Supporting students in transition: Trans Awareness Week 2019

As an out transgender teacher, I often found myself the default person helping coordinate students’ name, pronoun, and gender identity changes at school. This is for several reasons – first of all, I had volunteered to be a resource at school for supporting trans students; I believe that my school would have honored a request to bow out of this work. It’s also true that for teachers with marginalized identities, including trans teachers, students who share those identities tend to gravitate towards us because they see us as people they can trust.

As such, one major reason that I think I often ended up advocating for trans students during times of major change is because I’ve been there before, and it is easy for me to empathize with students about the challenges and frustrations of living in a system that continually refuses to acknowledge that you exist.

So, I want you to imagine for a moment that you are a transgender student in the school you work in preparing to share your identity for the first time. You have likely thought about coming out for weeks, months, or even years before you had the courage to tell a single person what you are going through. As you prepare to share your story with grown ups and students in your life, you likely did hours of research online, getting advice from other trans people about their experiences and comparing them to your own.

Don’t we owe those students the same level of preparation?

Luckily for us, we don’t have to start from scratch. At the Gender Odyssey conference this year, I met Maria Al-Shamma, a social worker who works with LGBTQ middle school students and helps coordinate student transition plans in the San Diego, CA area. Transgender students are explicitly protected in California under AB 1266, the School Success and Opportunity Act. I was really impressed with Al-Shamma’s district-wide student transition plan which acts in accordance with this law – it is clearly laid out and standardized while leaving room for individual students’ needs to be determined by them and their support team. In particular:

  • Students do not need to have a legal name change. Not only is getting a legal name change prohibitively expensive for some students, it is a stressful process that can involve a lot of barriers and unwanted publicity, depending on the state. Finding a way for students to be able to change their functional name at school while maintaining the mandatory legal name records may be a little complicated, but it isn’t impossible.
  • Students can choose to have a gender marker that is not M or F. I actually didn’t see this in the paperwork, but any comprehensive transition plan will include a way for students to have a gender marker in their records that is neither M nor F. This now has official precedence in several states, including my home state of Washington. If the management system you use doesn’t allow for this, ask for it. Consistently. Incessantly. If they don’t change it, make a plan for a new system that can do what you need it to do.
  • A students’ caretakers may or may not be aware of their transition. This is something that a lot of educators, understandably, get concerned about when considering to use a new name and/or pronouns at school – “Does the child’s family know?” In some cases, parents are super supportive and will be excited about their student’s journey. In other cases, students face punishment, abuse, or homelessness because of their identity. Trust students to know when it is safe for them to come out at home. Support them in what they want and need – what a gift that they can be themselves at school regardless of what things are like at home.
  • It doesn’t leave behind a student’s deadname to out them as trans to anyone accessing the system. One thing I really, really appreciate about this plan is that it explicitly prohibits administrators from leaving information in the system that outs students as trans or makes it easier for teachers to make mistakes with deadnames and wrong pronouns. This is especially important for administrators, health and social workers, and substitute teachers who may be encountering a student for the first time (or the first time in a while) and want to affirm their identity. Having the default system be the one where the students’ real and current name and gender marker are present – with nothing else – is essential to supporting this process.
  • It doesn’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach to transition. Every student is different and will want different things with their official records and transcripts. I love that this form asks students about the contingencies and makes a plan for each one of them.

Educators, what have you seen in your schools and districts that works to support students in transition? What would you add as advice to others creating plans for students coming out as trans at school?

Stay tuned for more ideas and suggestions about supporting transgender students after transition and creating schools that help transgender teachers and staff thrive.

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