Working with trans students – top tips

Much of the trans awareness/cultural competence training I do is in educational settings – schools, colleges and universities. Last week I found myself at EMFEC training staff from a number of institutions alongside the impressive and trans-famous Lee Gale. My job was to take the afternoon slot and help the assembled professionals think about best practice.

My background as a school and university counsellor gives unique insight into the impact of structures and practices on trans students.

I promised the attendees I would pull together what we had learned into a “10 tips” document for education similar to the one I did for the workplace. Here is that document in handy pdf poster format, and below I give a more in-depth look at these recommendations:

10 tips - students10 tips for working with trans students

Thanks to all the professionals present who got involved in the exercise to consider the needs of trans students , and to Lee for live Tweeting the whole thing. Here are my 10 tips in full:

1. Education, Education, Education

Or more precisely, training. Cultural competence takes work, and without cultural competence, people will either blunder badly (unconscious incompetence) or walk on eggshells (conscious incompetence). Trans lives are not well known about and there is a lot of misinformation out there. As always, go to credible sources and promote knowledge in any way you can. Remember, harm can be done through well meaning ignorance. But even trans people know we can never know everything – we are all still learning.

See my website for some signposts to resources.

The Gender Unicorn from TSER is a good way to start a conversation
The Gender Unicorn from TSER is a good way to start a conversation

Recommendation 1: Mandatory training for all staff (because not all trans students will be known to you) and governors. Gender variance talked about competently and in a non-pathologising way in classes such as PHSE, psychology and sociology. Intersex conditions learned in biology. Trans people visible – on posters, in the curriculum, books in the library.

2. Celebrate trans people and gender variance

A celebratory culture challenges all its assumptions about gender and applauds those who see things differently.  It makes space for people to be different. Trans people are only a “problem” if we don’t accommodate them, and trans kids only have a frighteningly high suicide rate because of the way society treats them.

Lee Gale Tweets: "'Some kids aren't suicidal because they're trans. They're suicidal because it's hard to be trans in this society.' @Sam_R_Hope @emfec_team"
Lee Live Tweeted my talk

Recommendation 2: 

Celebrate anything that challenges gender stereotypes and remember to talk about the trans community during LGBT History month. Share words and images of how gender and gender variance is expressed differently in different cultures across the world.

[Image: 3 Indian Hijiras in traditional female attire]
In India, Hijiras lost many rights after colonisation, but they have fought to regain them
3. Reduce gender segregation

[image: a person stagd in front of gender segregated toilet doors. The sign on the gents reads "get beat up", the sign on the ladies reads "get yelled at"]Trans girls, (assigned male at birth but living as girls), should be allowed to use girls toilets (and vice versa) if they want to, and it would be discriminatory to prevent them. However, gender segregation remains a headache for trans people, causing untold anxiety – particularly for non-binary trans people, but not only for them. Research also shows that emphasising sex differe[image: a gender neutral restroom sign with picture of a toilet]nces can lead to girls under-performing.

Recommendation 3: Reduce segregation as much as possible. With sports, toilets, dress codes and roles there are often ways around the traditional way of doing things. Don’t wait for a trans or non-binary student to show up before you make those changes, because they will benefit everyone and undermine sexism.

4. Be conscious of what story your language tells

The papers tell stories of trans women who “used to be men”, of “sex change” and “having the op”. People often fixate on what is between trans people’s legs and possible medical changes we might make, rather than who we are and how we experience the world. Medicine and psychology treat being trans like an illness that has to be cured. For most trans people, these are narrow and inaccurate stories about a complex and varied experience.

It’s important to allow people to use different words to express their experience of gender without recoiling from “all these labels”. The more stories we hear, the more nuance we allow, the better we will understand.

Lee Gale Tweets: Labels can be important - 'they are the way we tell our stories.' @Sam_R_Hope @emfec_team

Recommendation 4: Be aware of the diversity of language, stories and experience that exist within the trans community. Learn what language hurts or fails to describe trans people. Gender neutral language is a must; find alternatives to expressions like “boys and girls”. Assume nothing about the gender of the person/group you are addressing. Here’s my handy trans language guide.

5. Don’t “out” trans people

Never assume that a trans person wants their trans status to be shared, and that “outing” them may cause harm, as well as contravening legislation. Students may be “out” in some parts of their life but not in others – to family but not to school, or vice versa.

Recommendation 5: Be clear with a trans student exactly what they want shared and with whom. Consider ways in which they could be accidentally outed – e.g. in letters home. Ensure historic name changes and other details do not resurface to expose transitioned students. Know your duties under equality and data protection law.

