This post is by guest author and student James van Kuilenburg.
No single transgender experience exists. Our community is diverse, comprising a range of ages, races, sexualities, and stories. Often, this is forgotten when a school scrambles to support a trans student. Generalizations are made in lieu of actual conversations with the student. When this happens, the underlying needs of the student are not being met. We are individuals, and we need different support systems just like any other student. For some, this could mean a teacher using a different name and pronoun. For others, this might be a teacher using the same name and avoiding the use of pronouns altogether.
There is only one surefire way to understand your trans student. It’s something remarkably simple but rarely considered—communication. The only guaranteed successful course of action is to pull them aside and ask how they want to be affirmed in your classroom. There are a multitude of factors and situations, all impossible to consider until your student can advocate for themselves and their story. Additionally, needs change with time. As a student goes through their transition, they may be willing to go to a mainstream bathroom, even if they had previously said otherwise. Remember to keep the conversation going!
Assuming pronouns and identities based on appearance is not an accurate way to assess the needs of your student. There is no such thing as “looking trans” because being transgender doesn’t dictate your fashion sense. There’s nothing rude about asking for pronouns; in fact, most trans students would be excited to hear their teacher asking.
Your trans students will never experience school like some of their peers. Hallways are a battleground with whispers around every corner, bullies and friends are sometimes indistinguishable, and we still have an essay due on Wednesday. A complicated sum of stressors follows your trans students, classwork plus harassment, but you can provide some relief. One safe classroom run by a teacher ally can change a student’s day, provide one reason to come back to school, one reason to make it through the day. You can be that one teacher.
James van Kuilenburg is a junior in high school in Frederick, MD. He is a transgender rights activist and president/founder of his school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance.