3 Ways You Can and Should Support Gender Diverse Students
Familiarizing yourself with common terminology and inclusive language is just one way to ensure gender diverse students feel safe and supported.
A major responsibility shared by all educators is the obligation to ensure a safe and supportive learning environment for all students. However, research has shown that many minorities, including gender diverse students, simply do not feel safe or supported when they are at school.
According to the 2017 National School Climate Survey, 44.6% of LGBTQ students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression. This comes as no surprise as the same survey found 60.4% of LGBTQ students who reported an incident said that school staff did nothing in response or told the student to ignore it.
Dr. Todd Savage, a professor of school psychology and past-president of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), addressed these statistics and more at the National Summit on School Safety. He spoke on ways schools can create an inclusive, welcoming environment for all students to ensure their Constitutional right to an equal education.
“In public schools, every child is entitled to free and appropriate public education. Everyone who shows up at that public school door should be welcomed with open arms,” Savage said. “As educators, we have a legal, moral and ethical responsibility to optimize every single child’s potential for success — academically, socially, emotionally, behaviorally, developmentally and beyond.”
For some, gender diversity is a difficult topic to discuss. Savage partially attributes this to living in a binary culture, where many feel uneasy if something isn’t one thing or the other.
“Blue is for boys and pink is for girls. For women, we’ve said they can feel these emotions and can express them more freely, and men, these are the acceptable emotions you can express,” he said. “Now the size of those boxes has increased over the years, but we still have them and if people get too far outside of those boxes, we find a way to get them back in there because it’s just too uncomfortable.”
However, in his work, Savage has found some encouragement in the younger generations, and he put it very bluntly.
“The generations under the age of 25 don’t give a rat’s butt about this topic. It’s a non-issue,” he said. “And, if a child does have a problem with it, it’s because adults in their lives have a problem with it. This is learned behavior, just as racism is and sexism is and all of the other isms. It’s all learned behavior. So, if kids have a problem with it, it’s because it’s being modeled in their lives somewhere, typically from adults. That doesn’t mean all kids are fully on board, but it is generally a non-issue.”
Savage says much of the responsibility in creating an all-inclusive school community is placed on the shoulders of administrators.
“Just as administrators are instructional leaders for a building, they are also school climate tone-setters. We need to get administrators on board because they set the tone for the employees, as well as the students and the community sending their kids to these schools,” he said. “You have to take people where they’re at and you have to walk that tight rope of ensuring the rights of gender diverse kiddos are being met and educating those who don’t understand. Try to get as many of them on board as possible.”
The pressure isn’t only on administrators. All involved in school safety are first responders.
“Every single adult in the building has a responsibility to be a tone-setter as well,” he added.
Savage discussed three ways adults can set the right tone and successfully support gender diverse students.
1. Understand the Language
An effective way to support gender diverse students in your school is to learn the language often used when discussing gender diversity.
There is often confusion surrounding some of the gender-related terms we hear on a regular basis as people often use them incorrectly or interchangeably. Some clarity will help when having discussions regarding gender diversity or when interacting with a gender diverse student.
“Language is important. We don’t have to have all of the answers. We don’t have to have all of the correct language down. We have to do what we can to learn and to apply our learning in classrooms, realize when we make a mistake, learn from that mistake, and do better moving forward,” Savage said. “And you are going to make mistakes. Just like we do when it comes to racism and sexism. What happens is privilege kicks in, and many people fear they are going to make a mistake, or appear racist, or appear sexist, or appear transphobic. They’re stuck and don’t do anything. Guilt is a privilege and getting stuck and not doing something is a privilege. We have to be willing to learn and take educated and calculated risks, realizing that we’re not always going to be perfect. We apologize for our mistakes and we work to be better.”
While there is an abundance of terms, Savage discussed nine terms commonly used in gender diversity discussions and how he defines them:
- Sex: an assignment made to people by others based on biological data; i.e. a person born with a vagina is female and a person born with a penis is male.
- Gender: a social construction that is culturally mediated; a culture decides what it means to be male or female.
- This is where the terms girl/woman and boy/man come into play; we start treating a person a certain way because of their sex, which is based largely on social construction.
- Gender identity: how each of us individually sees ourselves in a gendered way.
- Gender expression: how each individual communicates their gender to others, typically through clothing, appearance, voice, etc.
- Gender role: a social role encompassing a range of behaviors that are generally considered acceptable.
- This is where the terms feminine and masculine come into play, i.e., “Here are some of the things that are open to women in our culture and here are the things that are open to men.”
- Sexual orientation: Savage described this as “the head and the heart stuff” — it isn’t about sexual behavior, but rather about who you are attracted to psychologically, socially, emotionally and erotically.
- Cisgender: when your assigned sex at birth matches your gender identity.
- Transgender: when your assigned sex at birth does not match your gender identity.
- Gender diverse: a broader category that encapsulates a range of gender identities; more fluid.
One of the most discussed topics regarding gender diversity is the use of pronouns. Savage referenced a 2016 New York Times article in which it identified 90 different pronoun sets in use in the United States with an equal number of gender identities. And, Savage says, that number has only exploded in the last three to four years.
“I can’t tell you, ‘If this identity, use this pronoun.’ It is all individual,” he said. “There are no cliff notes. We have to ask everybody what their pronouns are.”