Supporting Transgender Youth
What does it mean to be a boy or a girl? Kids aren’t born with this knowledge, they’re taught the societal standards of being a boy or a girl as they grow up. They’re taught that boys like planes, trains, and automobiles and girls like unicorns, sparkles, and dancing. We can all think planes are cool, they’re giant metal tubes that fly through the sky, and we can all like dancing, every culture in human history has danced. The important thing to understand is that sex and gender are two different things. Gender is influenced by many societal and environmental pressures, while sex is determined by the biological characteristics. People are assigned a gender at birth based on their biological characteristics, but as that person grows up they may realize that who they are doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth.
Being transgender can be scary, studies have shown that transgender students face challenges at school at much higher rates than their cisgender counterparts. They’re faced with biased language, feeling unsafe, harassment and assault, and so many more obstacles. I’m not saying that cis students can’t face these things either, but trans students experience them much more frequently. Two-thirds of trans students feel unsafe at school because of their gender or sexual identity (source). So what is there to do to support these individuals?
Validation is a great place to start. When preparing to write this blog, I consulted with Erin Chambers, and we discussed how to support someone who is trans. She said one of the best things you can do is validate how they feel about the things they’re going through. When they come to you, as a teacher/social worker/parent/etc and they disclose that they’re struggling with bullying, feeling unsafe, etc., validating that what they’re going through must be really hard is a great way to let them know that you hear their struggles and are there to listen. Chambers said to approach these issues with intent to console, not to problem solve. If you think the student is in danger, then take the necessary steps to keep that student safe, but trying to fix everything for the student isn’t as helpful as just validating their emotions. I discussed with Chambers both from the teacher’s perspective and from a social worker’s perspective on how to best support trans students, and she said one of the most important things is to learn and use the correct language. Learning to use different pronouns for a student you’ve known for a few years can be tough, but it can make a huge difference in that student’s life. For all we know, you could be the only person in their life that supports their gender identity. When retraining your brain to use the correct name/pronouns/language you’re bound to have a few slip ups, but the important thing is that you make an effort to change the way you refer to them. A few years ago I had a friend come out as non-binary and at first I had to actively correct myself while I was talking to them, talking about them, or even thinking about them, and now after two years it takes absolutely no brain power to refer to them the way they want me to. It’s all about retraining your brain to think of the trans person as the gender they identify as, not they gender they were assigned at birth.
Another thing that’s important to do as a staff member is to be an advocate for your trans student. If other students are misgendering them or deadnaming them in class, correct them every chance you get. Tell the students that your classroom is a safe place for everyone and that everyone deserves to be respected, even if you don’t understand. Chambers also told me that it’s important to not try to educate the trans student on trans issues, they’re the trans person, they’ll probably educate you on the topic better than you could educate them. In case a student hasn’t had their name changed in the school system, when reading off the roster at the beginning of the year, try reading off last names so they have the opportunity to tell you what their preferred name is. This way, you don’t out a student to their peers. As a school staff member, you could establish a GSA club, which stands for Gay Straight Alliance. In these clubs, anyone can join regardless of sexual or gender identity. These clubs are just to provide a support system for queer students with straight students who accept them as they are.
Being transgender isn’t as uncommon as you’d think, roughly 1.4 million people in the united states identify as transgender (source). Whether you’re a teacher, a parent, a clinician, or a friend of someone who has come out as trans, it’s important to educate yourself on how to be the best ally you possibly can be. We have to remember, it’s not the individual's job to educate us on how to be supportive of them, it’s our job to learn because we care about them.
If you’re unsure of your own gender identity, scheduling an appointment with one of our clinicians would be a great step towards finding yourself. To schedule an appointment, click here.