A guide for teachers in supporting trans and non-binary students
As teachers ourselves, we know those working in schools strive to support each individual student. That’s why we’ve set out to help teachers create welcoming, inclusive learning environments for gender diverse students.
In this post, we’ll take you through what you need to know, as well as some ways you can start supporting this group of students in your classroom.
But isn’t everyone male or female? How can someone be non-binary?
It’s unsurprising that many are confused when they first come across gender diversity. Particularly, the term ‘non-binary’ often gets people questioning. This is because many of us have grown up in a world where gender was viewed as a binary thing - you were either male or female.
But the truth is, that’s not, and never has been the case. In fact, in many cultures gender diversity has existed and been accepted for centuries. If we want to be inclusive of trans and non-binary students as teachers, the first step is to recognise and understand that gender is not exclusively male or female, and is not determined by biological sex.
While sex is determined by hormones, chromosomes and anatomy, gender is a social construct. This means that society has created the idea that boys and girls should act and look a certain way. Consider some of the social expectations we have based on gender, such as dresses being for girls, not boys, or that boys are physically stronger than girls.
As teachers, it’s important to acknowledge that not only do some people not feel like they fit into these boxes, but many of these social rules and expectations are deeply limiting for all children, regardless of their gender. Take the expectation that women are nurturing, whereas boys should be stoic and assertive and think about the way this plays out when it comes to careers. Careers such as nursing have a stark gender imbalance - 2021 data showed that only 11.6% of employed nurses identify as male.
So when it comes to creating a more gender inclusive classroom, one thing to keep in mind is that it doesn’t just benefit trans and non-binary kids. If we want to encourage more boys to read, or get more women into STEM, it starts with ensuring we don’t perpetuate outdated, limiting notions of gender.
What is gender diverse? What does non-binary mean? How can I keep track of all these LGBT+ identities?
When we run training, one term we often use is gender diverse. It’s an umbrella term that covers a broad spectrum of gender identities, which extend beyond the traditional binary notion of gender being either male or female. Basically, anyone who doesn’t (or doesn’t always) identify with the gender they were assigned at birth can be described as gender diverse.
Here are some gender diverse identities:
This is a broad term that may be used by those whose gender identity does not exclusively align with either male or female. Non-binary individuals may experience their gender as fluid, meaning it can fluctuate or exist outside of the binary categories at different times or in different contexts. They may also identify as agender, meaning they either don’t feel an affinity with either gender, or don’t particularly feel like they have a gender at all.
This term typically refers to people who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. For instance, a person ascribed ‘boy’ when they were born, who actually identifies as a girl.
People who are gender fluid may have a gender identity that is not fixed and may change over time.
Others may embrace terms such as gender non-conforming, bigender, gender questioning, or gender expansive to describe their unique experiences of gender diversity.
It is important to note that gender diversity is a deeply personal and individual experience, and there is no one-size-fits-all definition or set of identities. All of the terms above can mean different things to different people, and that doesn’t mean anybody is right or wrong. Each person's gender identity is valid and should be respected.
The takeaway is, there’s no need to memorise a definition of every single gender identity. As teachers, the best thing you can do is simply accept that gender is a personal experience, and respect whatever identity a student has. If a gender diverse person is open to sharing, it’s perfectly ok to ask (politely) what their identity means to them.
Recognising and affirming gender diversity is crucial for creating inclusive and supportive environments. By acknowledging and embracing the full range of gender identities, we can foster understanding, respect, and equality for all individuals, irrespective of societal norms or expectations associated with gender.
Why is it important to be more inclusive of gender diversity?
Beyond the benefits of creating gender inclusive classrooms in general, teachers should work to actively support gender diverse students because we know that these students are at risk.
Higher rates of depression and anxiety amongst trans people are well documented. A peer reviewed study found that nearly half of all transgender Australians had attempted suicide. Amongst young people, the statistics are equally alarming. Data from 2021 revealed 85.8% of trans men, 76.1% of non-binary people and 68% of trans women aged 14 to 21 reported ever having self-harmed.
It’s unsurprising, given the stigma and discrimination faced by gender diverse people in Australia. Couple this with a lack of funding for support groups and the results are the devastating mental health outcomes we see reflected in the statistics.
Schools are places that should support and nurture all young people, helping prevent these outcomes. But for gender diverse students, school can be a difficult place.
How School Can Be Difficult for Trans and Non-Binary Students:
Trans and non-binary students often encounter unique challenges within schools. And while many schools are going to efforts to help support students to affirm their gender, and show support for LGBTIQA+ young people through running student groups/clubs at lunchtime, this cannot fully make up for the discrimination faced by some of these young people at school every day.
Here are just some challenges gender diverse students face in school.
a) Binary Gender Separation into ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’:
Schools often separate students into binary genders for various activities, such as sports teams, toilets and change rooms. This rigid system can leave trans and non-binary students feeling uncomfortable, misunderstood, or excluded. For trans kids, simple human rights like access to a bathroom can pose such a problem that they just avoid going altogether.
b) Lack of Understanding and Acceptance of Diverse Gender Identities such as Trans and Non-binary:
Trans and non-binary students may face a lack of understanding and acceptance from peers and even teachers. When people don’t respect a person’s gender identity - when they insist that you must be male or female, or ask what you ‘really are’, it leaves you feeling completely invalid and unwelcome.
c) Misgendering and Deadname Use:
Instances of misgendering, using incorrect pronouns, or refusing to use the right names can have severe detrimental effects on trans and non-binary students' mental health and self-esteem.
