Working with Trans Students
At emfec we recently held our first Trans Gender and Identity Awareness Day and were delighted to be joined by Sam Hope, a trauma counsellor, writer and diversity trainer, and also a non-binary trans person. We asked Sam to share their top tips for working with trans students, and some recommendations based on their experience.
Much of the trans awareness/cultural competence training I do is in educational settings – schools, colleges and universities. Last week I found myself at emfec, training staff from a number of institutions alongside the impressive and trans-famous Lee Gale. My job was to help the assembled professionals think about best practice.
My background as a school and university counsellor gives unique insight into the impact of structures and practices on trans students. As such, I have pulled together my recommended 10 tips for education, similar to one I have previously created for the workplace.
1. Education, education, education
Or more precisely, training. Cultural competence takes work, and without cultural competence, people will either blunder badly (unconscious incompetence) or walk on eggshells (conscious incompetence). Trans lives are not well known about and there is a lot of misinformation out there. As always, go to credible sources and promote knowledge in any way you can. Remember, harm can be done through well meaning ignorance. But even trans people know we can never know everything – we are all still learning.
I recommend mandatory training for all staff (because not all trans students will be known to you) and governors. Gender variance talked about competently and in a non-pathologising way in classes such as PSHE, psychology and sociology. Intersex conditions learned in biology. Trans people visible – on posters, in the curriculum, books in the library.
2. Celebrate trans people and gender variance
A celebratory culture challenges all its assumptions about gender and applauds those who see things differently. It makes space for people to be different. Trans people are only a “problem” if we don’t accommodate them, and trans kids only have a frighteningly high suicide rate because of the way society treats them. Celebrate anything that challenges gender stereotypes and remember to talk about the trans community during LGBT History Month. Share words and images of how gender and gender variance is expressed differently in different cultures across the world.
3. Reduce gender segregation
Trans girls, (assigned male at birth but living as girls), should be allowed to use girls toilets (and vice versa) if they want to, and it would be discriminatory to prevent them. However, gender segregation remains a headache for trans people, causing untold anxiety – particularly for non-binary trans people, but not only for them. Research also shows that emphasising sex differences can lead to girls under-performing.
Try to reduce segregation as much as possible. With sports, toilets, dress codes and roles there are often ways around the traditional way of doing things. Don’t wait for a trans or non-binary student to show up before you make those changes, because they will benefit everyone and undermine sexism.
4. Be conscious of what story your language tells
The papers tell stories of trans women who “used to be men”, of “sex change” and “having the op”. People often fixate on what is between trans people’s legs and possible medical changes we might make, rather than who we are and how we experience the world. Medicine and psychology treat being trans like an illness that has to be cured. For most trans people, these are narrow and inaccurate stories about a complex and varied experience.
It’s important to allow people to use different words to express their experience of gender without recoiling from “all these labels”. The more stories we hear, the more nuance we allow, the better we will understand. Be aware of the diversity of language, stories and experience that exist within the trans community. Learn what language hurts or fails to describe trans people. Gender neutral language is a must; find alternatives to expressions like “boys and girls” and assume nothing about the gender of the person/group you are addressing.. Here’s my handy trans language guide.
5. Don’t “out” trans people
Never assume that a trans person wants their trans status to be shared, and that “outing” them may cause harm, as well as contravening legislation. Students may be “out” in some parts of their life but not in others – to family but not to school, or vice versa. Be clear with a trans students exactly what they want shared and with whom, and consider ways in which they could be accidentally outed, e.g. in letters sent home. Know your duties under equality and data protection law.
6. Use inclusive admin systems
Some admin systems are the bane of trans peoples lives: boxes that ask us sex rather than gender; options that are limited to male or female; insistence on titles (even though these are not legally necessary); and systems that make it difficult or impossible to change our names. These are not small issues because they continually invalidate who we are.
If a student cannot legally change their name yet, make sure their “known as” name is what is used. If they have a deed poll, this is a legal document and should be accepted. Alert students to potential issues with exams and certificates – think ahead, and draw up protocols.
7. Rethink safeguarding
Trans young people are extremely vulnerable to bullying and abuse, including sexual abuse. One of the main reasons for this is that social isolation makes it easier for trans people to be victimised – they are less likely to have people looking out for them, less likely to be listened to, more likely to be seen as attention seeking if they try to speak up about something that has happened.
Because of this, it is essential to re-orientate your thinking – stop thinking of trans people as risky, think of them as at risk and centre them. Support, inclusion, and open lines of communication are far better tools for keeping young people safe than mere vigilance. Don’t isolate trans people – encourage them to form peer support groups and have people to talk to, and allow other students to be accommodated with their identified gender as much as possible.
8. Zero tolerance for misgendering and transphobia
Transphobia comes in subtle and blatant forms and is sometimes overlooked by people who see being trans as a choice (hint: it’s not). Trans students who get ridiculed, bullied or excluded are not “asking for it”, and are not somehow extra brave and able to cope with stares, slights, insults and violence.
Misgendering can do a lot of harm, even though it is mostly unintended. Examples are referring to a group that includes a trans boy as “girls”, using incorrect pronouns and gendered words about a person. Though it may seem harmless, it indicates to the trans person the way someone else is thinking about them is at odds with the way they see themself. This undermines the trans person’s sense of self, particularly for non-binary people who have little recognition. As it happens time after time, it can be very damaging.
Act swiftly in response to any transphobia, don’t let it slide. Actively correct any misnaming or misgendering – if it’s you, apologise and move on quickly. Don’t make a big deal about it.
9. Use a person-centred approach
It’s all too easy to make assumptions about what is right for someone else, but really we are all the experts on our own lives, and trans people are no exception. When we think we know better than trans people we make the fatal mistake of thinking our lack of understanding is caused by a flaw in their thinking rather than a flaw in our understanding.
Remember also that trans people may be dealing with multiple issues – a higher incidence of autism, a higher incidence of mental health issues due to trauma, isolation and abuse, as well as all the other things people have to deal with in life.
10. No gatekeeping
It is unbelievably hard to get treatment as a trans person, despite the fact that overwhelmingly the evidence indicates treatment for those that want it (not all do) is beneficial. Once a trans person gets to a gender clinic, they will still have a very long wait and face a lot of “gatekeeping”. During this wait, some may be suffering as their hormones change their body in ways they don’t want. Extra delays can cause real harm.
Let trans people, including young people, do their thing; it is likely to be harmful to put extra barriers in their way, or be resistant, disbelieving or disapproving. Some trans people experiment with identity before hitting the right formula – that’s okay too, there should be room for diverse self-expression and exploration. It’s healthy.
Sam Hope is an accredited trauma counsellor, trainer and writer who is also a non-binary transgender person. They have been active in campaigning for the inclusion of transgender people for some years, and now run a business offering trans awareness training, mainly in education and the third sector, that gives back 50% of time worked free to local trans community organising, support and awareness raising. You can read more and find out more about Sam at www.hopecat.co.uk.