Q: Dear Chuck, I have a question that I was hoping you could help support. I have a student in fourth grade who is having a hard time accepting a student who identifies as female but was born male. This fourth grader has had conversations at home with her parents and due to religion they do not support this change. This fourth grade student is being outed by her peers for not accepting our female student.
What is the best way to support this student and potentially her family?
A: What a great question. I really love this question specifically because it asks us to look at the intersection of three prominent questions at the same time. How do we create a school and classroom climate where everyone is able to ask questions, learn, and express themselves? How do we do that without adding harm or undo burden on transgender youth? How do we support a young person reconciling the different messages they are receiving at home than at school? How can we do all of those at the same time?
Nobody should be experiencing bullying or harassment at school. If the student who is coming from a religious family is experiencing those things, then that needs to be addressed. It is very difficult to learn when experiencing those things – no matter what your gender or sexual orientation is. Is this young person willing to challenge their own beliefs? Are they willing to use the right pronouns? Are they willing to learn? If so, then they deserve respect and patience for the process they are going through in reconciling the messages from their family with the reality of their peers – that is not an easy task. If they are willing to learn and challenge themselves, then their classmates should be encouraged to support them in that process by gently correcting them when they get the wrong name and pronoun, and providing ongoing education. However, the transgender student should never be in a position where she will have to be educating and putting her own needs and realities second to the process of the religious student. This patience and education should fall on allies and adults.
Many students and staff come to school from homes that promote different values than what the school upholds. Reminding folks that at school, we treat other people with respect, use the correct names and pronouns, and challenge ourselves to understand differences and learn about people different from us. Everyone is different, and students will interact with people far different from them their whole lives, and during our school years we are learning how to understand and respect those differences. Learning that now is a lot easier than learning it once solidly in adulthood.
Remind the student that gender is not a choice. Explain the difference between gender and sex assigned at birth. Help them work through their discomforts by reminding them that someone else’s gender or gender expression is not an attack on their own, and is not personal against them. Tolerance is better than outright rejection, and if that student can get to a point where they can see that the existence of a transgender classmate does not negatively effect them – they can still respect that student even if they don’t understand.
Acknowledge that while there are different opinions regarding LGBTQ+ identities, that we as a culture are starting to understand that gender is actually a spectrum and is not inherently connected to sex assigned at birth. Acknowledge that many religions are not yet on board with this, but even within strict religions communities there is more and more support for LGBTQ+ people, and we can expect to see this continue.
It can be really hard to have different values taught at home than in school, and to hold different values than your peers. Support that child in navigating that confusion, but try to do that not in a group settings so that child does not feel extra peer pressure and so the transgender student is somewhat protected from the non-supportive student’s process.