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Creating Trans-Inclusive Schools

The steps schools should take toward building more gender-inclusive school climates
Pink, Blue, and Rainbow Hearts on Stands

Melinda Mangin stresses the importance of creating welcoming gender inclusive environments — regardless of whether anyone in your school identifies as transgender. 

“If you imagine a quarter of your students somehow see themselves as gender nonconforming — they like something that's not stereotypically appropriate for their assigned gender — then we're talking about a lot of kids,” says Mangin, a professor at Rutgers University who is an expert in inclusive schools for transgender people. “I think it's really incumbent upon us to move away from seeing gender as a problem, and waiting to fix a problem, and trying to reframe it as this is an opportunity to be more expansive in how we understand a concept, and to create space for that expansiveness to present itself, and really just shifting our mindset about the work that we're doing. We're not fixing a problem. We're creating opportunities for genuine authenticity for kids.”

Many educators struggle to understand how best to do this work, and it comes with many fears, she says. Given the current climate of hate and laws against transgender people, she hopes educators will still do their best to affirm students identitiea and work on developing gendern-eutral school cultures. 

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Mangin discusses steps educators can make toward building more gender-inclusive school climates. 


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Melinda Mangin wants all schools to be inclusive environments for trans students. She knows this isn't easy work for educators. Today's climate for trans youth can be toxic as states wage legislative battles, parents push back against students gender identity, and educators are getting fired for supporting students. It's not surprising that many trans students don't feel safe in school or that schools are afraid to take action on the issue. Melinda has studied schools creating inclusive environments for trans students. I wondered what those schools look like. First, I asked why we need gender-inclusive schools? 

Melinda Mangin
MELINDA MANGIN: We want all our kids to be able to go to school and just be themselves, and enjoy school, and have a good day. When you talk to parents, they just want their kids to be happy. And we know that gender's not a binary. So when schools are places where we don't recognize the diversity of genders that our kids bring, they become places where our kids aren't affirmed. And so we want kids to be able to explore who they are, explore learning. Gender's a journey. It's a learning journey to figure out who you are. And so we want schools to be inclusive of that journey for all of our kids. 

JILL ANDERSON: It seems like this has been challenging. I mean, I would say probably a lot of inclusive practices, even beyond trans children, has been challenging for schools and school climates. What do you think is the biggest hurdle facing educators and making schools more gender-inclusive? 

MELINDA MANGIN: I think at one level there's a lack of understanding, just factual knowledge about what it is to be a transgender person or to understanding gender as a journey. So I think knowledge is one facet of it. When I'm talking to educators, a lot of times there's a fear of doing it wrong, and so that's a kind of hurdle, and then having information about what it actually looks like to be an inclusive school for gender-expansive children. What would I have to do as an educator to do that? So there's a range of levels of knowledge and practice. 

JILL ANDERSON: So you've been in a lot of schools and done a lot of research in this area about successful practices. What would you say are three examples of inclusive practices that all schools should be doing? 

MELINDA MANGIN: I've made a very intentional effort to go to places that are trying to do this work and doing it, not always perfectly, but really with a good faith effort. And when I'm talking to educators, they really describe three kinds of practices. 

One is to stop using binary gender-- boy and girl-- as categories that will help them organize the day. So when you think about teachers, often you might line up boys and girls, or you might have partners that are boys and girls, or you might have boy and girl bathroom passes. And so one way that teachers can be more inclusive is to move away from using gender as an organizational tool. And most teachers find that fairly easy to do, there's lots of other pedagogical strategies for organizing your day and organizing kids that can use other tools. That's one way to stop using binary gender. 

And then at the same time, teachers have shared that they're also trying to create more opportunities to talk about gender in the classroom. So whether this be through literature or casual conversation as it comes up, not to shy away from the topic of gender, but to embrace it and to point out the wonderful gender diversity that we have in the world. And so at the same time that they're minimizing binary gender, they're attending to more gender-diverse kinds of exemplars. So those two things create a more inclusive classroom. 

