7 ways to fight for and protect trans youth

It is hard to overstate how hard it is to be a trans person right now. Our rights and our lives are literally up for debate across the United States, and with the U.S. presidential primary just around the corner, we aren’t likely getting a break any time soon. This newest moral panic about trans youth in sports, school bathrooms, and clinics has brought into question access to medical care for trans adults, threatening anyone who supports trans youth autonomy, including doctors, parents, and teachers. Once-reliable news sources such as the New York Times have leaned into the political “controversy,” leaving trans youth with few places to turn to for support that their experiences are valid and that they should have the right to the evidence-based treatment they are seeking.

In a time that feels devastatingly bleak, I wanted to offer some ways to engage with this issue. It can feel overwhelming and numbing to be in this hostile landscape, and I find that the typical suggestions of donating money or sharing within the echo chamber of social media are not enough to abate the overwhelm. This must be a community effort, and we must tap into the deep, generative parts of ourselves to make our movement – our lives – shine brightly enough to reach one another and to fight back.

1. Support youth-led organizing.

2017.02.24 Dance Protest Celebrating Trans Youth, Washington, DC USA 01168” by tedeytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. “March for Queer and Trans Autonomy” by Queer Youth Assemble.Queer Youth Network” by Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

No one is more targeted right now than transgender youth, and they are not standing idly by. As one example, today is the National March for Queer & Trans Youth Autonomy, an event that spans all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Students are walking out of schools and into the streets with a list of demands that is a beautiful reminder that we should not just be demanding basic decency, but true liberation and autonomy. Queer Youth Assemble is just one of many youth-led organizations fighting for trans rights. If you’re an adult over 25, like me, then follow these organizations’ lead on what is needed and requested as accomplices in supporting their fight for justice. (If you’re a youth, get out there to organize and let us know how we can help!)

2. Join a school board.

Nationwide, queer and trans people and their advocates are hugely underrepresented in school boards. A recent survey by the Victory Institute found that only 0.1% of school board representatives nationwide were openly members of the LGBTQIA community, and that within that group, most were cisgender. A huge portion of the discourse happening around trans youth are focused on what happens inside of school systems. Part of the success of alt-right and extremist anti-trans “activists” has been leveraging culture wars and stirring up political pressure among large swaths of parents and community members, alongside effective bids for school board seats. Queer and trans people and those who support us must organize and take up more space in school governance to fight back on this trend. Here is one basic guide to running for school board, and most states have extensive information available on their webpage. There are many other ways to get involved in educational decision-making in your area, including participating in a parent-teacher association (PTA), attending and voicing your position in school board meetings, or getting involved in the campaign of a progressive candidate.

3. Sponsor a read-a-thon.

Image source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/PmOJEVVnmm0/mqdefault.jpg, “paula reading a book” by Mario A. P. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

A few weeks ago, young adult author Sim Kern make a call on Tik Tok for a Trans Rights Read-a-Thon. While the national event happened earlier this March, it’s never too late to start an event rooted in the deliciously slow medium of reading a book. What’s beautiful about a Read-a-Thon is how many ways it supports the community – it boosts the work of transgender and nonbinary authors in libraries and bookstores, it provides mutual support and education about trans identity and experiences, and it can also be a tool for fundraising, if that’s your jam. Some excellent places you can raise money for by reading chapters or books include  Trans Health Legal FundPoint of Pride, or Trans Lifeline – or better yet, find a community organization in your local area that could use support! There are many excellent lists of books by trans and enby authors – here’s one for young adult novels, fiction/memoir, and non-fiction. As a science teacher, I’m also going to include this short list of books about science connected to gender and sexuality, one of which is written by a trans author.