6. Use inclusive admin systems

Some admin systems are the bane of trans peoples lives: Boxes that ask us sex rather than gender; options that are limited to male or female; insistence on titles (even though these are not legally necessary); and systems that make it difficult or impossible to change our names. These are not small issues because they continually invalidate who we are.

[example of bad practice: options to selct one of the following: male, female, transgender]
Click on the image to find out why this is bad practice
6. Recommendation: Use best practice guidance from Scottish Transgender Alliance on monitoring forms and where gender needs to be asked. If a student cannot legally change their name yet, make sure their “known as” name is what is used. If they have a deed poll, this is a legal document and should be accepted. Alert students to potential issues with exams and certificates – think ahead, and draw up protocols.

7. Rethink Safeguarding

Trans young people are extremely vulnerable to bullying and abuse, including sexual abuse. One of the main reasons for this is that social isolation makes it easier for trans people to be victimised – they are less likely to have people looking out for them, less likely to be listened to, more likely to be seen as attention seeking if they try to speak up about something that has happened.

Because of this, it is essential to re-orientate your thinking – stop thinking of trans people as risky, think of them as at risk and centre them. Support, inclusion, and open lines of communication are far better tools for keeping young people safe than mere vigilance.

7. Recommendation: Don’t isolate trans people – encourage them to form peer support groups and have people to talk to, allow trans kids to be accommodated with their identified gender as much as possible. Focus on the known safeguarding risk (high risk of abuse and suicide for the trans person) rather than imagined risk (trans person somehow overcoming their social stigma and marginalisation enough to have the power to harm other students).

8. Zero tolerence for misgendering and transphobia

Transphobia comes in subtle and blatant forms and is sometimes overlooked by people who see being trans as a choice (hint: it’s not). Trans students who get ridiculed, bullied or excluded are not “asking for it”, and are not somehow extra brave and able to cope with stares, slights, insults and violence.[a trans woman being bombarded with misgendering words]

Misgendering can do a lot of harm, even though it is mostly unintended. Examples are referring to a group that includes a trans boy as “girls”, using incorrect pronouns and gendered words about a person. Though it may seem harmless, it indicates to the trans person the way someone else is thinking about them is at odds with the way they see themself. This undermines the trans person’s sense of self, particularly for non-binary people who have little recognition. As it happens time after time, it can be very damaging.

Recommendation 8: Set a continuous tone of accepting and including trans people, even if trans students are not visible. Act swiftly in response to any transphobia, don’t let it slide. Actively correct any misnaming or misgendering – if it’s you, apologise and move on quickly. Don’t make a big deal about it.

9. Use a person-centred approach

It’s all too easy to make assumptions about what is right for someone else, but really we are all the experts on our own lives, and trans people are no exception. When we think we know better than trans people we make the fatal mistake of thinking our lack of understanding is caused by a flaw in their thinking rather than a flaw in our understanding.

Remember also that trans people may be dealing with multiple issues – a higher incidence of autism, a higher incidence of mental health issues due to trauma, isolation and abuse, as well as all the other things people have to deal with in life. To misquote Dr Stephen Shore, if you’ve met one trans person, you’ve met one trans person.

Lee Gale Tweets: Best practice 11. Person centred approach - include trans people in decisions and solutions to best support them @Sam_R_Hope @emfec_team

Recommendation 9: Listen. Take the time to find out what feels safe and comfortable to the trans person. Don’t make assumptions, and don’t assume you know better.

10. No Gatekeeping

It is unbelievably hard to get treatment as a trans person, despite the fact that overwhelmingly the evidence indicates treatment for those that want it (not all do) is beneficial. This is particularly true for trans children.

Once a trans person gets to a gender clinic, they will still have a very long wait and face a lot of “gatekeeping”. During this wait, some may be suffering as their hormones change their body in ways they don’t want. Extra delays can cause real harm.

Let trans people, including kids, do their thing; it is likely to be harmful to put extra barriers in their way, or be resistant, disbelieving or disapproving. Some trans people experiment with identity before hitting the right formula – that’s okay too, there should be room for diverse self-expression and exploration. It’s healthy.

Lee Gale Tweets: Best practice 12. Most important if you ask me - Respect that trans people know their own minds & identities @Sam_R_Hope @emfec_team

Recommendation 10 : Just allow the trans person to live as they want to live, and make the necessary referrals as quickly as possible. Unless you’re a highly qualified expert on trans people, it is probably best not to make your own judgement about them or try to intervene in the process they are undergoing.

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