How Listening to Trans Kids Can Create Real Change—in the Classroom and Beyond

It's on adults, including educators like myself, to give transgender children and teenagers the autonomy to assert their identity.

[PHOTO: Protesters holding signs that say
Students learn more by what role models do than by what they say. No inclusive curriculum can overcome dehumanizing actions in the classroom. Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

This election marks a crisis point for the transgender community. At a time when the protection of the law seems so out of reach, when Supreme Court seats are filled according to the best interests of those in power, it is crucial for each person to feel like their voice has an impact.

While many of these decisions are beyond the control of the average citizen, the power of local and state governments can still be leveraged to make our voices heard—even at the school board level.

In Kenosha, Wisconsin, where I live, there’s been an ongoing conversation over a school district measure that would allow trans teens to use their chosen name and pronouns in the classroom without their parents’ consent. I had the opportunity to speak on behalf of it at a recent school board meeting.

Two speakers offered the most striking testimony that night. First was a white woman, presumably a parent, who spoke vehemently about the dangers of encouraging children and teens to embrace the idea of being transgender.

She gave several examples of trans individuals who transitioned in their teens and regretted it later—all anecdotal examples and “what ifs”—that were intended to fan the flame of transphobic fears that many parents in the room perhaps held.

A young trans man, not far out of high school, spoke next. He was clearly shaken by the previous speaker’s rhetoric but delivered a calm, measured rebuttal that was nothing short of heartbreaking.

He described a study that showed less than 0.3 percent of nearly 23,000 people expressed regret after gender-affirming surgery, and many of those were due to the hostile world that trans people face. That includes the threat of violence, abuse from family and friends, and general dehumanization that they encountered when they elected to be themselves.

Beyond his convincing arguments, the man said he was “outraged that his existence is up for debate.” He then made a reasonable but unfortunately novel request: “Don’t listen to people who have never experienced what being transgender is like.”

Our city has been in national headlines recently due to protests about police brutality and the fatal backlash of white supremacists against protesters. But polarizing politics and ideologies are not new here.

In 2016, Ash Whitaker sued the Kenosha Unified School District for discrimination and won an $800,000 settlement. School policy prohibited Whitaker from using the boys bathroom at his high school, and the ruling on the case officially recognizes that Title IX and the 14th Amendment protect transgender students from discrimination at school.

Trans people, particularly trans women of color, are victims of violent crime at rates reaching the point of epidemic. In 2020 alone, over 31 trans or gender nonconforming people have been fatally shot or otherwise killed through violence. The level of unmitigated violence reflects an undeniable level of trans dehumanization within much of society.

It is data like this that motivated me to speak out. I addressed the school board meeting as a queer educator who cares about the long-term impact of these policies.

By denying a transgender child or teenager the autonomy to assert their identity, we send the message that their identity is invalid. This message is harmful and violent.

As an assistant professor of instruction at Northwestern University, I teach first-year undergraduates from many different secondary educational backgrounds. It is shocking to see the variety of expectations that students have around how they will be treated in the classroom.

Those who view themselves as autonomous, independent learners hit the ground running. Unfortunately, for many students, the transition to college marks the first time they can truly embrace their identity.

Grappling with this change while juggling the academic and social challenges of college makes the first year difficult. Trans students are particularly vulnerable to this struggle.

Before the first day in my classroom, I administer a survey for students to provide their name and pronouns, and I make sure all teaching assistants have this information on their rosters. When framing concepts and ideas in class, I avoid binary descriptions of gender, and when data is presented in a gender binary, I describe this as a limitation of the data. For all the situations I can’t anticipate, I have an anonymous Dropbox where students can give feedback about how the course could support them better.

This should be the norm in all classrooms, but I know it’s not. Although controversy around classroom policies for transgender students is rampant, progressive judicial rulings provide hope, even in the face of the current White House’s attempts to roll back protections for transgender students under Title IX instituted during the Obama administration. These long legal battles have set new precedent.

In Virginia, the case of Gavin Grimm, a student fighting for the right to use the boys bathroom, became a five-year battle that finally resolved this year in Grimm’s favor.

In September, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that schools must allow students to use the locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

With respect to name and pronouns, one Indiana teacher filed a lawsuit in 2019 against his school district on the basis of religious discrimination. He claimed that the school’s policy supporting transgender students’ using their chosen names and pronouns violated his religion and forced him to resign. The school district continued to support the policy, and the federal district court dismissed the teacher’s first amendment claims.

That public schools serve to develop children into citizens is a popular notion. Yet it is not inconceivable that citizens may learn to dehumanize trans people from the policies they see enacted in school.

By denying a transgender child or teenager the autonomy to assert their identity, we send the message that their identity is invalid. This message is harmful and violent, and it’s internalized not only by the trans student but also by the rest of the class.

Students learn more by what role models do than by what they say. No inclusive curriculum can overcome dehumanizing actions in the classroom.

While the Kenosha school district’s policy continues to be a contested issue, that school board meeting—a microcosm of local government in a divided community—inspired me to be even more vigilant in my own university classroom. It allowed me to actively listen to those most vulnerable and collectively stare down those who threaten their existence.

Shifts in consciousness are not made only on the floor of the Supreme Court. They are created and reinforced in classrooms, community gatherings, and homes. The moments that seem inconsequential are those that create real change.

It is urgent to follow the simple directions of that young man in the school board meeting and choose to listen to those whose lives are at stake.