4. Make and take in art.

Art is a powerful force. Whether a slogan embroidered onto a jean jacket, a protest song chanted at a rally, or a graffiti mural demanding justice, art has an important role to play in bringing about change. Creating art nourishes us and makes connections across time and space. Appreciating and sharing art can have a huge impact on yourself and others, and art is one way we can support one another through this difficult time. Take some time to create or appreciate art that supports trans autonomy and freedom, and support trans and nonbinary artists when you can by purchasing their work. Here are some of my favorite pieces by trans and nonbinary artists right now that are giving me life:

This video features Wendi CooperJennicet GutiérrezTiommi LuckettSean Saifa Wall, and Tatiana Williams reflecting on what liberation means to them. This video is a part of a series created by the Transgender Law Center that includes other visually stunning stories of affirmation and liberation.

Art credits: LJ Roberts, “Portraits”Micah Bazant, “No Pride in War”Wednesday Holmes, “You haven’t even met all of the people that will love you.”

5. Become a teacher, mentor, or coach.

Trans youth need supportive adults in their lives. Whether you are a part of the LGBTQIA community yourself or simply someone who can offer an affirming presence, being a supportive adult in a mentorship role can have life-changing impact on trans and nonbinary youth. Speaking from my own experience, while being a teacher has not always been easy, it has certainly nourished my need for community-building and mutual care in a way no other profession could. We are currently in a teacher shortage crisis of unprecedented proportions – could you be a part of helping make schools a better place for queer and trans youth right now? Those for whom teaching is not accessible can find many other ways of connecting with and supporting youth, such as a Big Brothers/Big Sisters (Big Enby Siblings?) program, coaching a sports/robotics team or an interest-focused club, or providing mentorship through a vocational program during or after school.

6. Express your support – LOUDLY.

“Not a Rose” by Grace Fallon, Carle Jackson and Lance McMahan, ahha Tulsa

I want you to talk about how much you love trans people. I want you to talk about how important it is to you that trans youth get access to appropriate, life-saving healthcare – especially if you are cis. Bring it up in casual conversation with cisgender people. Put up signs and stickers, or write graffiti tags in your workplace or on the street. Show trans love wherever it’s appropriate, and perhaps especially when it’s not. Transgender people of every age, in every political and social environment, are being bombarded with messages of hostility and injustice at every turn. We hear it from our families, from our elected officials, from our coworkers, and even sometimes our friends. So, turn up the love meter a little bit and be a little bit annoying about how much you love us trans people, even when you don’t think there’s any trans people around. We could really use it.

7. Take care of yourself/your trans loved ones.

Self-care is talked about so often these days that the term can sometimes feel hollow. However, I want to leave this here as a reminder that the most revolutionary thing that we as transgender people can do in this climate is to thrive. If you are a trans person, the most important thing you can do right now is find what nourishes you and cultivate those parts of your life with the support of those around you. If you are not trans yourself, reach out to the trans folks in your life with an offer of care that is meaningful, open-ended, and centering that person’s needs. Maybe what’s wanted is to go for a walk and vent, or to have someone help clean around your apartment. Maybe you’re looking for a buddy to go for a jog with, or to go smash broken pottery with to release some of your rage. Whatever it is you’re looking for, try your best to carve out time that allows for more of what you need to happen, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Over the past few weeks, it has been easy for me to slip into despair and feel isolated and afraid for myself and my community. I leave you this list as a way to open up space to imagine a better future for yourself, to find generative energy and creative space within the difficulties we are facing while building authentic connections with those most impacted by the violent anti-trans rhetoric being casually wielded in the public sphere. We cannot give up in this fight for justice, and the tools we choose to defend ourselves will depend on who we are and how we are called into the work. May these suggestions be a springboard for your imagination, and may you push beyond limits to find a path forward that is hopeful, sustainable, and authentic.

If you want up-to-date information on current anti-trans bills and how to take action by contacting legislators, check out the ACLU’s Legislative Map, the National Center for Transgender Equality’s State Action Center and the weekly policy updates from them magazine put together by the fantastic Trans Formations Project (sign up to volunteer with them here!).

“What Makes a Baby”: 8th grade edition!

Image description: the cover of the book "What Makes a Baby" by Cory Silverberg. A smiling sperm and egg look at each other.

