School started again in late January for most young people in New South Wales, to the collective groans of students throughout the state. But for transgender (trans) and gender-diverse students, the beginning of the school year can come with additional challenges.
Misgendering. Uniforms that don’t fit identities. Mean remarks, sometimes even bullying and violence. These issues and more contribute to poor mental health outcomes in the trans and gender diverse community. (Here are two more sources: 1, 2.)
Educators working in government schools in New South Wales are obligated to ensure student welfare and prevent bullying for all their students. To make that easier for schools with trans and gender diverse students, the Department of Education and Communities issued Legal Bulletin 55, which explains the legal requirements and sets out expectations of how these students will be treated in school.
But while these are legal obligations, this approach is also the kind, ethical, and compassionate way to treat students in your care.
We know that educators want to do what’s best for their students and communities. A short version of this post could read: Be ready to listen to your students when they tell you what they need.
But to find practical suggestions, we talked to young people in our drop-in centre to see what they would have found helpful when they were at school. This article combines some of their suggestions with research from our Client Services Team.
1. Make sure your policies are inclusive
Many schools have policies that are unintentionally problematic for students who are trans or gender diverse. These can be big things – like uniforms, school camps, sports teams, and toilets, which we’ll discuss further – but also small things, like splitting up classes based on gender for activities like singing.
In addition, trans and gender diverse students and their families must also negotiate forms (for example, enrolment forms) that are not inclusive of non-binary genders. These things aren’t often done maliciously, but rather because “it’s the way we’ve always done it”.
Take the common example of splitting up a class by gender. A young person who is still figuring out their gender might find it difficult to decide if they fit in with the boys or the girls. Another young person who is transgender might experience pushback from teachers or students who don’t respect their gender. And yet another young person might not identify as male or female – so where do they go?
Often students who don’t conform to traditional gender roles may find that they are treated as if they are misbehaving or disobedient, when really they’re just trying to be true to themselves. Others may hide or feel distressed because they can’t see any way of getting the support they need.
Review your policies before a student comes out or announces they want to transition – it’s better to be prepared than to scramble to get it right. The School Audit Tool is a great starting point for this.
2. Allow students to wear uniforms that align with their genders
Uniform codes at some schools can be restrictive for students who are trans or gender diverse. This might be gender-specific uniforms, such as skirts for girls and trousers for boys, or uniform policies that don’t allow certain haircuts, hair colours or makeup choices.
One of the ways trans and gender diverse experience distress at school is through being expected to wear uniforms that align with their gender as assigned at birth. If you advocate for students to wear uniforms that affirm the gender they identify with, they will feel more comfortable, supported, and ready to learn.
For some people, hair styles and makeup can be another important way to express their gender. Consider reviewing uniform policies to loosen restrictions around this.
3. Allow students to choose whichever toilets and changing rooms are appropriate for them
Using the toilet is a daily necessity that we shouldn’t have to think much about. Get in, do your business, get out. Unfortunately, it often isn’t that simple for trans and gender diverse students. When a school does not have inclusive policies, trans and gender diverse young people may avoid using bathrooms at all. This can have serious implications for their health and wellbeing – which is [backed up by our research](.
Ideally, gender neutral bathrooms are the best way to ensure that everyone can use the bathroom safely. This should be considered when building new facilities.
Work with your students to find what solution will work for them. While many young trans and gender diverse people find using a staff or accessible toilet to be othering and dehumanising, it may be the safest option for a trans or gender diverse student until appropriate whole-of-school policies and practices reflect effective inclusion.
Some questions you can ask:
- Which bathroom are you most comfortable using?
- Would you prefer using a single-occupant bathroom?
- Can we create a separate changing area or a modified schedule for changing rooms?
- How can our school create and implement policies and practices that effectively include trans and gender diverse students?
4. Respect pronouns
Pronouns, at least in the English language, are one way that we signal a person’s gender. (For example, she/her, he/him, or they/them.) By using the correct pronouns, we are telling a person that we respect and affirm their gender.
