The beginnings of academic years are exciting times full of possibility and potential for educators. Despite how often I feel as if summers slip by too quickly, something about the start of a new academic year makes me smile with anticipation. But as a trans* academic, I am also aware of the shadow side of new academic years: the feelings of trepidation that I and my fellow trans* faculty, administrators and students feel.
Whether it be not having our proper names and genders recognized, the challenges of navigating trans*-exclusive health care, or having to meet new people who may not see us as fully -- or even marginally -- human, the excitement of a new year can stoke anxiety, fear and concern.
As I discuss in my book, Trans* In College, colleges are steeped in transgender oppression, or the cultural ideology that poses trans* people as inherently less than human. As a result, trans* people face a web of interrelated negative experiences throughout campus settings. For example, participants in my study described hearing transphobic comments made in classes (that were not checked by faculty), experienced intense scrutiny of their gender expressions and rarely saw themselves reflected in the faculty and staff members on campuses. Indeed, attending college can pose a series of obstacles for trans* people.
And yet trans* students continue to thrive. As the participants and I discussed during our work together, they continued to cultivate practices of resilience, or strategies to navigate what they already knew to be college campuses that were not constructed with them in mind. Those strategies were wide-ranging and included things like not walking through certain areas of campus they knew to be unsafe for them, texting and calling friends to let them know where they were going, sticking together in groups, and moving off campus -- including going online -- to cultivate community. In many respects, the participants and I discussed not needing to wait for others to create safer spaces for them -- they could develop their own strategies for success.
That doesn’t mean nontrans* people should not be active in making change. Rather, whole trans* students want, need and are already working toward structural change. They are also developing their own strategies for navigating the campus climates they know to be laced with transgender oppression.
That said, it remains important for academics to take an active role in creating trans*-affirming educational experiences. Moreover, we need to do this before trans* students show up in our classrooms; we have the power to invite and/or foreclose opportunities for trans* students just by the ways we approach our teaching.
Thus, I created the following list of strategies for educators to create trans*-affirming classrooms:
- Don’t call roll. Administrative, legal and economic barriers often keep trans* people -- including trans* youth -- from being able to change their birth names. Faculty members should allow students to name themselves. If they find discrepancies between the names a student shares and the official roll, they should defer to the student. After all, we let students use different versions of their birth names all the time (e.g., Mike instead of Michael), so why would that be any different for trans* students?
- Use your position to demand trans*-inclusive facilities. If you teach in higher education, demand to do so only in buildings with trans*-inclusive restrooms. If you teach in K-12 settings, make sure your administration has created access to restrooms for trans* youth (and not just when trans* students come forward to seek them). If you cannot make immediate change, don’t give up; movements toward justice can be slow, but persistence is crucial. Also, those who teach in higher education can always list the closest trans*-inclusive restrooms to the classroom on the syllabus.
- Share name and pronoun policies. If students can change their names and pronouns administratively, let students know. If not, let students know they can use the names and pronouns they feel most comfortable using in your class, and if they change throughout the course/year, they can talk with you about how to share those changes with their peers.
- Highlight trans* knowledge. Trans* people are in every industry and field. Highlight trans* people and knowledge through your lessons, readings and classroom discussions. Even if your class is not focused on gender, it’s still important to draw on diverse knowledge bases, which includes trans* communities.
- Do your own learning. Don’t expect trans* students to teach you about all things trans*. In my research, trans* students discussed the exhaustion and tokenization they experienced having to teach peers and teachers about trans* lives. Educators can mitigate this exhaustion by taking advantage of the wealth of publicly accessible knowledge, media, art and writing to learn more about trans* populations.
- Don’t out trans* students. Being out is not always the safest or best option for them. Be careful about trans* students’ safety and privacy in your teaching, especially when talking with other educators and/or family members. That means not pointing out, focusing on or talking about a student being trans* -- even if they have shared this with you.
- Interrupt transphobia. Trans* students continually share stories with me of hearing transphobic statements in class and their teachers doing nothing. A student once told me her teacher even laughed along while a nontrans* peer “joked” about wanting all trans* people to die. Educators need to create classrooms where those sorts of violent statements are not tolerated.
- Remember trans* students are more than their trans*ness. Trans* people have a multitude of identities, interests and experiences. Remember not to flatten us to our gender, as this becomes exhausting and limits our possibilities.
- Own your missteps. If you mess up, own it. Unlearning gender socialization takes time, and you are bound to make mistakes. Owning those mistakes and then not making them again is essential.
- Commit to gender-aware education. We all have been socialized to view gender as a binary. Learning and implementing gender-aware practices takes time. Be patient with yourself, but make an ongoing commitment to create more trans*-affirming classrooms.
While this list captures some suggestions for creating more trans*-affirming classrooms, there are certainly more (e.g., use language like “people,” “folks” or “y’all” instead of “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen”). While we know it won’t happen overnight, trans* people need change to occur. Educators have a crucial role to play in the movement toward trans* justice, and classrooms are a great place to start.