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October 10, 2023
ASCD Blog

Caring for Gender Expansive Youth

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Educators must take proactive and reactive steps to keep schools safe and welcoming places for non-binary students.
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Credit: DisobeyArt / Shutterstock
In June 2023, a 67-year-old man interrupted a 9-year-old girl with a “pixie haircut” who was about to throw the shot put at her elementary school track meet in Kelowna, British Columbia. The man and his wife reportedly, and publicly, accused the child of being a boy, demanded that she produce a birth certificate, and called her parents “genital mutilators.” The girl’s mom said the incident “destroyed our beautiful daughter’s confidence.” She described her daughter as “inconsolably crying” during and after the meet.
In this case, the child attacked happened not to be transgender. But the incident reveals the rampant transphobia and gender paranoia gripping even geographic areas, such as British Columbia, where views toward LGBTQIA+ people tend to be more progressive. This transphobia hurts trans kids, in serious and life-threatening ways. And, as highlighted by this incident, the gender policing at the heart of transphobia creates a hostile and inequitable environment for all kids.
The children at that track meet—straight, cis, non-binary, gender expansive—likely walked away having learned that if they cross the boundaries of gender stereotypes, they face the potential for cruelty and humiliation. But, to its credit, Central Okanagan Public Schools immediately worked to challenge that lesson. The principal, the family said, “was involved from minute one”: Teachers moved the event away from the site, the principal walked the child and her family to their car and communicated with them afterward, and the school district banned the couple from school grounds. Both the district and the BC premier issued statements describing the couple’s actions as unacceptable.

The Power of Support

School leaders and educators must support trans, non-binary, and gender expansive youth on two levels: proactively, through steps such as respecting pronouns and creating inclusive curricula, and reactively, in the face of transphobia. Such support is crucial, and literally life-saving: a 2021 study found that 54 percent of transgender and non-binary young people had considered suicide in the past year and nearly one-third (29 percent) had attempted to end their lives. But LGBTQ youth who have at least one supportive adult were 40 percent less likely to attempt suicide. 

Leaders and educators must support trans, non-binary, and gender expansive youth proactively and reactively. Such support is crucial, and literally life-saving.

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Below, we outline how educators can support trans, non-binary, and gender-expansive youth both proactively and reactively. First, though, we acknowledge that there are many U.S. states where the forms of support that we suggest are literally illegal right now. Our colleagues teaching in those states are suffering, and their students are suffering. Many colleagues in the South are having quiet supportive conversations with students and are teaching them the fine art of euphemism to help protect their mental health and perhaps even keep them alive. By supporting students without using any banned language, teachers and students are resisting the attempts of a small, misdirected minority to steal their joy, their identities, and their lives.
But there are schools where teachers can, now, provide the kinds of support that LGBTQIA+ kids need. What forms can that support take? Here are a few ideas. 

Proactive Support

  • Provide both public and private chances for students and teachers to share their pronouns. You might use a notecard or a Google Form, such as this one Matt has used. Another is offered by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).  
  • You might also ask students on day one to share “your name, your pronouns if you’d like to, and something unique about yourself.” Some students will want the whole class to know and use their pronouns, while others may want to communicate only with the teacher. Meanwhile, those not yet ready to share pronouns may appreciate an emphasis on “if you want to share.”  
  • Since some young people change their pronouns often, keep a basket with stickers or buttons students can use to indicate and remind others of their pronouns.  
  • Practice students’ names and pronouns so you can get them right. Any new language use takes practice. Rehearse your students’ pronouns in your head as you walk through the halls or on the drive home: Sage is running late, but they’re on their way. Sage said they’ll be here soon. Sage is bringing their homework after school. We do so many things to care for our young people that don’t come naturally to us—and for many, using affirming pronouns, including neopronouns, is the newest and least comfortable addition to our caring-for-others toolkit. Do it anyway. 
  • Let go of “boys and girls” and “ladies and gentlemen.” Gendered language leaves non-binary kids out, and it increases stereotypical behavior among all kids. Choosing alternatives can become part of your teacher persona, reflecting the relationships you form with your students: “Scholars,” “Human beings,” or “7th graders.” You can call students by the school mascot—"Lions” or “Cougars.”  Elementary teachers often call students “Friends.” 

