All posts by Emily Meadows

EMILY MEADOWS, PhD is an alumni of international schools and has worked as a professional educator and counselor across the world, serving children and families in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. She researches inclusive policy and practice for LGBTQ+ students, and holds master’s degrees in the fields of Counseling and Sexual Health. Emily teaches for the George Washington University's graduate program in LGBT Health Policy & Practice, and is a consultant on gender and sexual diversity and inclusion in international schools: www.emilymeadows.org

Taipei American School’s Policy for Transgender Students

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A couple of years ago, I published a post encouraging international schools to adopt a school-wide policy for transgender students. Taipei American School has done just that, leading the way in supporting gender diverse students. I interviewed Adam Nelson, a member of the committee that implemented the policy. Adam Nelson is the Interim Deputy Head of School at Taipei American School in Taiwan and holds a J.D. from the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Emily: How was the process to develop and implement a policy for transgender students initiated at Taipei American School? 

Adam: The process started when the Head of School put together a committee to come up with such a policy, both in response to the Obama Administration’s policy guidance that Title IX protects trans* students and to help better protect the trans* students we had on campus.

Emily: How was faculty involved? Did they receive training on their role in enforcing the policy? 

Adam: We currently have only a small number of openly trans* students, and their counselors have worked directly with those students’ teachers both to make sure they understood their obligations under the policy and to offer support with meeting their students’ needs. 

One of our school psychologists recently presented an overview of the policy to the entire Upper School faculty, and I’m sure there have been other smaller or division-specific efforts, but our first attempt at formal faculty-wide training will come in the fall.

Emily: How was the policy presented to the greater TAS community? Did you put it out in a newsletter, for example, or just add it to the website when it was ready? 

Adam: It has mostly been the latter. The policy was first adopted around the time of our most recent WASC accreditation visit, and was mentioned at least briefly in our self-study report, but otherwise it was really just published in the student handbooks, which parents are required to read each year, and in our administrator, faculty, and staff manuals. 

Emily: What challenges arose during the process, and how would you recommend handling them if another school encounters the same? 

Adam: The process has really been relatively painless so far. Even the drafting was fairly straightforward, since we merely adapted the model policy that had been published by GLSEN! 

The biggest challenges so far have really mostly been technical. Like all schools, we have a lot of systems that report gender information, and it’s not always clear why. Fortunately, our student information system (SIS) supports having separate gender and gender assigned at birth fields, which made things easier for those systems that play well with our SIS. Otherwise, we’ve tried to limit references to student gender as much as possible. We now feel like we’ve done a pretty good job giving those employees with a bona fide need to know access to a student’s gender assigned at birth, but otherwise making it so that any other user doesn’t see gender at all unless they need to, and then only giving those individuals access to information based on each student’s self-identification. 

Emily: Has the policy been successful in supporting students since its implementation? 

Adam: I think it has been successful. Again, I’m only aware of a very small number of openly trans* students, but I know those students have been appreciative of the school’s support and validation of their identities. 

Emily: Thank you, Adam, for taking the time to share your experience with implementing a transgender inclusive policy. Taipei American School is leading the way!

Please contact me to discuss crafting and implementing a transgender and gender non-binary inclusion policy to fit your school. I specialize in international school policy development and faculty training for gender and sexual orientation diversity.

www.EmilyMeadows.org

Tired: Celebrating Diversity / Wired: Antiracist Education

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Talking about racism can be awfully uncomfortable, particularly for white people since we so rarely have to think about race in our daily lives, and we certainly do not consider ourselves part of the problem. Racist people use nasty slurs, they dress up in blackface/white hoods/swastikas, they refuse to be friends with people of color (POC). I don’t do any of those things, so I’m not racist… Right?

If we view ourselves through the lens of a Racist / Not Racist binary, most of us will confidently partition ourselves as Not Racist. But what if the options were Racist or Antiracist? What evidence can you provide that you are the latter?

Simply avoiding racial slurs, or “celebrating diversity” is insufficient. To be antiracist, we must actively seek out racism and correct it. If you benefit from racial privilege, it is incumbent upon you to fix it. As international educators, we have a magnificent opportunity (see: responsibility) to promote antiracism by teaching racial justice in schools.

But aren’t children too young to learn about race? No. Children of color learn about race early on – they have no option otherwise. White kids can and should learn about race (and racial justice), too.

Talking about racism seems awkward – what about celebrating diversity? It’s super awkward (and dangerous) for POC to live with systemic racism. If the most uncomfortable race-related incident that’s happened to you is having to acknowledge racism (or being called a racist), then you can count yourself amongst the privileged. With that privilege comes the responsibility to uncover racism and correct it. Bonus points if you teach your students to do the same.