And then the third thing that teachers describe doing is just simply affirming children when they say this is who I am-- just saying "nice to meet you," and "I see you," and "I'm happy to have you in my classroom." And I think reducing the level of policing or surveillance that we traditionally might see in classrooms. And when I say "surveillance" I know that sounds very heavy-handed, but I'm thinking about the kinds of practices like maybe a teacher is distributing supplies and boys get blue supplies, and girls get pink supplies, or gently correcting someone like ‘Oh I don't think that boy would be doing ballet’ or correcting a girl like ‘wouldn't you like something a little bit more gentle?’ So really conforming to stereotypes is the policing or surveillance that I'm talking about. And so really just affirming children however they show up is another really pretty easy way that teachers can create inclusive classrooms. 

JILL ANDERSON: I know it sounds so easy when you describe it, but in my mind I'm imagining how hard that could be for a lot of educators just having the restraint to edit themselves and how they just talk to students. 

MELINDA MANGIN: When I spoke with teachers, when I did interviews with teachers, many of them could remember specific instances. And I think their ability to remember them speak to your point that it sounds easy, but it actually takes intentionality. But I think once you get used to making that part of your routine-- so the examples teachers might give me would-- if a boy came in with nail polish just saying, ‘oh, I like your nail polish’ and leaving it at that. Or if a girl wanted to play football on the playground—‘that looks like fun, I like to be active too’-- so those kinds of just affirming statements that we give all the time. 

JILL ANDERSON: Is this something educators are learning about in their training? 

MELINDA MANGIN: Teacher training is demanding and it covers a lot. There's content knowledge, there's pedagogical knowledge there's, students with special needs, et cetera. And oftentimes a curriculum might have one course dedicated to what you might call diversity. And diversity can be so many things, whether it's neurodiversity, or racial/ethnic diversity-- gender diversity is just one part of it. So I have an opportunity to look at teacher education curriculum and usually there's a few lessons there related to gender. A lot of the traditional gender training used to be make sure you call on girls as often as you call on boys. That used to be what we thought of as gender inclusivity-- making sure girls got fair opportunities, which obviously is really important. We don't want to stop doing that, but we also want to think beyond boys and girls. And so I think teachers don't always have the opportunities they like. And when I speak with educators, they're often hungry for more information and looking for a way to create more affirming educational spaces. 

JILL ANDERSON: One of the things I imagine happens in a school community-- maybe there might be one or two students who are identifying as trans and then that kind of becomes, not the poster child, but I'm going to use that term-- can you talk a little bit about the importance of not just focusing on one student's needs, but also focusing on changing the school culture? 

MELINDA MANGIN: Unfortunately, a lot of times schools don't understand that there is a need to change the culture until there is a child who chooses or has to disclose their gender identity. So a lot of the schools that I have visited do have one or two students who have disclosed their gender identity and those children become the impetus for changing practices. But usually what those educators find out very quickly is that those aren't the only two children, that there are other children who are either gender nonconforming or who have even socially transitioned and not disclosed. 

When I'm talking to parents, it's increasingly common for parents, if their children do socially transition-- if they're able to, they often move their children to a new school if they have the financial means to even change districts. So it is pretty common for kids to enroll and not share that they were assigned a different sex at birth. One of the things I try to communicate to educators is you just don't know and you should assume-- statistically we're talking about just under 2% of people who identify as transgender. But the Williams Institute did a large study-- a large quantitative study where 27% of the respondents said they were gender nonconforming in some way. That's a very kind of expansive definition. But if you imagine a quarter of your students somehow see themselves as gender nonconforming-- they like something that's not stereotypically appropriate for their assigned gender-- then we're talking about a lot of kids. And so I think it's really incumbent upon us to move away from seeing gender as a problem, and waiting to fix a problem, and trying to reframe it as this is an opportunity to be more expansive in how we understand a concept, and to create space for that expansiveness to present itself, and really just shifting our mindset about the work that we're doing. We're not fixing a problem we're creating opportunities for genuine authenticity for kids. 

