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It’s Up to All of Us to Create a Better World for Trans Students

“Protect Trans Kids” isn’t just a slogan — it’s a promise we all need to act on.

A child carrying a trans pride flag marches in the third annual Queer Liberation March on June 27, 2021, in New York City.

We live in strange, complicated times. For some trans and nonbinary youth, there has never been a better time to be a student: There are legal protections, informed school staff and supportive parents, and wonderful local trans communities. But for other trans youth, there has never been a more difficult time to be a student. There are those facing anti‐trans laws and policies as well as ignorant school staff and unsupportive parents, and little or no local trans community. The recent death of Oklahoma trans teen Nex Benedict makes the stakes of this issue especially clear — advocating for and with trans and nonbinary students is key to ensuring that the trans and nonbinary students of today are able to grow into the amazing adults of tomorrow.

As two educators (one of whom is trans and one of whom is cis and has a trans child) we wrote The Advocate Educator’s Handbook: Creating Schools Where Transgender and Non-Binary Students Thrive to empower folks to create change no matter where they are, regardless of the current political or legal landscape in a particular school, district or state. Using a framework of four principles — educate, affirm, include and disrupt — the book explores common themes and lessons drawn from more than 50 interviews with trans youth, educators, researchers, families, and more.

Perhaps the most foundational thing you can do to support trans and nonbinary students is to educate the adults who work with them, and those who dictate public policy. It is critical to provide teachers, administrators, school staff and elected officials with the knowledge and tools they need to support trans and nonbinary students, and to ensure that their education is ongoing and reflects the needs of their particular community.

Booker Marshall, the LGBTQ and sexual health manager at Chicago Public Schools (CPS), told us that the district once only offered a “quick and dirty 30 minutes” on guidelines around supporting trans students. But when CPS Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade attended that training, she shared her own experience of working with a trans student when she had been a school principal and wishing she had received more training about the experiences and needs of trans students.

Since then, the training has expanded to a webinar format offered to CPS’s 41,000 staff, which Marshall notes is “not just teachers, [but] everybody: administrators, central office staff, lunchroom staff, security guards, literally everyone is required to take it. We have activities — to sit and reflect, or go into your email now and update your email signature to include your pronouns — that make people do something in the moment.”

CPS was willing to start small but also able to expand its professional development offerings when it became clear they were both useful to educators and relevant to improving the lives of students.

Whether or not you are a parent or guardian, you can ask local schools whether they have protections in place for trans and nonbinary students, and contact your elected officials to learn their stances on trans rights. If appropriate, you can offer to help them learn and grow; check out The Advocate Educator’s resource guide for some books and links to get you started.

Proactively educating people is particularly important because, right now, many adults only think about the needs of trans and nonbinary students when faced with the first out trans or nonbinary student in a classroom or school. This often results in an unfair expectation that those trans students, and often their families, take the lead on educating not only their classmates but their educators and policy makers as well. While teachers are always learning from their students, those students should not be expected or relied on to teach adults about the needs of specific student populations.

As trans student Stella Keating (she/her) shared, “Having my teacher essentially ask me to do the curriculum [about trans identity] for her because she didn’t want to get it wrong made me really upset because it’s not my job on two levels. One, it isn’t my job because I’m your student. Secondly, it’s not my job because my life isn’t educating everyone on being transgender.”

Unfortunately, education communities sometimes include people who are uncomfortable discussing trans identity, don’t prioritize supporting trans students and may even be actively seeking to harm trans people. Whether it’s one individual student making inappropriate jokes or picking on another student, a parent objecting to classroom discussions about LGBTQ identity, or an elected official or other policy maker attempting to pass laws or policies that harm trans students, there is always something we can do to disrupt harm and attempt to steer things back toward education, affirmation and inclusion.

When the people who don’t want to support trans students are other students, parents, or other community members, it may be helpful to slow things down, dig into the underlying concerns — such as confusion about what “trans-inclusive curriculum” means, or a worry that talking about LGBTQ identity will mean less focus on academics — and see if they can be addressed.

Sam Long is a transgender educator in Colorado who started a project called Gender-Inclusive Biology with fellow educators Lewis Steller and River Suh. The project offers a variety of resources to, for example, “teach about genetics in a way that is accurate to all people’s identities and is accurate to species other than humans, guidance on how to teach about biodiversity and evolution in a way that doesn’t overgeneralize about the role of reproduction, about parenting and sexual behavior and the fact that those are different things, and that they all are facets of any species behavior.”

When asked about potential pushback from parents or community members, Long shared:

Once we did a lesson about reproductive strategies, and some of the examples were the clownfish — when one of them dies, the other one changes its sex — and some lizards that were living in an all-female colony, but are stealing sperm from other lizards. I think one student went home and the parent asked “Well, what did you do today?” And she said, “We learned about transgender fish.” The parent emailed me saying, “I didn’t know that this was in the curriculum.” So I sent her the whole lesson plan and I didn’t hear back. It seemed to me that the parents’ concern was no longer the same once she saw what the lesson was about.