Keep in mind that most racism is not as overt as the recent, highly-publicized events in the United States, so I am not suggesting we show young children the video of George Floyd’s killing. Covert racism is far more common and insidious – it does not look like what we think of as white supremacy, and takes a trained eye to spot. Think: racist school mascots, treating children of color as older than they are, denying children of color the opportunities that come from learning from a teacher that looks like them, prioritizing white voices in curriculum, and perpetuating the myth of the bootstrap theory.

I don’t live in the United States, and racism isn’t an issue where I work. It can be more comfortable to decry racism happening far away, as it allows us to believe that we are not part of the problem. However, racism exists everywhere, including at your school. In fact, that’s the racism you are likely best positioned to confront and influence.

Others have written about this before me and better than me (see resource bank below), but I use this particular platform to ensure that international educators understand that we are not exempt from confronting institutional racism.

But I’m just a math/science/PE/etc. teacher. What can I do? Racism is baked into schools – our curriculum, our policies, our hiring preferences, the overwhelmingly white voices we feature as experts and leaders, students’ hierarchical social experiences – it’s everywhere. Regardless of your role in the school, there is no shortage of material to examine under an antiracist lens, and to correct.

Antiracism resources to get you started:  

Culturally-Responsive Curriculum Scorecard

Tool For Selecting Anti-Biased Texts

Social Justice Standards

Antiracist Resources for Young Children

List of Anti-Racism Articles, Books, Movies, Podcasts, and More

What White People Can Do for Racial Justice

Anti-Racism Resources Curated for Language Arts Teachers

The Educational Advance of the Decade Will Be Gender & Sexual Diversity Inclusion

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If your school has not yet opened a conversation about gender and sexual diversity, I predict it will in the 2020’s.

Gender and sexually diverse students attend international schools, and educators are increasingly aware of the benefits of inclusion. Right off the bat, I acknowledge that many countries have cultural or even legal barriers in place to suppress full inclusion. I have worked in religious schools, and also in the Middle East – I really do get the challenges. Still, there are data-based, safe, and effective interventions to increase the educational experience for LGBTQ+ children, appropriate for even the most conservative contexts (for specifics, see the books where I have written on this topic[1][2]). We have got to move past culture as an excuse for discrimination.

Inclusion of gender and sexually diverse children is relevant worldwide. UNESCO asserts that, “The education sector has a responsibility to provide safe and inclusive learning environments for all students. Addressing homophobic and transphobic violence in schools is critical to effective learning, to meet human rights commitments, … and to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”[3].

Gender and sexual diversity inclusion is relevant on a large scale. It is difficult to gather data on such sensitive metrics but, where we do have studies internationally, research indicates that somewhere between 5-10% of people self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender[4][5]. Scholars and statisticians estimate that these figures are lower than the actual LGBTQ+ population because respondents may be reluctant to identify themselves, given the associated stigma, or may not connect with these labels, even if same-sex attracted or gender non-conforming[6]. Intersex people further increase diversity, representing an estimated 1.7% of the population[7]. Moreover, LGBTQ+ identities are on the rise, with Millennials self-identifying as the least cisgender and heterosexual generation to date[8][9]. This is not to reinforce the myth that gender and sexual diversity is new; rather, greater social acceptance has made space for more people to be open about their identities.  

Still, even if we consider the conservative end of the bracket, and posit that only 5% of people in the world are gender or sexually diverse today, this constitutes about 400 million individuals. If that was the population of a country, it would be the third largest nation on earth (and, dare I say, would sport the most colourful flag). Gender and sexually diverse people are significant.

Child-centred international schools cannot conscientiously ignore this population, and it is unethical to do so. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children are among the most vulnerable to a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and suicidality[10][11]. Let this not be confounded with the tired trope of homosexuality as a mental illness; LGBTQ+ identities are risk factors for nothing, whereas contexts that pathologize and discriminate against LGBTQ+ people are risks factors for multiple negative outcomes.

Indeed, it is encouraging to discover that inclusive contextual factors can virtually eliminate the vulnerability we typically associate with LGBTQ+ youth. Gender and sexually diverse children who have access to affirming social support see benefits across multiple outcomes[12][13]. School-based interventions, such as non-discrimination policies and affirming students’ gender identities, substantially reduce LGBTQ+ mental health risks[14][15]. Robust research shows that gender and sexually diverse children are not inherently troubled, but exposure to stigmatizing social conditions is detrimental.


Fortunately, schools are well-positioned to make a tremendous positive impact in reducing this stigma. As an educational consultant on gender and sexual diversity, I train international school teachers, counselors, and administrators who may start with a modest understanding of LGBTQ+ children (because, truthfully, most of us did not learn much about this in our education courses). Nevertheless, even the most novice participants leave my sessions confidently prepared with knowledge and skills to improve their practice to be more inclusive of all students, regardless of where they work.

Gender and sexual diversity inclusion and equity will become an expectation among international schools this decade. If you act now, you still have time to become a leader in the movement.


