How to respect your transgender students

A transgender, or trans, person, is someone who does not identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth. When they were born, a doctor looked at them, made a judgement based on their physical features and wrote “male” or “female” on their paperwork.

Gender, however, is not as simple as what’s between your legs; and what’s between your legs is not even that simple. Gender is a complex relationship between our bodies, our identity (how we “feel”) and how we are seen as and treated by others. For most people, these three things are the same, or congruent : they have a “male” body, feel like a man, and are treated like a man. These people are cisgender, from the Latin “same side,” the opposite of trans.

For trans people, though, these things are incongruent. Their identity does not match their body or how they are treated by others. They may seek to change themselves to better conform with their identity, for example changing their social gender in how they dress and present, or taking hormones to change how their body looks.

Though your student may still, to you, seem “male” or “female,” in how they act or dress, that is not how they see themselves or want to be seen. A trans woman wants to be seen as a woman. A trans man wants to be seen as a man. A non-binary person may want to be seen as neither (agender), a mix of both in differing or changing amounts (bigender or genderfluid) or as something else entirely.

You are asked to respect their name and pronouns. Most trans people choose a new name. This is the name that they want to be used, and you should, after checking with them, use it for them. The name is part of who they are and using their birth name (“deadname”) can be extremely upsetting for many trans people. These names aren’t always traditional, either; non-binary people in particular sometimes choose nature or object names like Sky or Rain. This is equally as important as if it were Mason or Sarah.

Pronouns mean the words we use in place of someone’s name. Trans women want to be referred to as she and her. Similarly, trans men want to be referred to as he/him. Non-binary people may use she or he, or often the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them.” Some other trans people use new (or “neo”) pronouns, like fae/faer. This is an important choice they have made, and embracing new pronouns is a difficult but important part of many transitions.

It is also important to note that a student did not “become” their chosen gender. It would not be correct to say: “was a boy, is now a girl.” Their identity has been a part of them their entire life, not just when they chose to transition. Transition is an ongoing, life-long process, not a before and after. When speaking of them in the past, use their chosen name and pronouns, unless they say otherwise.

If you make a mistake with a student’s name or pronouns, don’t beat yourself up or be too effusively apologetic, but correct yourself as soon as you realise or are corrected, and possibly practice by saying five sentences to yourself about that student with the correct terminology later on (i.e. “Jace is a good student, he always turns up and does his work”).

Using preferred pronouns is important. Transgender people, particularly young people, have incredibly high rates of depression and attempted self-harm and suicide. However, the primary driver of these rates is a lack of social acceptance. Simply using a student’s chosen name and pronouns in just a single context (like school) can reduce their rate of suicidal behaviour by more than 56 per cent and significantly improve their mood, comfort in school and academic performance. It is not exaggerating to say that your affirmation of your student’s gender identity could be the one thing that keeps them safe and healthy during their time at school.

Embracing a student’s trans identity can be new and unfamiliar but is important and rewarding. There are a number of resources that can help you with respecting your student’s identity, such as:

Federation also has helpful resources.

Erin Moroney is a member of the LGBTIQ Restricted Committee