And look, we know that — when it comes to anti-trans attitudes and beliefs — a calm explanation or a patient attitude isn’t always going to do the trick. Not everyone who is “just asking questions” is doing so in good faith. If you suspect that is the case, consider connecting the importance of supporting trans and nonbinary students with a school or district’s mission or values. Almost all education institutions have some underlying value or mission statement that speaks to the importance of all students, not just students who identify a certain way or agree with a certain political position, and that language may be helpful in building support for trans and nonbinary students.

When politicians and elected officials seek to harm trans and nonbinary students, you can draw on more traditional advocacy tools: writing letters, making phone calls, collecting petition signatures, writing op-eds and letters to the editor, attending rallies, speaking at city council meetings or legislative hearings, and even meeting one-on-one with elected officials. For example, did you know that you can search online for your elected officials’ contact information and request a meeting as one of their constituents? USA.gov has a tool find contact info for the officials who represent you at the federal, state and local level. Even if you don’t meet directly with the elected official, writing a letter or speaking with their staff on the phone can still have a positive impact.

You can also check out ACLU tips on meeting with elected officials, Indivisible’s guide to writing an op-ed or search online for your city and “testify public hearing” to learn how to share your voice at public hearings. Here are instructions from the City of Boston and the City of Chicago, for two examples.

While voices opposed to inclusive education may be the loudest, they often aren’t in the majority. We spoke with four educators from a school district outside of Boston, Massachusetts, who asked not to be named out of fear of drawing the attention of anti-LGBTQ groups. They worked together to implement a social and emotional learning (SEL) unit about transgender identities in 2021, focusing on culturally relevant read-alouds, guided discussions of different parts of student identities and working with students to write poems on the theme, “I am…”

The program — which started in 2020 to address issues related to race and racism — included sending a letter home to student families every month on the topics that had been discussed, with additional resources and ways to learn more. They also made sure to track community input and feedback. These teachers noted that, “even if it feels like the negativity is constant and all around you, when we sat and looked at the numbers, it’s not the majority of people. It was actually a smaller amount, even though it felt like a lot more. Some parents just want to have more information. They wanted their own learning. And so it opened an avenue to conversation.”

Ultimately, the program was successful enough (and received enough positive feedback from parents) that it has grown beyond focusing only on race (in 2020) to also include transgender identity (in 2021): The district now uses the same basic framework — relevant read-alouds, guided discussions, thoughtful activities for students and open communication with parents — to address a number of social and emotional learning topics including race, gender, equity, immigration, and more.

It’s also important to find allies, as there’s no need to be in this fight alone. There are almost certainly groups in your community advocating for and with trans and nonbinary folks — a great place to begin is to search online for the name of your community and “support LGBT youth” or “transgender advocacy.” If nothing turns up, reach out to organizations like GLSEN or PFLAG to see if they have any local chapters or recommendations on ways to get involved.

Advocating for Trans Students Should Also Include Uplifting Trans Joy

What’s missing from conversations about supporting trans and nonbinary students? Queer joy, according to Levi Arithson (he/they), program manager of LGBTQ+ equity initiatives at Denver Public Schools. “We really are relying on our damage-centered narratives, and we really miss out on the wholeness of our youth,” Arithson said. “I always say, ‘We don’t need our youth to be on the brink of suicide to be proactive.’ It’s not to say that the statistics [about trans youth] aren’t bad or terrifying. But it’s so much more than that.”

It’s understandable to focus on fears and worries — bullying or poor mental health or harmful legislation — but we must also imagine the positive future we want to build.

Rachel Altobelli (she/her), director of library services and instructional materials for Albuquerque Public Schools, agrees. “There are just not enough everyday joyful, happy books [featuring trans main characters] where the point is not a coming out story or coming to terms. But just doing things: Going on a quest, solving a mystery, not liking the substitute teacher,” Altobelli said.

With that in mind, we asked some trans youth what brings them joy and gives them hope for the future. Below are their responses:

“The best thing [about being trans or nonbinary] is being able to express who I am and not having to be limited by the gender binary. I feel complete and amazing!” —Emma (she/her), 14

“I love playing with other boys on my baseball and basketball teams. I love being able to be who I am.” —Lil (he/him), 10

“All the trans and non-binary kids will someday be voters who will vote for trans-affirming candidates, and that gives me hope.” —Griffin (she/her), 12

“Freedom to explore my gender.” —Zephyr (she/they), 8

“My friends and family that support me!” —Josh (they/them), 8

“Being myself. —Ellie (they/them), 11

“It gives me hope that I can grow up the way I want to be and not the way other people wish for me to be.” —Ian (they/them), 11

In every case, everyday people deciding to act as advocates in their local communities will be key to making those hopes into reality. And while no one can do everything, everyone can do something.

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