“I couldn’t decide between Mr. or Ms., so I’m just choosing Dr.”
This was my standard joke for breaking the news that I was returning to school for my doctorate. My friends were more shocked that I was going back to graduate school than in my saying that I was trans.
For most of my professional career, my gender was just another aspect of my identity. I was seen as a human who worked hard, cared about kids and reflected on their leadership. I was competent in a dress or a suit — it didn’t seem to matter much.
When enrolling in school again, I didn’t fully realize that I would need to come out as nonbinary or explain they/them pronouns.
Microaggressions came, and so did some macroaggressions. In graduate school, folks remind me that I’m the first and only out trans person they’ve met. When strangers touch me before class on the street, I don’t always have a bathroom that I can enter to collect myself before classroom discussion. Our current education system was not designed for nonbinary people to survive, let alone thrive in.
My story and identity are far from unique. Throughout history and across cultures, trans and nonbinary folks have thrived. More students are embracing gender-fluid and nonbinary identities at earlier ages, and it’s crucial that systems begin to discuss gender in their equity conversations.
A 2019 study from WestEd estimated the population of trans and gender-nonconforming identities to be approximately 3 percent in California. Most school systems have gender-expansive students. There is insufficient discussion of how we can support these students.
Some states have begun to provide guidance on how to support trans and gender-expansive youth. Typically, state-level guidance focuses on privacy, protection from harassment and ensuring access to services. This web of federal and state laws is designed to recognize that our trans students have unique educational needs and are important members of our community. For individuals who lead schools, policies for trans and gender-expansive youth can be confusing, especially as federal guidance has shifted in recent years.
Supportive policies provide a framework to a conceptual idea, but a student’s physical, mental and spiritual health ultimately depends on how these protections and services play out in very personal choices each day. A teacher’s ready use of a student’s preferred gender pronouns or a principal’s caring demeanor can catalyze positive relationships during a highly stressful time in a young person’s life.
We need to view our trans and gender-expansive students as assets in our learning communities. After all, we get to learn from a group of young people, across racial, class and geographic lines, who know and express themselves in their most authentic ways. It is an honor that we get to live in a time where our equity dialogue is evolving to include trans and gender-expansive students. Unfortunately, our education system too often views trans individuals as anything but experts on their own genders.
Gender policing is leading to disaster for our trans youth. In California, arguably one of the most liberal states in our union, 70 percent of trans middle school students reported being bullied in the past 12 months.
Suicidal ideation among transgender middle and high school students is near 30 percent, around 20 percentage points higher than the rates for cisgender students.
Research also shows that these statistics are even worse for students with additional marginalized identities, like being a person of color or having a disability. Simply put, we are failing to see the humanity and the beauty of our trans students, and we are forcing them to accept our binary thinking.
If we wait until a student comes out as trans, we center every action on an adolescent already undergoing a deeply personal journey. Our system’s learning comes from our trans students’ pain.
While these young people have deep knowledge about themselves, it is unfair that they are asked to teach our schools a better way to be. Equity and inclusion efforts work when individual educators step into their discomfort and take an active learning stance about what these policies will mean for their students.
The interplay of shifting policy and an unfamiliarity with trans identity may provide some resistance to deepening our equity dialogue to include trans voices. Yet, it is highly likely that our schools and systems will have a trans-identifying student or staff member at some point.
We are standing on fertile ground to begin unpacking our own assumptions around gender and ensuring that the policies can be implemented when our students arrive. Though I may be a person’s first nonbinary educator or student, I will not be anyone’s last.
This story about gender-expansive and trans students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
James Hilton Harrell is a doctoral student in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.