Gendered language leaves non-binary kids out. Choosing alternatives can become part of your teacher persona, reflecting the relationships you form with your students.

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  • Let go of gendered practices: By not separating students by gender for lines, praise, or help, you protect all students. Ask students to line up by their favorite ice cream flavors, not by gender. If your school’s dress code isn’t gender-neutral, work within your district to advocate for change. Rename the “Daddy/Daughter dance” to “Fancy Dance with Families,” both because it’s less gendered and because not every student has a dad who can come to such an event.  
  • Do not ask for medical information you do not need. We usually do not need sex-specific medical information from our students, so why is that question on so many school forms? If you do not need to know, do not ask.

Reactive Support

Even when we’ve been proactively supportive, even when we have long-standing anti-discrimination policies both in place and in practice, bias can still happen—as it did in Kelowna. GLSEN suggests a five-step approach ​​​​for responding to biased language, bullying, and harassment: 
  1. ​​​​​Address the situation immediately. Certainly, some conversations might happen later or in private–but it’s also important to signal clearly, quickly, and publicly that the bias was unacceptable.  
  2. Name the behavior.  For example, you might say, “I heard you ​​​​​​​​intentionally use inaccurate pronouns. That’s unacceptable.” Or, if a student says, “I identify as an attack helicopter!”, you might say, “Hang on—you’re trivializing non-binary identities. That’s not okay here.” 
  3. Use the teachable moment (or create one).  Make thoughtful decisions about whether to teach in the moment or return to it later, and about how to teach in a way that protects the targeted student. GLSEN offers resources for addressing such language, whether proactively or reactively. To the student who claims to identify as an attack helicopter, you could explain that using language that makes fun of someone’s identity further stigmatizes people who struggle with acceptance from others. You could ask if they understand non-binary identities and neo-pronouns and help them understand the concepts if they do not. And reiterate that mocking people is unacceptable.  
  4. Support the targeted student. Again, remain thoughtful about where and when to offer that support.  
  5. Hold students accountable to policies regarding consequences. The form of those consequences will differ by district and situation. 

Make thoughtful decisions about whether to teach in the moment or return to it later, and about how to teach in a way that protects the targeted student.

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Educators can take slightly different approaches to unintentionally biased language use. In classroom and professional development settings, Matt uses language that he learned from Dr. Eli Green at Trans-Affirming Training & Consulting: "I’d like to invite you to use the language you know to ask the questions you have. If you use language that is outdated or offensive that is known to me, I will repeat back the question, model the affirming language and that will be your cue that there is different language to use." Teachers can follow a similar approach in less formal settings. For example, if a colleague named Anne misgenders a colleague named Jamie, a teacher involved in the conversation can use Jamie’s accurate pronouns as part of the conversation, or just say, “I think Jamie uses they/them pronouns.” ​​​​​​If Jamie is present, it’s often best to make this correction in their presence. In our​​ interviews with TGNB teachers, many mentioned the power of someone correcting someone else’s inaccurate pronoun use.

Benefits for All Students

Many teachers are familiar with the concept of universal design: When we incorporate into our teaching the strategies that some kids need, all kids benefit. The same holds true here. Trans, non-binary, and gender expansive kids need us to use their pronouns, to use language that includes them, and to protect them in the face of bias, bullying, and harassment. And when we open up options for gender, we open up options for everyone—for every girl who wants short hair, every boy who wants to join the musical, every kid whose family isn’t captured in the phrase mom and dad. This school year, consider what options these strategies might open up for your students.

Matthew D. Rice is a high school science teacher by background and is currently an instructional coach in New Jersey. His recent doctoral dissertation focused on the experiences of trans and nonbinary teachers in K–12 education.

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