[1] Meadows, E. S. (2019). “That would never work here”: Overcoming ‘context paralysis’ on behalf of gender & sexual minority students worldwide In Wiseman, A. W. (Ed.) Annual Review of Comparative and International Education 2018 (International Perspectives on Education and Society, Vol. 37), 287-305. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Publishing.

[2] Meadows, E. S. & Shain, J. D. (2019). Supporting gender & sexual minority students in conservative school communities In Sprott, R. & Lytle, M. (Eds.) Walking the Walk: Addressing Gender and Sexual Orientation Diversity in Schools from Primary Education to College. Manuscript submitted for publication. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books.

[3] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2016). Out in the open: Education sector responses to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Paris, France: UNESCO.

[4] Mor, Z. & Davidovich, U. (2016). Sexual orientation and behaviour of adult Jews in Israel and the association with risk behaviour. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(6), 1563-1571.

[5] Greaves, L. M., Barlow, F. K., Lee, C. H., Matika, C. M., Wang, W., Lindsay, C., Case, C. J. B., … & Sibley, C. G. (2016). The diversity and prevalence of sexual orientation self-labels in a New Zealand National Sample. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(5), 1-12.

[6] H., E. (2015, May 6). How to count how many people are gay. The Economist. Retrieved from: https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2015/05/05/how-to-count-how-many-people-are-gay

[7] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[8] Newport, F. (2018). In U.S., estimate of LGBT population rises to 4.5%. Gallup. Retrieved from: https://news.gallup.com/poll/234863/estimate-lgbt-population-rises.aspx

[9] Lam, A. (2016, October 18). Counting the LGBT population: 6% of Europeans identify as LGB. Dalia. Retrieved from: https://daliaresearch.com/blog/counting-the-lgbt-population-6-of-europeans-identify-as-lgbt/

[10] Haas, A. P., Rodgers, P. L., & Herman, J. L. (2014). Suicide attempts among transgender and gender non-conforming adults: Findings of the national transgender discrimination survey. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.

[11] Mathy, R. M. Suicidality and sexual orientation in five continents: Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, 7(23), 215-225.

[12] Snapp, S. D., Watson, R. J., Russell, S. T., Diaz, R. M., & Ryan, C. (2015). Social support networks for LGBT young adults: Low cost strategies for positive adjustment. Family Relations Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Science, 64(3), 420-430.

[13] Ryan, C., Russell, S. T., Huebner, D. M., Diaz, R. & Sanchez, J. (2010). Family acceptance in adolescence and the health of LGBT young adults. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 23(4), 205-213.

[14] Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Birkett, M., Van Wagenen, A., & Meyer, I. H. (2014). Protective School Climates and Reduced Risk for Suicide Ideation in Sexual Minority Youths. American Journal of Public Health, 104(2), 279-286.

[15] Russell, S.T., Pollitt, A. M., Li, G., Grossman, A. H. (2018). Chosen name use is linked to reduced depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior among transgender youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 63, 503-505.

“That Would Never Work Here”: Overcoming Context Paralysis on Behalf of Gender & Sexual Minorities Worldwide

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The title of this blog is the same as the that of a book chapter I wrote, published last month in the Annual Review of Comparative & International Education 2018. In it, I coin the term context paralysis, a reluctance to engage with issues when the cultural context may make doing so difficult. I challenge educational researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners to consider how they can leverage their understanding of local context to safely and respectfully improve rights and protections for LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) students where they live. I invite you to read a lightly edited excerpt from my chapter:

The dominant perspective, worldwide, is that heterosexual, cisgender people fulfil the natural, normal, and correct version of gender and sexuality. In my studies on the topic, I have encountered no culture that treats GSM (gender and sexual minority) people equally to their heterosexual, cisgender peers. Those who claim equality usually point to the “elevation” of GSM people through “positive” stereotypes, fetishization, or hypersexualization. Proclaiming gay men to be inherently fashionable is a “positive” stereotype, for example. these instances still highlight an atypical, non-normative status, which is not the same as equal. To exist outside of the heterosexual, cisgender norm is to be “othered.”

School policy, practice, and climate can dramatically impact the educational experience of GSM students. GSM children who attend schools that are inclusive, supportive, and protective of GSM people are more likely to see positive results in terms of their attendance[1][2], grade point average[3], and emotional wellbeing[4]. While not all studies explicitly factor in the cultural context where the school is located when analyzing results, some that do show that protective school climates, regardless of locale, are significant influencers of GSM student wellbeing[5][6]. That is to say that it appears to be the actual school policies and practices, not the local social norms influencing them, that makes the impact on students. I cringe at the cliché, but schools do make a difference.

