Trans awareness week: highlighting cissexism and transphobia in anthropology and beyond

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November 12-19th was Trans Awareness Week, a time set aside to promote the voices and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming people.  It is a week of celebration and resilience leading up to the long-standing Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR), a say set aside to remember the many people who have been lost to transphobic violence.  Personally, I like thinking of TDOR as the Trans* Day of Rage and Resilience, both of which highlight the many ways that we as trans folks survive and fight back against the systems designed to endanger us and make our stories invisible.  

This year’s Trans Awareness Week felt especially personal for me as a U.S. resident because of a Trump administration memo that was released earlier this year indicating that they intend to remove protections for transgender people under Title IX, perhaps the most important form of protection for trans people, especially trans youth in schools.  Receiving this news made many people in my community afraid of what the future holds for us, myself included – without federal protection, I could be at risk of losing my job, healthcare, housing, or other rights and freedoms that I currently possess.  It is even scarier for the many people in my community that have other intersecting marginalized identities, especially trans folks of color, trans youth, undocumented trans people, and disabled and sick trans folks.

Most distressingly to me as a science educator, the leaked memo referred to sex verification using “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable,” such as the sex assigned at birth or DNA testing.  Not only is this extremely invasive, it is blatantly inaccurate!  As a science educator, I decided to take one step towards reducing ignorance about both the science of sex* and gender AND the ways that cissexism, transphobia, and interphobia show up in institutions of power over and over and over again. (To read one intersex person’s reaction to this memo, check out the awesome blogger Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello at  “The Intersex Roadshow”!)

Gender unicorn bones

As a wrap-up to my unit on the skeletal system, I created this presentation about the science of intersex experience** and nonbinary identity, both of which are frequently erased by conservatives who assert that science says you are born either male or female, end of story.  As it turns out, science shows that there is incredible diversity in human sex and gender across time and culture.  Moreover, teaching students that sex is either male or female, end of story, is damaging in SO many ways – damaging to intersex students and transgender students whose realities are erased, damaging to cisgender binary-assigned students who believe that upholding cissexism and interphobia is normal and acceptable, and damaging to our collective liberation from science that believes that children are not capable of understanding the full complexity of the diversity of human experience.

The unit was based on a case study by Dr. Alison MacIntosh, who studies ancient bones of female people and compares them to living cisgender women’s bone development.  Strikingly, she was one of the first people to examine female remains with comparisons to living women’s bone density – other studies used cis men’s bone density numbers to determine strength, showing one tendril of the deep-rooted vines of institutional sexism in science.  I think Dr. MacIntosh is a total badass and I am proud to share her work with my students!  I also wanted to talk about the ways that anthropology intersects with cissexism and interphobia, and bone development being a secondary sex characteristic seemed like a perfect place to discuss this.  One example is the rating scale used to determine the sex characteristics of bones in a skeleton in the field, which can sometimes be ambiguous or conflicting, with no guidance for scientists about how to interpret those data. There are also examples of skeletons that demonstrate sexual and gender diversity in ancient cultures, with little attention paid to them beyond tabloid coverage that focuses on spectacle rather than science.  Our trans and intersex ancestors’ history and remains are no doubt present and overlooked or missed because of the ways  that scientists were trained to never expect to find them.

If you want to talk about integrating intersex and nonbinary awareness into your curriculum, please reach out!  I am always excited to network with other educators doing the important work of dismantling the structures of ignorance that support the oppression faced by me and my transgender siblings worldwide – and our intersex family as well.  

*In my presentation to students, I used the term “sex” to describe the physical characteristics of a person’s body that are considered sex characteristics.  In my own life and work with adults, I try to move away from using the word “sex,” especially “biological sex,” because of its ambiguous meaning and its role in transphobia, especially transmisogyny.  Read more about this topic from Julia Serano (Medium) and Mey (Autostraddle)!

**It feels important for me to note here that I am not intersex, and emphasize that the needs of intersex and transgender communities are very different (though many people identify as both intersex and transgender).  I personally believe that destigmatizing intersexuality is an important step towards liberation of all communities who experience body-focused, sexual, and/or gender discrimination, including transgender people among many others.

Five things I need(ed) to hear when coming out

This is a letter I am writing for my younger self, and for myself in general – at age 12, 14, 16, 18, 19, 20, 22, 25, and 27 – all key ages when I “came out” as something to myself and/or the people around me.  A student in my world recently asked me for advice related to coming out as trans, and I wrote something specific to that student (shout out if you’re reading this!).  I wanted to adapt this to something more general and more specific – an open letter to myself, past, present, and future, for coming out and thriving as myself in the world as it is.

So, here you have it – my message to myself & others as they emerge on a particular place of “coming out,” whether that’s related to gender, sexuality, sexual preferences, or something else entirely!

1.  Celebrate!  Sometimes when queer and trans folks come out, we start worrying right away about what other people are going to think of us, how much discrimination we’re going to face, or how to deal with all this hecking dysphoria, internalized oppression, and body stuff that inevitably comes up.  The first piece of advice, that I myself need to do more often, is to celebrate.  Queer and trans people have been valued and revered around the world and throughout history because we have experiences that are unique, beautiful, and sacred.  Throw yourself a party, even if it’s just you in attendance.  Eat your favorite food, or go for a walk on a beautiful day, or make something with your hands to commemorate the day you felt open enough to start talking with other people about your queer and trans identity.  It’s incredible that you exist!
2.  Don’t focus on passing, focus on being yourself.  If you are confident in who you are, that becomes clear to others that you are defining how you want them to see you. I won’t lie, regardless of what your body looks like, there will be plenty of moments when people misread your gender expression or identity.  But in general, it is more important to act the way that feels comfortable than to put on one specific set of behaviors that you believe people will read as a particular gender or sexuality.  There is no one way to be masculine, feminine, genderqueer, or agender; you get to decide how that looks on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute basis.  I recommend finding clothes you feel confident in, that show your body the way you want it to be seen – that’s how I ended up wearing sweater vests nearly every day, since they are coded masculine, came in bright colors, and hid my pre-surgery chest.  This may require a lot of experimentation in the dressing rooms at Goodwill and in front of the mirror at home.  🙂
3.  Find a point person to talk to when you need support.  This could be a queer or trans person, or it might not – the important thing is that you know who you can turn to when things get hard or you’re feeling stuck.  My first support person was my 9th grade religious studies teacher, Pete.  When I came out to him as a young person as bisexual, he was kind of baffled, since he himself wasn’t queer – but when I came out as trans later down the line, it made since why I chose him to turn to for support.  He embodied a lot of the masculinity that I wanted in my own life, and I feel like I emulate him now as a teacher, a male leader, and a mentor for other students.
4.  Be easy on yourself and others.  You’re not going to figure everything out overnight.  Your friends and family will struggle, and it sucks, but we gotta be easy on them at least to start.  Be clear and firm in your wishes and boundaries, but don’t take it too personally if people are stumbling into their accomplice status.  Similarly, you may find that as you explore your identity more, things that you took for granted (including your gender identity, sexuality, and other identity markers) may shift.  That’s OK.  No one is going to ask you to “prove” your trans-ness – and if they do, send them to me so I can give them a piece of my mind!!
5.  Remember, nobody knows your experience better than you.  It took me a really long time to accept my identity as male (rather than as genderqueer/nonbinary) not because of things cishet people would say to me, or the pressure of my given family to conform – it was mostly other trans and queer peoples’ judgments that held me back.  It’s important to remember that the world is large and that there are lots and lots of people in our community who will “get” you – no matter who you are or what you’re experiencing.  I was very afraid to lose part of my chosen family if I was open about who I really am.  I totally had it backwards – I have only been able to build a strong, beautiful, and resilient chosen family by embracing all that I am, no matter what.
Keep being yourself and finding ways of sharing all that you are – whatever your identity – with the world!  It’s the best gift that only you can bring. ❤ If you want a much more comprehensive and in-depth list of affirmations that can be helpful as queer and trans people, here’s a link to an awesome set of cards that I use as a daily practice.

Student recommendations for creating inclusive classrooms for queer, trans, and questioning youth

I have the privilege of being the faculty advisor to our middle school Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA), a space set aside for kids who want to co-create a safer school for queer, trans, and questioning students.  I asked them for their recommendations of ways that faculty and staff can help create safer spaces for all students, especially those who might be questioning their gender or sexuality or have a gender or sexual identity other than cisgender and straight.  Here is a list of their suggestions:

  • Listen to students’ comments to each other.  Call out bigotry when you hear it. This is the comment I hear the most from students about how adults can help create a more supportive community at our school for everyone.  Speaking up when you hear unkind comments about a particular identity (and this extends far beyond gender and sexuality!) really demonstrates to students that you care about them and will stand up for them when they need it.  (For more information/ resources, check out “Speak Up at School” for teachers).
    • Students also recommended that adults get “up to date” on what hateful language might look like for the particular age group they teach.  Asking students for help identifying those moments is a great collaborative project and can lead to some powerful conversations.
    • Another part of being ready for these moments is being knowledgeable about and comfortable with discussing topics related to identity – and gender, sex, sexuality are just the beginning.  May I recommend The Gender Unicorn?
  • Even if you don’t hear the things that happen, show your students that you care and that you will listen when they bring things to you that they’ve seen or heard.  Follow up with them to try and create a classroom and school environment where students are accountable for their words and actions.
  • At beginning of the year, ask students for preferred name and gender pronouns.  This is one way to include space for students’ identity to be affirmed in your class from day one.
    1. Model how to share preferred gender pronouns before students share their own, and explain how they work and why we ask for them.  (This is a great bonus lesson in grammar!)  Be sure to follow up with students who may joke about pronouns or not understand the process.
    2. Make explicit that pronouns change & kids can approach teachers if that happens.
    3. Practice using students’ preferred pronouns, and gently correct students who mispronoun other students in the moment.
    4. If students have pronouns that they use at school but not at home, please ask them to make that clear.  An adult they trust should follow up and encourage them to discuss with parents ASAP, as long as it is a safe/supportive environment.
  • Don’t make groups by (assumed) gender.  Similarly, don’t assign tasks, costumes, vocal parts, or sports teams that way.  Here are some suggestions for other ways of splitting the class into multiple groups:
    1. Month of your birthday
    2. First letter of your first name
    3. Favorite ice cream flavor
    4. Using playing cards/picture cards made in advance
    5. Other ideas here, here, and here.
  • Don’t assume gender!  Gender identity and gender presentation are different.  That’s why it’s important to ask all students for their gender pronouns (if they are comfortable sharing them), and not just kids that you perceive to be trans or gender non-conforming.
  • Normalize conversations that include non-normative genders and sexualities.  Use examples that include queer or trans people, but not in a “look a gay example!” way: this can be seen as tokenizing and harmful.  Practice being comfortable talking about identities different than your own so that when those topics come up, you can model conversations about those topics in a respectful, non-aggrandizing way.  Practice using “they/them” pronouns for people in the third person and practice using those pronouns during everyday conversations with students.
  • Incorporate diverse forms of gender identity and sexuality into your curriculum.  For humanities teachers, this means providing examples of literature and historical figures/events that represent a diversity of LGBTQ identities.  For STEM teachers, this means using inclusive language when describing phenomena, not oversimplifying biology, and not using simplistic ideas of gender and sexuality when taking data and analyzing statistics.  For all teachers, this includes evaluating current materials and ensuring they don’t center specific kinds of relationships and families at the expense of others. Check out the Safe Schools Coalition Curricular Resources for more information.
  • Be open to students’ feedback.  Ask for feedback regularly, and provide ways for students to let you know when things that you’ve done have un/intentionally excluded them from being comfortable in your space.  This happened to me multiple times this year.  It was super hard, and it was an incredible gift from those students that have helped me become a better teacher.  It is also awesome to model making mistakes and changing behavior for students.
    • Feeling like practicing new words or pronouns is hard?  That’s OK.  Keep working on it.  You can share that it’s challenging with your students, but please don’t say it’s “too hard” for you.  You just haven’t mastered it yet, much like our students working on any number of skills that make them vulnerable and ask them to practice making mistakes on the daily.
  • Honor students’ expertise.  Sentences like “You’re too young to know X” or “Let me tell you what you are feeling right now” are patronizing and remove agency from students who know themselves better than anybody else.
  • Honor students’ right to confidentiality.  If a student discloses their identity or questioning status, even in front of other people, it is always a good idea to check in with them before sharing that with another faculty/staff member or student.  This is especially important when interacting with other members of their family, since not all homes are open to diverse sexual and gender identities.
  • As much as possible, eliminate institutionalized heterosexism and cissexism.  Are intake forms for your school inclusive of many gender identities?  Do students need to report their legal name instead of their preferred name in public spaces like class or email?  Are there bathroom and locker room options available for students that work for their access needs?
  • Be gentle with yourself.  One of my favorite things about my students is that they really see teachers as people, and know that making mistakes is a part of this process.  They want you to know that you can do it!  Treat yourself gently and take care of your own emotions while going through this process.