Gender Inclusivity: Answering Difficult Questions
By Ruthie Kolb, Training Manager
March 9, 2017
Our student question for this month is:
“Can a person who is transgender still have babies?”
Students are curious about LGBTQIA-related issues. There is nothing unusual or shocking about the questions we hear from youth. They may have very few venues that allow them to ask honest questions and get respectful responses.
For many educators, however, teaching about sexuality isn’t something we had modeled for us in our youth, let alone the training to comfortably teach about sexual orientation and gender identity. At first glance, we can find ourselves tongue-tied and stumped.
So, here is my secret key to help you think through inclusive sex education: don’t make assumptions.
As humans, we build years of our own experiences which leads us to make assumptions about the people we meet.The foundation of a positive education environment is resisting the temptation to put students in boxes. Instead, we must encourage them to grow and define themselves.
LGBTQIA+ inclusivity at its core does not assume who students are, who they date, and if and how they want to have sex. Because of recent events, I am going to hone in on how to be inclusive of gender-identity. We will discuss sexual orientation-inclusivity in future blogs.
“At my last school I felt miserable and got called ‘freak’ and ‘weirdo’ as if those were my name instead of the name I had asked them to call me. They called me by my birth name as well and She/Her/Hers pronouns. They had no respect for me despite how kind I had acted towards them. Freshman year was horrid. I felt like I didn’t belong, and I felt like a failure. I felt like there was no place there for someone like me.” - GLSEN 2015 National School Climate Survey
In January, GLSEN released their report on the 2015 National School Climate Survey which revealed that 85.7% of LGBTQ students had heard negative remarks in the past year against transgender people. Furthermore, the report shared the devastating statistic that 63.5% of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff.
The women’s marches that took place all over the country on January 21st left many transgender and genderqueer individuals even more marginalized and underrepresented, acutely displaying the deep rift and pain that exists around gender within the feminist movement. Two weeks ago President Trump removed federal protections under Title IX for transgender students, which included the use of school bathrooms in alignment with gender identity. As a result of the protection reversal, the Supreme Court sent the case of Glouchester County School Board vs. G. G. (a case in which a transgender student, Gavin Grimm, had been barred from using the bathroom that corresponded to his gender identity) back to the 4th Circuit Court.
The culmination of these events has created a call-to-action for educators. We cannot sit passively by, thinking “Yeah, of course I would support trans students if they needed me.” We must use the power and privilege bestowed upon us as trusted adults to actively ensure that classrooms include the voices of our genderqueer community.
As a cisgender educator who didn’t have to engage with experiences of gender outside of my own, I understand that it can seem difficult to think through how to be more inclusive of all genders. However, for sex education to effectively inform and empower youth, we must create spaces that actively protect vulnerable students.
So, what are some steps you can take?
1. Don’t assume. Ask your students by what names they would like to be known. Ask what their genders are. Respect their answers. Allow them to change and grow throughout your acquaintance with them.
Sometimes teachers who are new to the conversation feel uncomfortable about how to start a classroom conversation around gender pronouns. Don’t make it a big deal. Start the conversation as if it were as normal - as it should be. “I don’t want to make any assumptions about who is in the room, so as we get to know each other, I would like for you to tell me what name you’d like to be known by and the pronouns you use for yourself. If you’re not familiar with gender pronouns, what we’re talking about is if we should refer to you using 'he or him', 'she or her', 'they or them' or something else.”
To help gender-nonconforming students from feeling isolated, make sure that all students share their pronouns. If students answer “you can call me anything”, “isn’t it obvious”, etc., don’t let it slide. Tell them that it’s important that we not make assumptions about the identity of anyone in the class and ask again for their pronouns.
When you are asking for students' pronouns, try not to use the phrase “preferred pronouns”. Just call them “pronouns”. Remember that for transgender people, this isn’t analogous to how I prefer to have sour cream on my chili, this is their identity. This is who they are.
2. Be upfront about why you’re discussing gender. In the past, I have tried to be quietly inclusive by simply changing my language, but not engaging in a class conversation. The students had no idea what I was talking about. The participants that I was trying to "include" felt even more ostracized. It was a fail all-around. This experience taught me to be upfront in explaining why I am making changes to the language I use.
For example, when discussing anatomy, I use phrases like "a person assigned female at birth" instead of "girl". However, some students would be lost by this sudden change in language unless I have a conversation about why.
3. Expand beyond a binary view of gender. Often, cisgender people are most comfortable with binary genders – that people are either a boy or a girl – because that is how we are societally programmed to talk about gender. We easily understand transgender students who are biologically male and transition fully to female or vice versa because they still fit within our binary understanding. We have to get uncomfortable and further expand our understanding. Many people are non-binary and identify with neither a boy or a girl or identify somewhere in-between. Make space for people to be outside of the male/female paradigm.
4. Remember intersex students. In much of this blog I have referenced transgender students, but we also need to be mindful of intersex students – students who are born with the reproductive anatomy that is outside of typical male or female definitions. Approximately 1 in 1500 of the babies born each year have genitalia that are ambiguous. Even biologically, gender isn't as black-and-white as we sometimes perceive it to be. We also need to be mindful that some of our students are intersex and our traditional understandings of gender are harmful to them as well.
5. Rethink how you talk about reproduction, puberty and anatomy. Lessons surrounding reproduction, puberty, and anatomy can be particularly puzzling to adapt at first glance. The age-old conversations of "girls have this and boys have that" just don't work. Here are some more resources to help expand these traditionally gendered conversations:
- The Rights, Respect, Responsibility (3Rs) curriculum written by Advocates for Youth does a fabulous job of presenting age-appropriate K-12 information on each of these subjects in a gender-expansive way.
- I am eternally impressed by Cory Silverberg's writing for children (What Makes a Baby? And Sex is a Funny Word). He presents the diversity of reproductive experiences and bodies so simply, beautifully, and effortlessly.
- Period Positive wrote a guide to discussing menstruation in a gender-inclusive way (go to "Resources," then "Queeriods Poster and Menstruator Flowchart."
So. With these thoughts in mind, let's revisit the question for this month: "Can a person who is transgender still have babies?"
In summary, yes. Any person with ovaries, a uterus, and a vagina can become pregnant and have children. Furthermore, a person who has used testosterone hormone therapy can still become pregnant (testosterone is not an effective form of birth control). If a person who has received hormone therapy wanted to become pregnant, they would need to talk to their doctor to understand the steps necessary for a healthy pregnancy.