Tag Archives: Transgender

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.

Transgender School Policy: What’s Yours?

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Unless you are a novice educator, you have taught transgender students. You may not have realized it at the time, but I assure you that you have. Increasingly, educators are becoming aware that they have transgender kids in their classrooms, which can sometimes catch us off-guard. Most of us do not have formal training, or even experience, meeting the needs of transgender children. Yet, when a gender nonconforming child is placed in our care, everyone from senior leadership to classroom teachers to instructional assistants will appreciate having clear guidance on how to support them.

What Does Transgender Mean?

Transgender describes someone whose gender identity does not match the one they were assigned at birth (usually based on external sex characteristics). Transgender people may be ‘out’, or not; their gender identity (how they feel inside) may match their gender expression (how they present themselves on the outside), or not. There is a lot of diversity in gender nonconformity, and some countries or regions may use different terminology for similar concepts (i.e. Hijra for our friends in South Asia, for example).

Why Do We Need a Transgender Policy?

If you haven’t yet been asked how your school supports transgender and gender nonconforming children, you will face this question at some point. International schools around the world are finding that families with transgender children are applying to attend, or that a current student may be transitioning. This happens in religious schools. It happens in conservative countries. It happens in elementary and primary divisions. The interests of the school and, most importantly, of the child, will be best served if a solid policy is in place. Schools that take the lead here will find that they are on the forefront of child-centred practice in the international community.

A Model Policy for Schools

GLSEN (pronounced ‘glisten’) is a non-profit organization whose mission is, “To create safe and affirming schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression”. They are leaders in the field, and backed by research, so you can feel confident referring to them for sound advice. GLSEN’s transgender model district policy  offers school decision-makers sample language and reliable advice on topics as varied as student gender transitions, parent/guardian involvement, access to gender-segregated activities and facilities, and dealing with media requests. You could literally copy/paste their text into your own handbooks; it is written with schools’ needs in mind.

Transgender Policy in International Schools

International schools generally exercise a degree of independence from both local and foreign regulations, while also operating within at least the partial confines of both. Naturally, these responsibilities need to be taken into consideration before implementing any new policy. That being said, GLSEN’s suggested policy document uses straightforward language that would suit many international contexts. And, while I encourage you to consider adopting the model policy in its entirety, it is neatly organized and concisely written so that it would be possible to lift out the sections that are most relevant to your school as a starting point, until the full text could be approved.

Not So Sure?

Many people, even well-intentioned school leaders, harbor bias against gender nonconforming people. While we, as professional educators, are committed to serving all of our students, we may still find ourselves neglecting to protect transgender children in the same way we look after others. Decision-makers may feel nervous about endorsing policies that so much as acknowledge the presence of transgender children at their school. This takes some courage and forward thinking. We still have a long way to go in ensuring equal educational opportunities for transgender and gender nonconforming students around the world. A proactive policy is a step forward in making our international schools safe and inclusive places of learning.

Can I help? If you are interested in updating your transgender policy, but have questions about how to do so in a manner that is consistent with your school’s mission, stakeholders’ values, or local context, please do not hesitate to contact me. I would be delighted to serve as a resource.

Science as a Political Statement

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I had the honour of meeting with a group of scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this summer, and I can tell you that it’s no secret within the organization that using the term ‘transgender’ in your budget proposal this year doesn’t fare well for funding prospects. This isn’t necessarily a brand new barrier; deciding what gets studied (and published) has always been a matter of politics, often favouring the dominant narrative and priorities of those in power (not typically transgender people).

Harvard palaeontologist, Stephen J. Gould, writes in his thought-provoking book, The Mismeasure of Man[1], about a history of “scientists” using the platform of their profession to further political agendas. For example, 19th century Europeans conducted “studies” attempting to prove the fallacy that certain races are genetically superiour. Gould explains the ways that bias and falsification can turn “biological evidence” into dangerously misleading “facts”, and how readily these distortions may become justification for discrimination. While we like to think of science as apolitical, it isn’t. What we decide to study/fund/publish is driven by the values of those in charge of bringing research to light[2]. Gould makes a case that power maintains itself through science.

