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Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom

As the higher education community continues to work to create a more inclusive learning environment, the needs of our gender-variant students are too often overlooked. This article outlines a few ways faculty can create an atmosphere that supports trans-identified and gender-nonconforming students.

Title IX protections
Our comfort zone as academics, regardless of discipline, is often built on basic academic assumptions and research that adhere to a male-female binary, which silences and invalidates transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex individuals. Recent interpretations of Title IX legislation by federal and state institutions now require us to think and act beyond our comfort zones so we can protect our students’ rights.

Title IX is part of the Federal Education Amendments of 1972, and all educational institutions (K-12 and postsecondary) must comply with this law. Many people are familiar with Title IX protections against sexual harassment and sexual violence, but few people are aware that Title IX also prohibits gender-based harassment “including acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex stereotyping, even if those acts do not involve conduct of a sexual nature” (Office of Civil Rights, 2011).

Gender diversity
As educators it is our responsibility to reflect on and challenge our gender assumptions so we can create more gender-inclusive spaces where all students are free to be who they are. As a student reminded me last semester, “We must learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable” to create change.

Below is a list of strategies I use in my classrooms to support gender diversity. I hope they can help you shape more gender-inclusive spaces where you teach.

Set the tone
Create guidelines in your syllabus and communicate them on the first day of class:

WGSS 1105 Gender and Sexuality in Everyday Life
Dr. Sherry Zane

“My name is Dr. Sherry Zane, and I use “she, her, hers.”

Model desired behavior
To support our gender-variant students, we need to rethink roll call, become familiar with the importance of names and pronouns, and be willing to be advocates:

Name on the roster:
Name you use:
Pronouns you use:
Commuter: Yes or no
What are some of your favorite activities?

Preserve confidentiality
A student might have revealed a previous name and/or pronouns to you before changing it, or you might know what it is because you saw it on the roster. Do not reveal it to others. Comments such as “I knew Lisa when she was Dan” can be damaging to the student and also make the student vulnerable to possible ridicule.

Adopt more inclusive language
Incorporate new, more inclusive phrases to your vocabulary:

Finally, if students talk to you about their gender identities, listen in a respectful and nonjudgmental way. Try not to show skepticism and/or disapproval. Instead, support the students by listening to what they have to say, especially when they may be offering constructive feedback for your classroom. It can be challenging to train ourselves to use new names and pronouns, but it is important to make a concerted effort and even make mistakes. Let students see you make mistakes, and then apologize and correct yourself. If students see that you are comfortable with being uncomfortable, they will learn to be, too!

This past year I worked with several transgender and gender non-conforming students to create an educational video meant for university instructors, administrators, and staff. It’s titled “Transcending Difference: Recognizing and Understanding Gender Diversity in the Classroom.”

Dear Colleague Letter from Office of the Assistance Secretary for the Office of Civil Rights. U.S. Department of Education – April 4, 2011. http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201104_pg3.html

Dr. Sherry Zane is an assistant professor in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexual Studies Department at the University of Connecticut.