“Conversations to improve our cultural competence: Honoring and caring for transgender and non-binary children and families.” – Description to our families prior to our conversations during Curriculum/Parent Night
Two years ago our school made a clear intention to ensure we honor and care for transgender and non-binary children and families. We made clear changes – such as introducing ourselves using our pronouns, while also discussing the importance of self-educating, rather than waiting for the marginalized families to teach us – and spent the bulk of a day doing so. We watched videos, listened to speakers, and received handouts to ensure a clear understanding of what it means to be trans or non-binary, as well as how to support them. As the school year progressed though, I realized I still had a lot to learn.
It’s not inherently distressing simply to be transgender or gender-expansive. In fact, transgender children are neither confused nor delayed about their gender identity and are as certain about that identity as cisgender children are, sometimes from as young as two. – From “How to be an Ally to Gender-Expansive and Transgender Children
It is one thing to have an intention, it is another thing to live it. I found myself tripping over words surrounding gender, and started to notice how often I gender people around me. I also began to see that many times I thought I was being a supportive ally, I was actually saying or doing inaccurate or problematic things.
Wanting to learn more about specific classroom scenarios that often come up and how I can handle them differently, as well as get some generalized tips on honoring and caring for trans and non-binary children and families, I happily agreed to sit down and chat with Derek Mortimer-Nelson.
Derek is a grown unschooler and a queer, trans man who has been learning about queer and trans issues through life experience, as well as through research on all sorts of trans-related topics. As a white, male, cis-passing person, he feels it is important to use his position of relative privilege to educate those around him on behalf of the wider trans community.
While Derek generosity offered to sit down and chat with me, it is important to state that this was not something we should expect of any trans, non-binary or any other marginalized person to do. It is our responsibility to self-educate so that they don’t have to go through the emotionally intensive process of doing it for us. Derek, however, states, “Ideally everyone will educate themselves on everything but it’s much easier if someone is like, “Here is a rundown, do your own research now”. I don’t mind being that guy at all – I enjoy being that guy because the trans community is really important to me.”
General Comments from Derek
Not gendering body parts right from the start is going to be helpful. Talking about people who menstruate, people with uteruses, etc. And knowing that this isn’t just about being inclusive for trans or non-binary people. This will encompass anybody who breaks gender norms, it will be supportive for intersex people; it is inclusiveness for all sorts of people.
What is a simple description of what it means to be trans that children would be able to understand?
D: I was born with a vagina, so my parents thought I was a girl and raised me as a girl but I wasn’t, so I transitioned. I was always male – there just wasn’t proof other than my own knowledge of myself as a male.
What are ways we can expand children’s idea of what gender is, starting at a young age – particularly in a world where they are constantly being modeled that there are two genders and you can tell someone’s gender by noticing certain markers in appearance and temperament?
D: Just not enforcing the language they hear everywhere else. It is important for children to normalize not assuming gender, using they/them pronouns for anyone whose gender they didn’t explicitly ask. This can lead to questions coming from them such as, ‘What does it mean to be a girl’. It isn’t necessarily about teaching children about gender, it is about creating an environment that provokes their own thinking rather than reinforcing inaccurate ideas about what gender is.
How can we support a child who begins to make comments or behaves in a way that suggests they may be trans or non-binary?
D: Kids sometimes will say, “I wish I was a boy”. Some specialists will insist that using language such as this means they are not, in fact, trans; that being trans is knowing and insisting you are a different gender than what you were assigned. The problem with that thinking is that isn’t an option that is ever presented or wasn’t ever presented before. So children who aren’t offered the opportunity to state, “I am a boy.” when they have always been labeled a girl, will fall back on language such as, “I wish I was a boy”.
I definitely would have come out earlier if anyone would have given me the opportunity to. I tried to get people to call me by my middle name and was shot down; it was clear that I wasn’t going to be validated or supported. Advocating for children who want to be called a different name, advocate that to the other children regardless of whether you think they will or will not change their mind one day. Just basic respect so they never have to get to a place where they have had to hide their entire gender their entire life.
Of course, you can’t know what is a sign that they are going to want to transition later in life and what’s them just not fitting gender roles, but regardless of which it is, encouraging and advocating for them will support anyone.
What are ways we can cue in families who are concerned that their child is trans or non-binary, and aren’t sure how to be accepting?
D: Assuring them that it isn’t something they are choosing and it isn’t something they can change and that it doesn’t mean their child’s life will be harder. They need to know that accepting their child is vital to having a healthy child. Perhaps it is helpful to know that being trans in preschool doesn’t require any medical prevention so all they have to do is be accepting.
Derek and I chatted more about this after some prompting from our Pedagogista. What Derek (and I) had meant by “it doesn’t mean their child’s life will be harder” was that being trans/nb doesn’t automatically and in and of itself mean that a person’s life is harder. What makes their life more difficult is how society, their family, and their peers respond to them. The intention behind this being to help families see the importance of supporting their gender identity and how they choose to express it, such as changing their name, their appearance, and using the correct pronouns. When responded to with respect and care, a trans/nb person won’t automatically have a harder life – however, that is often not the case.
Of course, recommend therapy. They may not do that but it is helpful for everyone all the time. And having resources available. (resources will be at the end of this Q&A)
35% of teens who felt they had strongly supportive parents considered suicide in the past year, only 4% did make an attempt; in contrast, 60% of teens who felt they did not have strongly supportive parents considered suicide in the past year and nearly all of them attempted suicide. Teens who perceived that their parents strongly support them in regards to their gender were 93% less likely to attempt suicide than teens who did not perceive that they had strong parent support. (Transpulse Study, 2012)
What are ways we can ensure families our school will be a safe space for them and their children who are trans or non-binary?
D: I don’t think a family, regardless of who the family is, can ever really know their child and family will be safe.
Ella, a mutual non-binary friend who has experience in this area was sitting in and gave some additional pointers here: Having a formal policy that everyone acknowledges before they enter the space allows for them to have something to fall back upon. That way if something does happen, they’ll have a concrete policy to rely on to help them move forward.
D: A mission statement would be a good place for this, as well as involving the children directly. Ask them, what they would need to feel safe and comfortable.
“It isn’t about becoming another person – I already am who I am – I just want my body to reflect that. It’s not like I’m suddenly changing from the person you’ve always known – this is more about your willingness to see who I have always been.” – Cooper Lee Bombardier
Ponderings, moving forward, and appreciation.
Throughout the Q&A Derek and I kept coming to a place of, “What would we do here for any other person?” Most of the answers boiled down to simply being a decent human, putting effort and intention behind the language we use and listening to what others tell us. Something that is so simple, has become so complicated. I wonder if this is due to the reluctance of cis folks to accept something we don’t want to understand; if it’s complicated, we can make excuses. We can say, “I try but it’s hard.” “I am working on it, but it’s habit.” ” I want to show my support, but I just don’t understand.” The reality is, it isn’t any more work to support and accept a trans child or family than it is to support and accept any other child or family we may have in our program.
Derek has kindly offered to be a resource for others and I am forever grateful for his willingness and excitement in doing so. If you are interested in reaching out to Derek, he would love to talk more with you, your program, or your families about his experiences, the importance of respecting children’s identities, using inclusive language and offering additional resources. Feel free to contact Derek at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A slew of other resources, including non-English resources, can be found here.