The Washington Post this week reported that the Trump administration is prohibiting CDC officials from including some specific words on budget proposals: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based. There was no explanation accompanying the announcement, so the CDC and the rest of us are left guessing why. The mission of the CDC is to, “Protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S.” The organization covers all things health-related from general well-being to very specific, urgent zika virus research, and pretty much everything in between. (They also host an extensive resource on traveler’s health.)

According to the Washington Post article, in lieu of the terms ‘evidence-based’ or ‘science-based’, CDC analysts have been told to use the phrase: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes”. Which community does this refer to, I wonder? Probably not the transgender community – just a guess. While I understand that a political administration has some leverage within U.S. public organizations, I would also hope that the professionals in charge of carrying out their mission to protect the health and safety of a nation are encouraged to do so in a way that is both evidence-based and science-based, not discriminatory or politically-motivated.

May educators everywhere continue to teach their students about the scientific method, about the pitfalls of biases, about the critical importance of reliable and valid results, and about the inclusion of underrepresented populations. Perhaps the CDC of today is being dissuaded from working on such projects, but I hope that our current students, when they are professionals in their fields around the world, will gain attention and funding for their studies about populations that are vulnerable, issues of diversity, transgender people, and other under-researched topics, and that they may do so openly using evidence-based and science-based methods.

[1] Gould, S. J. (1981). The Mismeasure of man. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

[2] Suhay, E. & Druckman, J. N. (2015). The Politics of science. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658(1), 6-15.

Transgender Children Deserve a Warm Welcome Back: Here’s How (and why this benefits all students)

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The roster says they’re a she, but… they look like a he. What do I call them?

I’ve met numerous educators who express annoyance at not getting a heads-up from administrators that they have a transgender (or gender variant or gender creative or gender nonconforming) child in their class. And, understandably so. We care about our students, and want to treat them all with respect. Calling her ‘him’ can be awkward at best, and deeply offensive in many cases. Pronouns are incredibly personal, so it’s important that we know what our students want to be called.

We can’t necessarily tell someone’s gender identity (internal; how they feel) by their gender expression (external; what they show through dress/appearance/behaviour) or their assigned gender (assigned at birth; usually based on external sex characteristics). Additionally, some of the software programs that schools use to keep track of student records are outdated and don’t include a function to update students’ gender data as necessary. This could lead to inadvertently outing a transgender child to their peers. Don’t rely on your roster to give you the correct information about gender pronouns.

Instead, let me suggest a simple, but powerful getting-to-know-you routine for the start of every term: ask students (all students) what their pronouns are. You can begin by offering yours as an example (i.e. I use she/her/hers or they/them/theirs, etc.) This exercise eliminates gaffes without singling anybody out.

I gave a training to graduate education students on this topic. One participant wondered aloud whether it was worth the “trouble” for the “zero point zero, zero, zero, one percent” of students concerned. First, I answer that sure – this is a fairly simple strategy to create a safer space for your students, even if it’s only a small number who benefit. Second, however, this person’s statistics were way off. Many more people (about 0.6% of the U.S. population, which equates to 1.4 million Americans) identify as transgender[1]. I can assure you that, over the course of a full career as an educator, you have taught, and will continue to teach, numerous transgender and gender nonconforming children. You may not always know who they are, but there are transgender people in every culture.

The practice of recognizing students’ gender identity can have a significant impact on their well-being. Transgender kids are some of our highest risks for being harassed at school[2], a range of related risk-taking behaviours, and both physical and mental health issues, including suicidality[3]. Research shows that supportive school contexts can mitigate this disparity[4]. Asking students about their pronouns suggests that you are supportive of gender diversity, and could be a literal life-saving gesture for a child in need.

Plus, all students benefit from learning about diversity. Consider if we only taught minority groups about issues of oppression, and excluded dominant groups from this conversation. White children would not learn about slavery. Christian children would not learn about the Holocaust. That would be absurd, and avoiding gender identity issues with your cisgender (gender identity matches assigned gender) students is similarly exclusive and nonsensical.

It is a privilege for cisgender people to be fairly certain that others will correctly guess their pronouns just by looking at them. When we, as professional educators, question socially-constructed assumptions about gender, we exercise cultural humility, we establish that our classroom is a considerate place, we take a step toward rejecting gender hierarchy, and we set a positive example of inclusivity for the students in our class. This enhances the learning environment for all.