Furthermore, schools are in a unique position, with access to large numbers (usually majority proportions) of children during their developmental years. Schools, therefore, are exceptionally poised to shape the perspectives and futures of entire generations of young people. This power can be used to reinforce a dominant and discriminatory perspective but may also be leveraged to support more egalitarian practices. To unequivocally state to a class of students that gender and sexual minorities are valid and worthy people, deserving of equality, is not only an extension of support to the GSM child listening in the room, but may also change the social context that this child grows up in by influencing the biases of their peers.

To address systemic discrimination and marginalization, it helps to look at the actual systems involved. I would wager that no other government system, world-wide, has quite the same impact factor on the biases and perspectives of future generations as the educational system. For this reason, schools are a fitting point of intervention to address this prominent inequality of systemic discrimination against GSM people.

Excerpt taken from:

Meadows, E. S. (2019). “That would never work here”: Overcoming ‘context paralysis’ on behalf of gender & sexual minority students worldwide In Wiseman, A. W. (Ed.) Annual Review of Comparative and International Education 2018 (International Perspectives on Education and Society, Vol. 37), 287-305. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Publishing.

How have you overcome context paralysis to support LGBTQ+ students where you work?  


[1] Jones, T., & Hillier, L. (2013). Comparing trans-spectrum and same-sex-attracted youth in Australia: Increased risks, increased activisms. Journal of LGBT Youth, 10(4), 287–307.

[2] Ferreyra, M. E. (2010). Gender identity and extreme poverty. In Dubel, I. & Hielkema, A. (Eds.), Urgency required: Gay and lesbian rights are human rights (pp. 207–212). The Hague, The Netherlands: Hivos.

[3] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danischewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.

[4] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danischewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.

[5] Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Birkett, M., van Wagenen, A., & Meyer, I. H. (2014). Protective School climates and reduced risk for suicide ideation in sexual minority youths. American Journal of Public Health, 104(2), 279–286.

[6] Heck, N., Flentje, A., & Cochran, B. (2011). Offsetting risks: High school gay-straight alliances and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. School Psychology Quarterly, 26(2), 161–174.

Your Brain on a New Job

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This post is for those starting a first international school gig, or those in a new position/country who could use a reminder about beginning again. Share this with your colleagues who may fall into those categories.

Arrival: Your brain as a large sieve

Arrival brain

You are holding onto only the basics, and letting the rest filter out, like through the holes of a (very) large sieve. You might be astonished at what you are unable to retain. At this arrival stage, you are discarding all but the most essential information so as not to clutter your mind. When a well-intentioned colleague offers tips on a restaurant they went to in a cool part of the city, your eyes glaze over; you have no idea where that is and can’t pronounce the name of the restaurant; you’ll never remember it. When a teammate mentions a unit coming up in January, you wonder if you will still be around then. An incredible amount of input is firing at you. You feel overwhelmed, like you are not keeping up. Doesn’t help that you probably are still living out of a suitcase to some extent. It’s not your fault, it’s totally normal, and it will get better!  

Settling In: Your brain as a medium sieve

Settling in brain

A couple of months in, you begin to recognize yourself again somewhat, though you are probably less organized than usual, and are still having to apologize for dropping the ball in situations when you normally wouldn’t. Your new living space is functional, if not yet beautiful. You’ve learned how to independently meet basic needs in your new location, such as getting groceries, submitting supplies requests, and saying hello/good-bye in the local language. You’ve got a number of new friends and colleagues whose company and support you are grateful for. You realize with relief that you are retaining more details – those metaphoric holes in your brain are narrowing. Your capacities are beginning to return from the chaos of the arrival, but your stamina may also be waning.

Second Semester: Your brain as a fine sieve

Second semester brain 

The background noise of life in your new place has quieted, and you are starting to shine at work. Your students’ faces, and even those of their parents, have become familiar. You know what makes your students tick, and can personalize your lessons to suit. You have established favourite spots in town to get a coffee, go for a run, get your hair cut. You’re already thinking ahead to what local souvenirs and gifts you want to bring back for friends and family this summer. You may even be inquiring about taking on additional roles at work for next year. When you get new information now, you are able to categorize and retain it appropriately.

By this time next year: A full sieve set

Next year’s brain

You’ll have an established set of sieves and will be able to determine and customize which to use in any given situation, expertly juggling between them and even anticipating in advance which to have ready. Hang in there – the adventure of a first year may feel overwhelming at times, but it will be over before you know it.

What are your tips to make it through the first year?

Research Shows an Empty Backpack Is as Good as a Parachute

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Parachute pictured not from the study.

A study published in BMJ last year showed that parachutes are no more protective against death and injury than a standard, empty backpack[1]. BJM (previously the British Medical Journal) is a peer-reviewed publication, the study design was a randomized controlled trial, and the researchers were professors affiliated with Harvard Medical School and the UCLA School of Medicine. Results demonstrated that participants who jumped out of an airplane or helicopter wearing an empty backpack were no more likely to suffer trauma or death upon impact than those jumping with a functional parachute.