Imagine a classmate, or teacher constantly calling you by something other than your name. Or somebody believing you’re something that you’re not, and greeting you with that every day. It would make you feel misunderstood, hurt and invisible.
This happens to gender diverse students on a day-to-day basis, often multiple times per day. In their TedTalk, Nevo Zisin describes getting misgendered every day as “death by a thousand paper cuts… it degrades your sense of self until you shrink.” This is the grim reality for so many gender diverse young people in our schools.
At Let’s Talk About X, we want to acknowledge that for teachers doing their best to support their students, many of the barriers faced by gender diverse kids are beyond their personal control. You can’t build a new set of all gender toilets, or control what other staff and students say to these kids. But there are things you can be doing to support trans and non-binary students.
What can teachers do to be an ally and promote inclusion of trans and non-binary students?
Creating a trans and non-binary friendly classroom requires intentional effort from teachers, through actively practising allyship. With the recent rise in anti-trans hate groups, young trans people are suffering as their human rights are politicised. Now, more than ever, they need the support of strong, caring adults.
Here are some ways teachers can be creating gender inclusive classrooms:
1. Respect pronouns and names trans and non-binary students
Promoting the use of correct pronouns and chosen names is a vital step in validating the identities of trans and non-binary students. If you make mistakes, actively practise until you don’t. This can be as simple as asking a colleague in the staffroom to have a conversation about your gender diverse student/s. Recount to that colleague some mundane details of what the student did in class that day, while you focus on using their correct name and pronouns. Get your colleague to catch you out if you misgender them.
2. Listen and show support for LGBT+ young people
These days, many schools have clubs/societies for LGBTIQA+ students, where these young people can get together with like-minded students in a safe, supportive space. However, too often, it’s only the staff who are LGBT+ themselves who attend and help students run these groups. If you’re straight and cis, you can do a world of good simply by showing up for these kids and making the time in your hectic schedule to present at their meetings or events. It’s an opportunity to hear from these kids about their experiences, and to show them that there are people out there who aren’t LGBTIQA+ who still care.
3. Advocate for gender-inclusive policies at your school
It can be exhausting to fight for the things that affect you, because the knockbacks feel like personal attacks. That’s why it’s so important that allies play a big role in advocating for change for gender diverse students. You may not personally require an all gender toilet, but this means that it will take far less energy for you to keep petitioning for one. As a staff member, you don’t have to wear the school uniform, but that doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for making it more inclusive. You can also call on schools to update their systems so that the names and pronouns students use are made known to teachers. By advocating for gender-inclusive policies and practices, such as non-gendered restrooms, dress codes, and sports teams, teachers can show their students support and help create a more affirming environment for all.
4. Educate yourself with professional development and ask for schoolwide training in LGBT+ inclusion
Teachers can enhance their understanding of transgender and non-binary identities by educating themselves through workshops, training programs, and educational resources. At Let’s Talk About X, we provide a range of free resources you can access, as well as a 20 minute online course - Beyond a Binary Classroom - that’s jam packed with actionable strategies for you to use everyday. We also offer webinars to support school staff in creating an inclusive, respectful school culture.
5. Call out transphobic and homophobic remarks in the classroom
A recent study found that 90% of LGBTIQA+ students in Australia hear homophobic language at school. Of those students, only 6% reported that adults who overhear this language always intervened. When people say nothing, the message the LGBTIQA+ receive is that we don’t matter, that this language is ok, and it can feel very frightening and make us feel unsafe.
And we do acknowledge that sometimes as a teacher you do need to tactically ignore things, and there are instances where it’s far more pressing to stop Jared from putting his mate in the bin again than to have a discussion with James about his problematic use of “that’s so gay”. But in the moments where you do have the space to do so, addressing someone’s homophobic or transphobic language sends the message to your class that this type of behaviour is unacceptable, and shows your gender diverse students that you have their back.
6. Ensure worksheets represent a range of genders and LGBT+ identities
Avoid basing examples on gender stereotypes. For instance, the police officer in your physics question about catching up with a speeding car doesn't need to be male. Mix things up, making sure that different genders are represented, particularly when it comes to occupations that have a gender imbalance.
Make sure to write characters into your worksheets / tests who are LGBT+. For example, use they/them pronouns and show LGBT+ partnerships:
Raj went to the shops one day, and when they were there…
Anh was waiting for her girlfriend to meet her...
7. Include diverse perspectives in your learning materials
It's so important for young people to see themselves represented in the media they consume, and are exposed to a range of voices. One means of acheiving this is to ensure that your classroom resources include a variety of perspectives, including those of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals. Take a look at the texts that you study - the books that you read, films you watch, music students learn. Are they all from white, straight, cis people?
Aim to study materials that incorporate diverse voices and perspectives in your lessons. Make sure that some of stories you read, films/artworks you view, music you play to students is created by or features positive representation of LGBT+ people. Seek out people who are LGBT+ and include their work in the range of resources that students study / use. Make sure that your classroom posters depict a broad range of people.
As people, when we don’t see ourselves represented, it can make us feel quite small and invisible, even on a subconscious level. As minority genders, when we do start to see representations of ourselves, it helps to make us feel validated and seen. Something as simple as looking at a painting from a trans artist can really have an impact on gender diverse students, and is good for everyone in the class as it helps foster acceptance and inclusion.
As a teacher, you have so much power to make a massive difference in the lives of the students you interact with every day. Mel and Eleonora have both seen students’ faces light up when they are made to feel seen. And you can do the same.