I recommend repeating this welcoming routine at the start of each term, and letting students know that they may update their pronouns with you at any time. If you’re still uncertain about how to get started, some resources with tips and FAQs are available here, here, and here. Proactively asking for students’ pronouns is best practice, and should be systematically implemented in all international school classrooms.

[1] Flores, A. R., Herman, J. L., Gates, G. J., & Brown, T. N. T. (2016). How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States? Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.

[2] 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.

[3] James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

[4] Poteat, V. P., DiGiovanni, C. D., Sinclair, K. O., Koenig, B. W., & Russell, S. T. (2012). Gay-Straight Alliances are associated with student health: A Multischool comparison of LGBTQ and heterosexual youth. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(2), 319-330.

Bathroom Laws and International Schools

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United States President from 2009-2017, Barak Obama, issued a statement last year reminding schools of their responsibility to protect the rights of all students, regardless of gender[1]. Specifically, his guidelines clarified the right of transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room consistent with their gender identity. The directive sparked controversial conversations around the nation, as some contend that people should be forced to use facilities that correspond with their sex assignment from birth. (A reminder that transgender people do not conform to the gender identity and/or expression that is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth). Earlier this week, current President Donald Trump, rescinded Obama’s recommendations[2], renewing debate on the rights of transgender students.

Legal issues
Under Title IX, schools accepting federal funds in the U.S. are legally obligated to comply with this nondiscrimination act, regardless of the political/moral values held by the district. International schools, however, even those following an American curriculum, are generally not bound by this mandate. So, where does that leave transgender students around the world before and after Trump’s actions? Most countries do not protect transgender rights, so policy decisions are left up to individual schools’ leadership teams, many of whom have not been in a position to address these concerns previously, and may not fully understand the issues. Some schools might choose to ignore the issue altogether, which essentially preserves the status quo of leaving their trans kids without protection and equal rights. (Gender Spectrum offers an excellent FAQ[3], as well as sample policies for schools’ reference[4].)

Cultural concerns
Outside of legal obligations, international schools have the unique distinction of managing a dazzling tangle of cultural influences. In many places, gender non-conformity is taboo, even forbidden. There are notable exceptions, such as the Hijra in India and Pakistan, or the Kratoy in Thailand. Still, it is not uncommon for transgender people to face hostility, even violence, for their gender expression. Many trans children do not have the support of their own family members. This can make it difficult for schools to offer appropriate protections, as they find themselves balancing local expectations for gender norms with the well-being of their students. As professional educators, many of us will encourage erring on the side of the child’s best interest, but that does not mean that doing so is without complication. Cultural sensitivity is a valid and important element of working in an international school community.

Transgender risks
Keep in mind that transgender children are among the most vulnerable in our care. From a mental health perspective, trans youth are more likely than their cisgender peers to experience depression, anxiety, and suicidality[5]. Indeed, in one study of transgender youth, nearly half of the participants reported that they have seriously considered taking their lives, and a quarter reported actual suicide attempts[6]. These results are consistent with other studies in the field. The good news is that protective factors and inclusive policies, like the right to choose which bathroom to use, can bear a significant impact on the educational experience of transgender children[7]. As international educators, we are in a powerful position to improve the well-being of trans students around the world.

Does your school offer protection for transgender students’ rights? If so, what was the process like to get to that point? If not yet, what do you think the next steps are? Who advocates for the gender non-conforming children at your school?

[1] Emma, C. (2015, May 12). Obama administration releases directive on transgender rights to school bathrooms. Politico.

[2] Peters, J. W., Becker, J., Davis, J. H. (2017, February 22). Trump Rescinds Rules on Bathroom for Transgender Students. The New York Times.

[3] Transgender students and school bathrooms: Frequently asked questions. (n.d.) Gender Spectrum.

[4] Sample district and statewide policies that provide protection for transgender students. (n.d.) Gender Spectrum.

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

[6] Grossman, A.H. & D’Augelli, A.R. (2007). Transgender youth and life-threatening behaviors. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 37(5), 527-537.

[7] The 2013 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. (2014). The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).