How’s that? 

Looking past the astonishing abstract, we learn that participants jumped from a parked airplane or helicopter, ‘falling’ no more than 60 cm to the ground. None of the participants – whether equipped with a backpack or a parachute – were harmed. The study’s outcomes were statistically valid, but extremely situation-dependent. Context matters.

Many of my readers carry passports from, were trained in, or work in schools where English is the dominant language. We tend to source our research from English language publications, which over-represent studies from Anglophone countries. Does work done in the U.S. or the U.K. have applications in Chile/Kenya/Germany/Qatar?

My doctoral research requires translating data across cultural lines, rather than linguistic ones. I have an interest in the Middle East, but find minimal journal articles reflecting my subject area there (LGBTQ+ inclusive school policy and practice). Therefore, I require a thorough understanding of the methodology and the theoretical underpinnings of any study I transport internationally, and a solid explanation for how – or whether –  the work can be appropriately applied outside of the original context.

International educators are familiar with adapting curriculum, policy, and school norms to include internationally diverse stakeholders. We’ve all got anecdotal stories of the challenges with administering American standardized tests, for example, outside of the U.S. (third graders in Kuwait asking what a bale of hay or a chapel is). My concern is when a grabby study headline (empty backpacks work as well as parachutes!) gets more attention than the details behind it. Next time you hear “research shows”, first examine the publication and consider if and how the findings could be effectually adapted to your context.

Which methods or criteria do you use to translate educational research to your international context?


[1] Yeh, R. W., Valsdotttir, L. R., Yeh, M. W., Shen, C., Kramer, D. B., Strom, J.B., Secemsky, E. A… Nallamathu, B. K. (2018). Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: Randomized controlled trial. BMJ. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k5094

What Do I Do When a Student Comes Out to Me?

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This blog is part of a two-part series on coming out.

I am pleased to share with you a piece that my friend and colleague, Jeremy Shain (he/him), wrote on the question of what to do when a student comes out to you as LGBTQ+. Jeremy is a licensed professional counselor and certified school counselor living and working in the State of Georgia (USA). Currently a doctoral student at Oregon State University, Jeremy holds a specialist degree in counseling and a graduate certificate in LGBT Health Policy and Practice. Jeremy regularly speaks to professionals and counselors-in-training on strategies for working with LGBTQ+ clients. He is particularly interested in the experience of LGBTQ+ adolescents living in rural areas, as well as in the intersection of social class with sexual orientation and gender identity. As a school counselor, he actively advocates for the right of all students to pursue their education in a safe, supportive environment. Jeremy lives with his husband and their sons in Georgia.

Q: What are my obligations if a student comes out to me?

JEREMY: If you work in schools and prioritize safety, equality, and supportive relationships, you very well may be someone that students feel safe coming out to. You may feel uncertain, or even a bit fearful when this moment comes. But, this is a time to use those interpersonal skills and remind yourself that the moment is not about you, but about the student sitting in front of you. It is important to have a plan of how to respond so that you’re not caught trying to sort it out in the moment. If you haven’t yet done so, familiarize yourself with the code of ethics for your particular position (i.e. counselor, educator, etc.). As a school counselor, I am bound by the American School Counselor Association code of ethics and, in this case, there is no mandate on informing parents of students’ disclosures about gender identity or sexual orientation. There may be different laws or policies depending on the country or school where work, so consider checking this now so that you are not caught scrambling later. Be familiar with the concept of confidentiality, and the limits that do exist. Be cognizant that, in some cases, disclosing to a parent may put a student at an increased risk of harm.

Q: What should I do or say when a student comes out to me? 

JEREMY: Having been in this situation multiple times, I have found several concrete steps that can be helpful. First, thank the student for sharing such an important piece of who they are with you and acknowledge their bravery. Coming out is not easy. When a student comes out to you, they are saying that they trust you. Acknowledge this. Second, use the terminology that they use. Students may use terms to identify themselves that you are not fully comfortable with – “queer” and “poly” are prime examples. Words have power. If a student uses words that you don’t understand, ask them to explain the meaning. Finally, recognize that you are that student’s ally. Let them know that you are available to help – and then help. This may mean uncomfortable conversations with fellow staff members about the language that they use in their classrooms. It may also mean connecting the student to a GSA (gay straight alliance / genders and sexualities alliance) or resource group outside the school. Most importantly, ensure that your student knows that you support them, you value them, and that they are not alone.

If you have questions or comments for Jeremy, please feel free to reply to this post, or you can email him directly at jeremyshainlpc@gmail.com

Out Yourself

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Presenting at the International School Counselor Association 2019 Annual Conference in Brussels, Belgium.

This post is the first of a two-part series on coming out.