The fabulous book What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg came out in 2012 to much acclaim and excitement from folks across the spectrum of diverse families, caregivers, teachers, and kids. It tells the story of how babies come into the world in an accurate way without ever implying the gender(s) of baby creators, parents, or the relationship between those people. [There’s also an awesome reading guide for caregivers and teachers who use it in their classroom – check it out!]

As I prepared to teach a unit on CRISPR with a specific emphasis on the story of He Jiankui’s claim to have genetically edited zygotes that were later born as babies, I wanted a way to talk about pregnancy and birth (especially IVF!) that didn’t involve a lot of inaccurate and dysphoria-ridden resources that link what gametes people make and their gender identity or relationship to future genetic descendants.

In-vitro fertilization (IVF) was an important concept in my unit on genetically editing zygotes. [Image description: a student illustration of a needle pointing at an egg in a petri dish.]

I was excited to use the book in my classes, but as an 8th grade teacher, it felt odd to simply read a book designed for small children and leave it at that. Moreover, some of the detail that I wanted to dive into wasn’t included in the book, making it an imperfect resource for my purposes. I developed a lesson that uses the book as a launching point for students to illustrate their *own* What Makes a Baby, involving student-led investigation and illustration with much delight and personal flair. 🙂

I started by writing an 8th grade level text that matches the flow of the original book. (Feel free to adapt and share widely – and provide feedback if I have any inaccuracies or things that you think could be more complete. I worked hard to fact-check, but unfortunately, nuanced information about sexual and reproductive health is often hard to find, especially for us trans people!)

Image description: One student's stunningly detailed illustration of the ovulation cycle from maturation to menstruation.

You’ll note that in the text, I use the term “gene giver” to describe a person who contributes an egg or a sperm to create a new human. The fabulous Christine Zarker Primomo introduced me to the idea of inviting students to create their own language when the language we have is insufficient, especially in this specific case. Even using terms like “genetic parent” implies that the relationship between someone who provides the sperm or egg that becomes someone *is* their parent. We also create gender-neutral (and gamete-neutral!) language, since not everyone who makes eggs is a woman or a mother, and not everyone who makes sperm is a man or a father. Ideas students created included:

  • Gene givers (or “GGs”)
  • Biological Life Transmitters (“BLTs”)
  • Spawners
  • DNA Deliverers
  • Trenaps (“parent” spelled backwards)
  • Storks – This one was my favorite, since it is so playful, easy, and universally kid-appropriate.

After reading through the original book with students (in my experience, kids of ALL ages love to be read to, and it brings out a particular curiosity in them that can be fun to engage with), I split the class into small groups and assigned each of them one section of the “upgrade.” In their small groups, they had to read through the text, do some more background research, and illustrate 1-2 pages that would go with the text.

This student group illustrated the germ layers of an embryo and their developmental trajectory into different parts of the body.
This student wanted to illustrate AND write the text for her piece. [Image description: a pregnant body next to a clock with a passage about birth.]

During the illustration phase, students encountered lots of things they were curious to learn more about, and I was able to answer those questions or direct them to strong resources that could provide the answers they wanted. We had fun talking about common misconceptions about ovulation and menstruation while also digging into harder questions about medical and legal rights for pregnant individuals, ethical questions about IVF, and the differences between preventing pregnancy and preventing STI transmission. Moreover, when we finished our book and read it out loud as a class, we had created a narrative that was cohesive, inclusive, and supported students’ sense making around how IVF functions in the larger picture of pregnancy and birth.

Students often loved - or avoided! - illustrating one of the passages about birth.  I gave student groups free choice of what part of the book they were interested in illustrating. [Image description: A medical worker is performing a C section and surgically removing a baby from the body of a pregnant person.]

If I had more time, I would have loved to have students write the text as well as illustrate it, possibly as an end-of-unit assessment. Given the time constraints we were under, I thought students’ work was thoughtful, detailed, and clear. I hope that over time, more and more resources will become available for teaching students of all ages about reproductive science in an accurate and inclusive way – until then, I’ll be creating them alongside my students.

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


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.