JILL ANDERSON: So it sounds like even if you're working in a school and this has not become something that there is-- either a student who identifies-- you should still be changing some of your practices just to create a different environment. 

MELINDA MANGIN: Absolutely. I mean, if you're somebody who really follows numbers, at minimum 2% of your population is going to somehow identify within the trans umbrella. So most schools have a sizable enough population there's somebody-- there's somebody there within their student body-- but also to think beyond the students that we have in our classrooms. These students have families, they have siblings, they have relatives. Most people know somebody who identifies as trans, so that's a really rapidly changing way to think about this topic. It isn't just do I have a trans person in my classroom or in my school, but do we have genderqueer families that we need to be thinking about? 

JILL ANDERSON: Can you talk a little bit about how practices might need to change or if they need to change as students grow from elementary into their middle and high school years? 

MELINDA MANGIN: In the elementary years, where most of my research is, children who transition are socially transitioning, so they're really just changing their clothes or changing their hairstyle, maybe names and pronouns. Those are all things that are not-- they're not permanent, they can change. So it's a little less scary. 

Once you get to puberty, I think the whole idea of a gender transition feels scary to people. And so middle school and high school feels more consequential. And I don't want to say that they're not. I think that for parents who have a child at home who is questioning their gender identity, I think it is a big issue. It takes up a lot of mental space to figure out what is this? What's going on? How do I support this journey? 

But I guess one of the things that I think about a lot is gender is a journey for all of us. The way I express my gender as a middle aged woman is different than how I express my gender in other decades of my life. I'm a cisgender woman and I have a gender journey and transgender people also have a gender journey. Lots of times I hear from educators at the middle school in particular who will just throw up their hands and say everybody is something. They're all LGBTQ. They're all pan, or ace, or-- teachers are overwhelmed, that's understandable. But we already knew that our pre-pubescent preteens are dynamic individuals. And this is one part of that dynamic journey toward adulthood that they're on. And so I think trying to shut it down and-- is probably not the right path. I think we need more conversations. We have a lot more expertise now related to transition, social transition, medical transition. And I think we just need to know more so that we feel a little bit less scared. 

JILL ANDERSON: There's a lot of just dismissing that it's just a phase or it's this or that, so I do wonder about the middle school and high school years, which are really about exploration and how educators can just continue affirming, whether someone fully transitions or not, seems to be what you're saying. 

MELINDA MANGIN: Yeah. Phase is often used to be dismissive. And I think it's helpful to take back that idea of a phase and, yeah, we go through phases. We crawl before we walk right. Phases are a natural part of life and some people will be on an exploration phase and move in one direction, and then move in another direction, and that's OK. And some people will continue moving in one direction and never look back and we just don't know. I think that gets back to the kind of affirming-- affirming the people that we come in contact without really knowing what their trajectory will be. But especially with children, if we don't affirm that journey, that exploration-- I mean, that is learning. Why do we go to school? Is to learn about ourselves and the world around us. 

JILL ANDERSON: You mentioned fear earlier as being a real issue for educators and I think we're seeing that play out quite a bit around the country in some places. There's been some lawsuits and challenges being brought against educators who seem like they are trying to just affirm their students. What is your advice to those educators who might be afraid of taking on this work and practice? 

MELINDA MANGIN: Yeah, I think that a legitimate fear. I've talked to educators who have been told they can't have a rainbow flag in their classroom. Having your career threatened puts you in a very vulnerable place, so I wouldn't ever want to downplay that. And there are certainly states where it has become illegal to affirm a child's gender-- their chosen gender identity. So it's incredibly challenging for teachers to be able to do this work in those contacts. And I'm not sure it's fair to say, well, try to sneak it in, but I would say that kids know. Kids know who's supportive, they know who is open, who's a safe person. And so I think for teachers to try to model in any way that they can without putting themselves at risk-- I mean, ideally I'd like to say, yeah, everybody should be a gender warrior and put your career at risk because children's lives are at stake. I mean, that's real. Children's lives are at stake because the attempted suicide rates are very high for trans and gender nonconforming children. So is a career more important than a child's life? Obviously not, but at the same time I think it becomes incredibly difficult when you are in an environment where the facts around gender are shut down. 