I presented at the International School Counselor Association 2019 Annual Conference in Brussels earlier this month. The enthusiastic encouragement of my research on inclusive schools for gender and sexual minority students (sometimes called LGBTQ) astonished me. It was within recent memory that colleagues would blush, clear their throats, and look down at their shoes at mention of my work. However, I was even more surprised by the number of attendees who turned up for the session. It was right after lunch on the last day of a busy conference, and I thought it might be just me and a precious few. I was wrong: 40+ counselors packed the space to learn how to support gender minority students (sometimes called transgender, gender non-conforming, gender diverse, non-binary, etc.).

A common question during my trip to Brussels was around the international element of supporting gender and sexual minority (GSM) children. Surely the recommendations for American schools aren’t applicable to those of us working in countries where, for example, homosexuality is criminalized. What can we do then?

I’ve got several answers to that question, but the first is always: keep your students and yourself safe. You’re no good to anybody if you’ve been thrown out of the school (or the country). And you must absolutely never put children into a dangerous position. I try to avoid absolutes like always and never, but this seems an appropriate circumstance to break that rule.

The second recommendation is to out yourself. I do not mean for GSM professionals to come out – that’s an entirely personal decision. I am recommending, however, that you come out as an ally. Evaluate the security of your role within the school and your community. Reflect on your level of credibility, and how well you appreciate the context you are working in. Understand the risks you are taking, and your level of comfort with this assessment. At that point, consider ways of coming out.

Straight, cisgender people carry the privilege of not having to worry about coming out. Cishet (short for cisgender, heterosexual) people don’t need to correct those who wrongly assume their gender or sexuality. They don’t have to plan the when/where/how of their many comings-out (to family, friends, colleagues, new friends, new colleagues, etc.) Cishet people aren’t burdened with concerns about how others may react, or what the personal and professional consequences might be when they reveal that they are bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex, or queer.

In contrast to coming out as GSM, outing yourself as an ally is a relatively minor reveal. Still, safety comes first, and you’ll want to evaluate how and when to do so. Here are five fairly simple and innocuous suggestions for how to come out as an ally.  

Five Ways to Come Out as an Ally

  1. Hang a safe space poster in your classroom or office. (These are readily available to print online, in many languages.)
  2. Stock your bookshelf with queer-friendly books.
  3. Wear rainbow gear, such as a lanyard or pin, or put rainbow decorations up in your work space.
  4. Stand up for others when you see or hear discrimination. (And refrain from laughing when people make jokes at the expense of GSM people.)
  5. Show your ally pride on social media by posting on the topic, liking others’ posts, or making note of it in your profile.

While many of these gestures are subtle, and may go under the radar for many, the gender and sexual minority kids in your school will notice, and it can make a significant difference to them. When GSM students can identify even one supportive adult at school, they experience improved mental health outcomes and even have better attendance records[1]. You could be that supportive adult.

How do you show you are an ally for gender and sexual minority students?  


[1] Seelman, K. L., Forge, N., Walls, N. E., & Bridges, N. (2015). School engagement among LGBTQ high school students: The roles of safe adults and gay-straight alliance characteristics. Children and Youth Services Review, 57, 19-29.

Language Validates Our Lived Experiences: Recognize Cisnormativity

The squiggly red line of social erasure.

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International educators may be particularly aware of the importance of language, seeing as so many of us toggle between multiple languages in our everyday lives, and teach children who do the same. We’re privy to the delight of discovering a useful word with no translation to our first language/s. I still use yella (Arabic for let’s go/come on/hurry up!), though I left Kuwait years ago. Or, we’ve experienced the profound feeling that language, when mastered, can shape even the way that we think, such as when the grammatical gender of nouns, according to different languages, changes how people personify them[1]. Language can also lend validity to our experiences; I remember the unexpected sensation of relief when I acquired the term TCK (Third Culture Kid or Trans-Cultural Kid), and could then put words to an identity I strongly related to, but hadn’t previously been able to articulate. Language, and the ability to use it to reflect our lived experience, matters.

How do words get past the gatekeepers of our cultural lexicon? In a 2017 interview, Merriam-Webster editor, Kory Stamper, explained that, in order to enter the dictionary, new words must meet three criteria:

  • Widespread use
  • Sustained use
  • Meaningful use

This post is a supplement to my submission to Merriam-Webster: I’d like to get the word ‘cisnormative’ added to the dictionary. My definition of cisnormative, based upon Merriam-Webster’s definition of heteronormative is:

Cisnormative (adjective): of, relating to, or based on the attitude that a cisgender identity is the only normal and natural experience of gender

The word cisnormative meets all three of Merriam-Webster’s criteria for entry. It is…

  • Widespread – Below you’ll see the word used in peer-reviewed, academic texts published across fields as varied as health, parenting, education, religion, law, business, public recreation, and architecture.
  • Sustained – At least one detailed explanation of the term (with visual diagram, below) dates back to a peer-reviewed journal article from 2009, almost a decade ago.
  • Meaningful – Discrimination based upon gender identity is deadly and serious; recognizing it by name is meaningful.