New pronouns, as well as new names, can be easier to adjust to than you might think. Be ready to make mistakes, but also be ready to correct them without making a big deal of it. For example: “Finn was in my class last year, and he—sorry, she—was an excellent student.”
Correcting yourself is important, regardless of whether the student is there, because it sends a message that these are the correct pronouns, and they are important to get right.
Consider adding a place on attendance forms (or somewhere similar) to record students’ pronouns. Ideally, collect this information from everyone – everyone has pronouns they like to use, and it’s good practice to be sure you’re using the right ones.
5. Have a trans-inclusive curriculum
A trans-inclusive curriculum is one that tells students that trans people exist. There are many ways this can happen: including trans role models in history lessons, teaching about trans bodies in sex education classes, and teaching about the spectrum of sex (including intersex variations), sexuality, and gender in biology classes.
Trans-inclusive curricula are good for all students. As well as showing young trans and gender diverse people that they’re not alone, they also show young cisgender people (that is, folks who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) that trans people are part of our history and our world.
To get you started, the Student Wellbeing Hub includes department-approved resources that promote diversity and inclusivity within schools.
6. Create an environment where trans and gender diverse teachers feel comfortable being out
Creating an inclusive school is not limited to students. Trans and gender diverse teachers, counsellors, administrative staff and parents are also part of the school’s community.
Coming out is a very personal experience, and one that shouldn’t be an obligation. Many trans people decide to stay in the closet to preserve their own safety. However, schools that create an inclusive working environment demonstrate to their communities that they are a space where students and teachers can feel comfortable being out.
In addition, having an environment that is safe for trans teachers will show that your school is an inclusive space to students who are figuring out their own gender!
7. Implement anti-bullying programs that are specific to gender diversity and other intersections
Anti-bullying campaigns have been a hot topic in recent times. While anti-bullying strategies are an important tool aimed at preventing harm to all young people, it’s important to make sure that anti-bullying education uses innovative strategies and goes beyond just saying “bullying is bad.”
That means talking about populations that experience more bullying and discrimination, such as LGBTIQA+ folks, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people with disabilities, and so forth.
Use teachable moments to discuss diversity and gender issues in general, rather than just focusing on an individual incident. There are many sites of common ground to engage people and raise their consciousness around gender in the office, staff room, and classroom. Demonstrate your support for staff that initiate and adopt inclusive behaviour.
Sometimes, there is pressure to “remain neutral” from parents and colleagues. However, it’s not possible to remain truly neutral when it comes to inclusivity. What does silence tell the community?
Useful questions to consider are:
- How can guidelines and systems already in place be used to document and address harassment based on gender diversity? In the event of harassment – how quickly and visibly will the school respond?
- How will the school respond to instances of incorrect pronoun usage (accidental or intentional), transphobia, and/or bullying (including cyberbullying)? Has the safety of the transitioning student (and siblings and peers) been adequately addressed?
- Is everyone in the school and community familiar with anti-discrimination policies and legislation?
- Will counsellors and resources be available for students and staff who may experience difficulty adjusting to their own personal issues raised by a transitioning student?
8. Consider signing up for inclusivity training
Of course, these tips are only a starting point. There are so many intricacies and strategies that we couldn’t hope to address them all in a blog post!
There is a lot of good information online, including our website’s Resource Library, the Student Wellbeing Hub, and the National LGBTI Health Alliance Knowledge Hub where you can read more about issues for trans and gender diverse people.
Your state/territory education department or the NSW Teachers Federation may be able to direct you to inclusivity training opportunities in your area. The National LGBTI Health Alliance also has a directory of LGBTIQA+ inclusivity training providers. (And while we’re biased, we are big fans of our Here and Now training!)
As we can’t hope to cover every issue that trans and gender diverse students might encounter at school in a single blog post, the links in this article provide more information, and we hope you find them (and this post) helpful.
Thanks again to the awesome humans in Drop-in who helped with this post!