JILL ANDERSON: The principal can have a huge impact on this. Can you talk about how a principal can shape the way this plays out in schools? 

MELINDA MANGIN: Yeah, I mean, principals are in a position of a lot of authority. Oftentimes, principals feel responsible for being highly competent-- knowing everything, doing everything, having their finger on the pulse of everything that goes on. When I spoke with principals who were trying to do this work in meaningful ways, many of them were very quick to say they were learners. They understood that there was more going on that they had learned about in school or maybe that they understood from their own personal gender journey-- didn't map onto what they were learning about. 

So, first and foremost, when principals are willing to step up and become learners around the topic of gender diversity, I think that's an incredible role model for teachers to be able to do that kind of work. Really interestingly, a lot of the-- and I'll call it actually fear mongering-- a lot of the conversation is about, well, what if I did that-- what if I had a rainbow flag, and then next thing I know the news media knows, and then there's protests, and-- there's this vision of a huge snowball effect or reprisals and backlash. There's a lot of rhetoric around that when I talk to teachers before going to visit schools. This was the fear. And then I visited 20 different schools in six states and the principals shared. They said, yeah, we were worried about reprisals, we were worried about angry parents, we were worried about the media, and they said, it hasn't played out. They could mention a couple of parents who had called and said, what's going on over there? And when they explained it, it was like, oh, thanks for letting us know. 

But really, at least in the context where I was able to visit, there wasn't a huge backlash. And principals were able to really create a learning environment for their teachers and for themselves so that they could provide a more affirming environment. 

JILL ANDERSON: What should parents be going to their schools asking for, and looking for, and expecting from educators on this? 

MELINDA MANGIN: As you said, anytime you show up at school with an ask for educators, they're always a little bit worried about is your ask appropriate. Are you second guessing them as educators, as experts? What I found is when parents show up about gender as the topic, educators are usually pretty willing to say, we're not the experts here, help us understand this, help us learn what we need to do. Teachers want to support their children, their students in the classroom. They want their students to love coming to school, to be happy and well-adjusted. So I think when parents bring this topic to the attention of school officials and say, hey, look, this is going on at home or this is what my child is expressing, educators are usually willing to listen. How to move forward is a conversation. 

And one of the things I learned is that there's no one right way to move forward. What one child needs to feel supported might not be the same thing as what another child needs to be supported. So it isn't like, oh, well, we have one trans child and this is what they got, so that's what your child's going to get as well. It's really much more of a subtle, ongoing conversation because needs are going to change over time as well. So I think it's really about the partnership. And I think parents are usually scared that the educators aren't going to hear them or understand the importance of gender diversity. And I think lots of times they're surprised. The educators have just been waiting for the parents to step forward so that they can partner around the topic and create a pathway forward. 

JILL ANDERSON: I just want to flip the script a little bit and imagine that if you're a principal and the parent is coming to your office or you're the teacher and that parent is reaching out to you, what should your response be? 

MELINDA MANGIN: Well, first and foremost, to really listen. Because for most families, if your child is expressing some type of gender curiosity, it can be confusing and parents might not know exactly what they're asking for. So I think that, first of all, the principal does need to be just really listening to what that family is sharing because it's personal and it might feel very consequential. But principals should be aware of what the law says and what the policy in their district and state. I mentioned already that I'm in New Jersey where we have very strong policies in favor of affirming children's gender identity. That's not all situations, but sometimes a school district has its own policy in place. And so having that kind of knowledge can be helpful. Ideally, principals would have some basic vocabulary related to gender. That's not always the case. And then I think it's just a matter of being open and saying, look, I'm learning, and willing to learn, and help me understand what kinds of supports we need to put in place. 

JILL ANDERSON: Melinda Mangin is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. She's the author of Transgender Students in Elementary School: Creating an Affirming and Inclusive School Culture and co-editor of Trans Studies in K-12 Education: Creating an Agenda for Research and Practice. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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