From the same interview, Stamper provides an example of a word she chose to add to the dictionary: bodice ripper (it’s a type of romance novel, for those unfamiliar). Other words you can find in Merriam-Webster’s tome: dumpster fire, f-bomb, ginormous, weak sauce, glamping, anyways, and literally (when used in exaggerated emphasis, not actually meaning, well… literally). I’d argue any day that cisnormative is at least as credible a word as these.

A quick search turns up long lists of peer-reviewed academic references to cisnormativity. Here’s a sample:

  • Cisnormative assumptions are so prevalent that they are difficult at first to even recognize.”[2]

From the same text, a diagram:

  • Cisnormative assumptions can have the effect of rendering the transgender population invisible.”[3]
  • “‘Cisnormativity’ is the assumption that it is ‘normal’ to be cisgender”[4]
  • “As with heteronormativity, what is in place with cisnormativity is the powerful categorization of people in opposition to an assumed norm, and the discrimination that is enacted through that power.”[5]
  • “Systemic discrimination can be challenged by reviewing policies, procedures, protocols and processes to remove conventions and assumptions of cisnormativity.”[6]
  • “As with heteronormativity, families are among the primary contexts in which cisnormativity is enforced and reproduced.”[7]
  • “This section will highlight how problematization of (trans)gender identity is an effect of cisnormative power and privilege.”[8]
  • “The participants oriented to a hetero/cisnormative social context by drawing on normalizing discourses to present their families as ‘just like’ other families and to downplay the significance of their parents’ sexuality/gender identity.”[9]
  • “Although these studies reveal the existence of transgender religious people, they offer little understanding of transgender religious experience or the construction of religious cisnormativity.”[10]
  • “What is our expectation of architecture when our cities, buildings – their programs, connections and interfaces – reinforce essentialist and cisnormative notions of gender?”[11]
  • “Research that has been conducted has been done primarily through a heteronormative and cisnormative lens ignoring the transition to adulthood for those who are LGBTQ.”[12]
  • “Queer theory is applied to the focus of this paper to investigate how heteronormativity and cisnormativity put GSM [gender and sexual minority] youth at a disadvantage to their peers, specifically with regards to accessing relevant sexual health and relationship information at school.”[13]
  • “Heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions are predominant in the language (including images) in mainstream breastfeeding literature and the language used by providers.”[14]

I also asked around for some professional and familiar usages from my peers, and was supplied with these examples:

  • “The dearth of unisex restrooms in public spaces is reflective of the cisnormativity of architects and civil engineers, who provide no option for people with gender fluid or ambiguous appearances to meet a very basic human need without potential harassment.”
    -Jessica Holland, MA, MLS
  • “Queer playwright Kate Bornstein uses empathic characters to confront their audience’s cisnormative assumptions of selfhood in ‘Hidden: A Gender.’”
    -Brendon Votipka, Playwright, MFA, Assistant Teaching Professor, Rutgers University

I will be asking Merriam Webster dictionary to consider adding to their tome the word cisnormative (and related word, cisnormativity). I don’t want to see the squiggly red line throughout my Word documents anymore, invalidating the lived experience of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming children who are marginalized by widespread, sustained, and meaningful cisnormative social norms.

Readers, I invite you to add a sentence using the word cisnormativity in the comments of this post, to include in my submission to Merriam-Webster.

[1] Segel, E. & Borodistsky, L. (2011). Grammar in art. Frontiers in Psychology, 1, Article 244.

[2] Bauer, G. R., Hammond, R., Travers, R., Kaay, M., Hohenadel, K. M., & Boyce, M. (2009). “I don’t think this is theoretical; this is our lives”: How erasure impacts health care for transgender people. Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, 29(5), 348-361.

[3] Oakleaf, L. & Richmond, L. P. (2017). Dreaming about access: The experiences of transgender individuals in public recreation. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 35(2), 108-119.

[4] Worthen, M. G. F. (2016). Hetero-cis-normativity and the gendering of transphobia. International Journal of Transgenderism, 17(1), 31-57.

[5] Rhodes, C. (2017). Ethical praxis and the business case for LGBT diversity: Political insights from Judith Butler and Emmanuel Levinas. Gender, Work and Organization, 24(5), 533-546.

[6] Jones, S. M. & Willis, P. (2016). Are you delivering trans positive care? Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, 17(1), 50-59.

[7] McGuire, J. K., Kuvalanka, K. A., Catalpa, J. M., & Toomey, R. B. (2016). Transfamily theory: How the presence of trans* family members informs gender development in families. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8, 60-73.

