What Is the Problem?
There are over a million trans people all across America, some of them right here in Montgomery County. Many of these people don’t feel like they belong, or are even being actively attacked: the HB2 law in North Carolina tried to force transgender people to use the bathrooms of their biological sex. Bathrooms can already be unsafe, with many people trying to violate others’ privacy, and now some want to make them even more dangerous for trans people.
There is also the problem of how strictly society reinforces its gender roles. Education Program Director at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) Rebecca Kling said, “There are factors we are exposed to every single day, that are implicitly or explicitly telling us there’s one right way to be a man and one right way to be a woman,”
On top of these factors, many people misunderstand what it means to be trans, and so they don’t help trans people. There are the side comments, people using wrong pronouns, and many other microaggressions. The culture of toxic masculinity and schools catering to parents’ views, rather than students’, is also a part of the problem.
Why Does It Matter?
All of these factors can make trans kids feel like they don’t belong, or that there is something wrong with them. “The need for being included is a fundamental human need, that takes longer than starvation or dehydration to harm someone, but ultimately it is harmful,” Rebecca Kling said. Kling also pointed out the high number of trans kids that are suffering with mental illness, and how hard they find it to come out and be comfortable with themselves. She said that it took longer for her to transition, because she did not feel like she belonged.
Leslie Miller, a Spanish teacher and Gender & Sexualities Alliance (GSA) sponsor at Paint Branch High School, asserted how difficult it is to be a teenager today. She said that being trans only makes it more difficult, and “adds more shades of complexity” to figuring out one’s identity.
Additionally, a lack of resources for trans kids is incredibly harmful. Although the amount of resources out there now has changed, they are still lacking, and can make people have to go out of the way just to learn who they are. “My wife had a job at the library so she could secretly read all of the LGBT section while she was restacking books,” Miller said.
In an attempt to include people outside the gender binary, some people unintentionally cause trans youth to feel like outsiders. Many trans kids don’t want to be singled out from everyone else, and doing so can be harmful to them. Sarah Watson, advocate, activist, and parent of a 13 year-old nonbinary student in Montgomery County, said that her kid doesn’t change for Physical Education, because they do not feel safe in the locker rooms but don’t want to have attention drawn to them by changing in the bathroom stall.
An ingrained language of “ladies and gentlemen”, “boys and girls”, exc., is very exclusionary to many nonbinary youth. “My kid has a teacher now who was saying ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ and it really caused them a lot of stress and anxiety because my kid doesn’t feel that they’re included in the classroom or being seen. It definitely makes them feel lonely and left out,” Watson said.
All of these things can have negative effects on trans kids. Sonder Van Wert, a senior at Poolesville High School and a trans man, has said that all of these expectations are hard for him. “I’m so afraid of not being read as masculine or male if I don’t conform to these expectations that I lose sight of my end goal– to be happy in my body. I forget that I’m doing this for myself, not for others.”
Parents can contribute to this fear trans kids feel as well. “The night after I officially came out, my mom got plastered and started screaming transphobic things at me in a very public place. I still have nightmares about it to this day, and that happened the summer before my sophomore year,” Van Wert said.
What Can I Do To Help?
A big part of helping and supporting trans kids is self-education. “You have google in your pocket. Use it,” Leslie Miller said. Online resources are abundant, and the internet can answer a question that a person might be embarrassed to ask. Asking questions directly to a member of the trans community is a good idea, as they probably know the best answers. Understanding the issues and what it really means to be a trans person is the first major step to being an ally. Plus, one can learn a lot more about humanity. “It really gives you a much broader understanding of what kinds of humans are out there,” Miller said. Once educated, allies and supporters of trans youth encourage people to speak up when they see something. “Your voices are ten times more powerful than ours, so please use them,” said Sonder Van Wert.
Using proper terms and pronouns is crucial. Practice, and a willingness to try, is the best way to do this. “If you say you can’t do it, you won’t do it. And if you don’t do it, it’s harmful,” said Sarah Watson.
