How To Talk To Your Students About Gender Identity

Work + School, Home + Community, Community + AlliesNatalie Egan
Illustration by Chris Eastland

Illustration by Chris Eastland

by Natalie Egan

With the new school year just around the corner, we are getting more and more inquiries about the best way to talk about gender identity in the classroom. This is an essential question for students of all ages and presents an incredible opportunity for us to lay the foundation to work toward a more open and inclusive world.

Interestingly, many of the teachers and administrators I’ve spoken to have asked me why transgender issues have so suddenly surfaced. The truth is: issues of gender identity aren’t new.

There have always been girls who refuse to wear the dresses that their parents bought them (or brothers jealous of their sisters’ colorful clothes). But now, parents are able to research their questions on the Internet, to connect with other parents and experts in the field of gender identity. At the same time, students are able to connect with like-minded individuals nearby and across the globe, whether or not they have confidants in their immediate network.

Both of these forces together give the appearance of increased prevalence, but in reality, the Internet is just finally connecting a community that has existed forever and is driving awareness of trans issues in an unprecedented manner. Now it’s time for schools to catch up—and to help lead the conversation so that all human beings are treated equally, all the time.

The Background:

According to a recent report by the American Psychological Association, there are barriers to measuring the actual population of gender-diverse* and transgender adolescents given the difficulty of research and treatment methods, not to mention the issue of accurate disclosure.

And yet the APA estimates that gender-diverse youth (those who may not transition but don’t conform to normative standards) makes up about 5 to 12% of students assigned female at birth, and 2 to 6% of birth-assigned males. According to the same report, transgender youth (those that have a persistent and consistent need to identify with the opposite sex) is .5% of the population and is likely much higher based on new information and conversations coming out of schools. Imagine what these numbers might be if the stigma about gender identity and alternative expression weren’t so negative.

School is the place where students should feel safe to ask questions, explore and discover new ideas, knowledge and awareness about themselves. Yet another APA national survey shows that 27% of LGBT youth have faced physical harassment because of their gender expression. And 57% have heard their own teachers make negative remarks about gender identity.

There are no right answers when it comes to dealing with these challenges—only evolving best practices. We all need to be agile, adaptive and patient with one another. The need to talk about gender identity in the classroom is an opportunity, not a liability. Opening up the conversation is important for everyone, so here are our three guidelines to help start the dialogue.

1. Focus on identity—not body parts.

Identity is about how we feel inside and who we want to be. It has nothing to do with our body parts. The same way people can identify as firefighters or teachers or artists, our youth must be able to embrace who they really are inside at a fundamental level so they can be their best on the outside!

When I was younger, I didn’t understand any of this because there were no resources around me to answer my questions. All I was told was that I was a boy and to do “boy” stuff, even though I felt like a girl inside. Quite literally, my identity was absent.

We need schools to emphasize that a person’s identity is always evolving and determined individually—whether related to gender, race, sexuality, academic interests, extracurricular passions and more. Again, we need to move the gender conversation away from body parts, and recognize that identity is not a dichotomy between girls vs. boys. It’s about who you feel you are inside, and how you want to present yourself to the world.

2. Everyone needs to be involved—communication is key.

When a student first begins to transition, it will be initially destabilizing for everyone—the student, parents and relatives, school administrators, teachers, and peers. That’s why everyone needs to be involved in an ongoing, inclusive conversation over time. Some people may be more sensitive or well-informed than others, but that doesn’t mean those who don’t understand should be left behind (in fact, they may need the most support).

If the student is willing, think about how to get them and their close allies involved in helping to explain why this is happening and why it will make them a better person. Don’t be afraid to bring in outside help in the form of consultants, speakers, and of course, internet resources. Communications should be delivered proactively whenever possible and information resources should be made available at all times.

In an ideal world, this conversation would start among faculty and administration before the first opportunity to work with a transitioning student. Though keep in mind that your first experience may be with a transitioning parent, faculty member, alumnus, or a prospective student.

3. Patience matters—this is a transition for everyone.

Difficult questions will come up and they won’t always be directed to faculty, so parents and students should be ready for questions like, “Is Sarah going to cut her penis off?” referring to a classmate who has announced her transition from male to female (MTF).

While there are no right answers, there is a framework for how to manage these kinds of questions. Remember to always steer the conversation away from the body, and emphasize that how someone identifies is personal and complex. Take this opportunity to remind students that questions about a person’s body parts are inappropriate. You might say something such as:

“Sarah’s body may change, but her private parts are not any of our business and we need to respect how she identifies.”

“A very small percentage of trans people actually undergo confirmation procedures and the large majority do no not—either way, this is her personal journey and it will likely evolve over time.”

Also: remember you don’t always have to always answer questions directly at the time they are asked. It is completely OK to let a student know that we don’t have all the answers to their questions and we are evolving our approach as a community. This may be particularly important when answering questions about bathrooms and locker rooms. How you choose to handle bathrooms today will evolve as people get more comfortable— the solution is in transition too and will likely be controversial to some people no matter what.

That’s why it’s so important to allow everyone involved to be heard. Fostering an open dialogue will help diffuse prejudices and allows students the space to ask questions.

Finally, just remember how challenging this transition is for the person actually doing it. Check in with them regularly and give them the opportunity to talk, it can be one of the most therapeutic solutions of all.



*The APA defines “gender-diverse” in the following terms: Gender-diverse youth (also known as gender-nonconforming, gender-creative, or gender-variant) may prefer clothing, accessories, hair length/styles, or activities that are not expected in the culture based on their sex assigned at birth. They typically feel comfortable with being a girl who looks or acts “like a boy” or vice versa and are usually not interested in transitioning from one gender to another, although some may explore transitioning options.