity make it clear to all of their students that they are welcome and supported.
Dr. Sabra L. Katz-Wise, PhD is a developmental psychologist working as a Research Scientist in Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and as an Instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and in Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research investigates sexual orientation and gender identity development, sexual fluidity, health disparities related to sexual orientation and gender identity in adolescents and young adults, and psychosocial functioning in families with transgender youth. She is currently working on an NIH-funded community-based longitudinal mixed-methods study to examine how the family environment affects the health and well-being of transgender youth. In addition to research, Dr. Katz-Wise is involved with advocacy efforts at Boston Children’s Hospital to improve the workplace climate and patient care for LGBTQ employees, patients, and families.