Beyond the Binary: Affirming Gender Identity with Our Students

November 12, 2021 by Mike Miele

At Highlander Institute, improving experiences for students is a critical part of our mission. Hearing the student perspective about what is working and what is not working in classrooms — including what may be causing harm — inspired the creation of our Student Experience Survey. Survey data is particularly valuable because it helps us unpack student successes and challenges in ways that go deeper than academic outcomes. In an effort to more authentically represent the insights of historically marginalized groups in our reporting structures, this year’s survey has our most comprehensive student demographics section yet, with an important question on gender identity.

The inclusion of this question and a robust selection of answer options has created a key discussion opportunity for us — both internally and with fellow educators — highlighting gender as an area for continued learning for our team. Education systems are frequently designed to categorize and analyze student data by grade level, race, FRPL status, ethnicity, language acquisition, and academic mastery, but as we scale the SES to schools, we are finding that adults can be underprepared to talk about gender beyond the binary. As school partners, we must be equipped to support all students, including our transgender and nonbinary students, as we collaborate to design learning environments that are empowering, relevant, and safe for everyone to show up as their full selves. When we don’t talk openly about gender identity as a spectrum, we shy away from uncovering whose needs are truly being met in our schools.

As we head into Transgender Awareness Week (November 13-19), we must center ourselves on an urgent reality: “42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth” (The Trevor Project, 2021). The pandemic has worsened many of the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ youth and cannot be ignored.

“Straight and cis is not the default. Let’s stop pretending it is.” – @queerivyart 

Like all social constructs, our experiences with gender are informed by context and the cultures we live in. The way that society understands gender today is deeply impacted by our history of racism — it is impossible to disentangle the two. By recognizing that we are all multi-layered people who each carry identities holding different levels of privilege, we can broaden our knowledge about how systemic inequities operate.

Much of our internal professional development has required our staff to question and “unlearn”. In a workshop I co-led on gender affirmation, my colleagues read book reports compiled by Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender non-conforming writer, performance artist, and public speaker. These posts detail the Western historical invention of the gender binary (Vaid-Menon, 3 October 2021), how a socially imposed distinction between genders serves as a tool for White supremacist patriarchy (Vaid-Menon, 17 October 2021), and how claims made by White scientists and researchers removed the bodily autonomy of intersex children (Vaid-Menon, June 2021). This exercise underscored the power of the dominant narratives we accept as true, and inspired our team to continue to learn and unlearn with open minds — and then take action to better understand and support our students.

The Gender Constellation Activity from Authentic You is an early-age appropriate task that we can model as adults. As our team members participated by creating our individual gender constellations, we reflected on the feelings that came up for us through questions like: How might your gender identity and gender expression have changed since you were a child? What aspects of your constellation do you feel most comfortable sharing with others? Least comfortable? How can you leverage these ‘aha’ moments to become a better ally to students?

For so many of us, this work is deeply personal. I hope through conversations like this one, educators begin to make small shifts in their districts by recognizing growth areas, participating in workshops, and reflecting on instructional practice through the Student Experience Survey.  Although it will take time to change our school systems, by becoming more aware and having the power to make choices in our schools, we can create safe and affirming spaces for LGBTQ+ youth and families. We know that small actions can make a big difference. “LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year” (The Trevor Project, 2019). Let’s work together to be those accepting adults.


References

Queer Ivy Art. [@queerivyart]. (2021, January 16). I get a lot of comments saying that we’re brainwashing kids into being queer. Their assumption is that everyone is born cis and straight. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CKH90CLBpty

The Trevor Project. (2019). The Trevor Project Research Brief: Accepting Adults Reduce Suicide Attempts Among LGBTQ Youth. Retrieved from: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Trevor-Project-Accepting-Adult-Research-Brief_June-2019.pdf

The Trevor Project. (2021). 2021 National survey on LGBTQ youth mental health. West Hollywood, California: The Trevor Project. Retrieved from: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2021/

Vaid-Menon, A. [@alokvmenon]. (2021, June 3). Book report: Histories of the transgender child by Dr. Jules Gill-Peterson (University of Minnesota Press 2018). Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CPqqUAQrUuy

Vaid-Menon, A. [@alokvmenon]. (2021, October 3). Book report: The biopolitics of feeling: race, sex, and science in the nineteenth century by Dr. Kyla Schuller (Duke University Press, 2018). Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CUkka3pLoe9

Vaid-Menon, A. [@alokvmenon]. (2021, October 17). Book report: Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud by Dr. Thomas Laqueur (Harvard University Press, 1990). Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CVIZybgrv6w


Mike Miele (he/him/his), a Partner at Highlander Institute, is responsible for securing and sustaining long-term partnerships and new school/district engagements. Mike is focused on helping to bridge the equity gap in student learning by providing coaching and leadership support to all education stakeholder groups. He is a skilled coach and facilitator and works in partnership with multiple organizations and school systems.

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