Sonder Van Wert acknowledged that mistakes in pronouns or names will happen, but such an error does not require more than a simple apology. “Don’t apologise for your whole life,” said Van Wert. “It’s just as awkward for us as it is for you. Just apologise, say you’ll try harder or ask how to fix the issue, and move on. We don’t need to hear about your lesbian friend who discovered her sexuality in her mid-life crisis.”.
Watson also emphasized how important it is to educate others with kindness. “We can get much more leverage if we are patient and use education, and talk things through rather than being mad,” she said. Some people may expect a fight, especially parents advocating for their kids, but this often causes people to get defensive and not listen. The best thing to do is to try to use education, and appeal to a person’s sense of kindness, not get angry at them. “If I do get angry and mad, I’m going to lose that heart and mind,” Watson said.
The queer community can be normalized by talking about them in casual, everyday conversations. Allies need to remember that it is not just about the person they are fighting for, but all trans people. “The things I’m asking for are not just for my kid, it’s for all the kids that are coming after,” she said.
Finally, people can learn about how to support someone who has come out as transgender. “There is a difference between acceptance and support,” said Rebecca Kling. “Acceptance is a passive act. Support requires action.” It is important for people to help better the lives of trans people everywhere. “There is a moral obligation to make this world a better place for the people around us,” Kling said.
Kling said, “none of us can do everything. All of us can do something.”
What Can Teachers and Schools do?
Support from a school is possibly the most important thing for a trans kid. If they don’t feel safe at school, they will not do very well in their learning. One of the main ways teachers can help trans kids feel welcomed is to just show their support. Leslie Miller says that she is the “resident gayest person ever” at her school. She has a lot of decor and flags of different sexualities, to let students know that her room is a safe place. “I talk about my wife a lot,” she said, in an attempt to casually out herself, and make it something normal for her students. She wants them to know that she is there for them. Miller also includes pronouns in her beginning of the year activities, to educate and normalize asking somebody what their pronouns are.
Another big part is for teachers to use proper pronouns and inclusive language. The best way to do this is, of course, practice. Miller says that she had to practice a lot. “The first time I had a student who used they/them pronouns in my GSA, I would talk to wife about them until I got used to not using the wrong pronouns,” she said. Awareness and practice will make new pronouns feel more natural.
Teachers often feel nervous using new terms or pronouns, because they don’t want to seem stupid and say the wrong thing. Miller says that the best way to handle this is to have a person who can answer these types of questions. Teachers having someone who can educate them continually will help them be able to keep up and use the proper, respectful terminology.
Training for teachers is also vital. Miller said that the training she went through related to LGBT students was a “30 minute clicky thing” that was a basic outline for having a trans or queer student. “It’s a good starter course for how not to be a jerk to your queer kid,” she said. But it could definitely use improvement, to help teachers more fully understand how they can help their trans kids have a better school experience.
A large part of the problem in schools is the lack of talk about trans students and issues. It almost seems like a taboo topic, or like they are being ignored. Van Wert advises people to “be just as strict about homophobia and transphobia as you are for cursing and using phones in class, because it’s just as harmful and distracting for us.”
Normalizing trans identity is important to Van Wert. “I’d like to see more gender neutral bathrooms. I think that would normalize it a bit. If we could just work on normalizing trans people, like asking for pronouns at the beginning of the year, I think that could do wonders,” he said.
Sarah Watson pointed out the problems in the health curriculum. It is taught in a way that ignores queer identities and doesn’t give trans kids the same education about their bodies and sexuality as cisgender kids– kids who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Many kids don’t get more education on their bodies and sex than what’s taught in a health room, so the curriculum should be as inclusive of all people as possible.
“I do think teachers can do it,” Watson said. “I do think teachers and principals can empower themselves to make our schools even more welcoming. They can uplift the diversity, and it can help all the kids that are coming, because they’re coming.”
Advocates for the safety and belonging of trans youth believe school boards need to be pushed to make their schools safer, and not ignore trans students. Some school boards say that this is giving unfair preferential treatment to trans students, but Rebecca Kling says that that isn’t true. “It’s not that any student should be over prioritized,” she said, “it’s that all students deserve a good education and a space that is safe physically and emotionally.”
“We need to foster the wonderful and not forget it, and we need to fight the awful and not forget that too,” Kling said.