[8] Sharpe, A. The ethicality of the demand for (trans)parency in sexual relations. Australian Feminist Law Journal, 43(2), 161-183.

[9] Clarke, V. & Demetriou, E. (2016). ‘Not a big deal’?: Exploring the accounts of adult children of lesbian, gay and trans parents. Psychology & Sexuality, 7(2), 131-148.

[10] Sumerau, J. E., Cragun, R. T., & Mathers, L. A. B. (2016). Contemporary religion and the cisgendering of reality. Social Currents, 3(3), 293-311.

[11] Castricum, S. (2017). When program is the enemy of function… Gender-nonconforming experiences of architectural space. Architecture and Culture, 3, 371-381.

[12] Wagaman, M. A., Keller, M. F., & Cavaliere, S. J. (2014). What does it mean to be a successful adult? Exploring perceptions of the transition into adulthood among LGBTQ emerging adults in a community-based service context. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 28(2), 140-158.

[13] Meadows, E. (2018). Sexual health equity in schools: Inclusive sexuality and relationship education for gender and sexual minority students. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 13(3), 356-370.

[14] Farrow, A. (2015). Lactation support and the LGBTQI community. Journal of Human Lactation, 31(1), 26-28.

Lesbian teens have higher rates of pregnancy than straight teens (and why we need to include everyone in sex education)

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It’s true: lesbian teens have higher rates of pregnancy than those who identify as straight. Also, gay males are more likely to be responsible for a pregnancy during their teen years than straight males. It may sound counter-intuitive, but research backs these numbers up[1] [2].

Earlier this year, I published an article in the American Journal of Sexuality Education entitled “Sexual Health Equity in Schools: Inclusive Sexuality and Relationship Education for Gender and Sexual Minority Students[3]. In it, I argue that, while researchers do not know for certain why lesbian teens are at higher risk for pregnancy, it likely does not help that the vast majority of school-based sexuality and relationship education programs exclude gender and sexual minorities (GSM) from the curriculum[4]. Indeed, I point out in the piece that a number of issues that sex education aims to address, such as age of first intercourse and number of partners, condom and birth control use, and dating violence disproportionately (and negatively) impact lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth as compared to their heterosexual, cisgender peers.

It is perhaps less surprising that gender and sexual minority teens are not responding to school-based sexuality education when we consider that they are essentially ignored in most programs. Of those that do make mention of anyone other than heterosexual, cisgender people, it is often through messages that are pathologizing (i.e. exaggerating the relationship between sexual orientation and HIV/AIDS), or the ‘information’ is downright inaccurate. A number of U.S. states actually mandate that their schools’ curricula be discriminatory against LGBTQ people[5]. GSM students do not see themselves reflected in most sex education programs, and might simply check out during those lessons, leaving them without the knowledge and skills necessary to nurture their sexual and reproductive health.

As most of the data supporting my article was collected in the United States, it is theoretically possible that other countries are doing a much better job at including GSM students in their sex education programs. This is unlikely, however, given the relatively restrictive legal, political, and social situation for GSM people in many parts of the world[6]. Also, of the few countries that have collected information about GSM students, none has shown that this demographic fares as well as their heterosexual, cisgender peers in outcomes targeted by sex ed[7].

Want to do better for your students? Consider adopting the K-12 Sexuality Education Standards published by the public health organization, the Future of Sex Education. The content of these standards is accurate, evidence-informed, developmentally and age-appropriate, and designed to be relevant to a diverse student body. These standards are being used to some degree in 32 states in the U.S., so international schools following an American curriculum in particular will appreciate staying up to speed with current best practice. Adopting an inclusive sexual health and relationship curriculum is one step toward a more just and fair education for all students.

You can link to my full, published article here.

How does your school ensure that gender and sexual minority students have access to sexual health and relationship information? 

 

[1] Charlton, B. M., Roberts, A. L., Rosario, M., Katz-Wise, S. L., Calzo, J. P., Spiegelman, D., & Bryn Austin, S. (2018). Teen pregnancy risk factors among young women of diverse sexual orientations. Pediatrics, 14(4).

[2] Institute of Medicine. (2011). The health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people: Building a foundation for better understanding. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[3] Meadows, E. (2018). Sexual health equity in schools: Inclusive sexuality and relationship education for gender and sexual minority students. American Journal of Sexuality Education. doi: 10.1080/15546128.2018.1431988

[4] The Guttmacher Institute. (2016). Fact Sheet: American Teens’ Sources of Sexual Health Information.

[5] Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). (2017). State Profiles.

[6] Carroll, A. & Mendos, L. R. (2017). State-sponsored homophobia: A world survey of sexual orientation laws: Criminalization, protection and recognition. International Lesbian and Gay Association.

[7] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2016). Out in the open: Education sector responses to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Paris, France: UNESCO.