Transgender Students in the Classroom

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It was a rough summer here in South Florida, particularly for those of us who are queer.  The shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando hit very close to home.  As more than one friend pointed out, Omar Mateen, the shooter, lived equidistant from Orlando and my home city of Wilton Manors, the second gayest city in the United States.  He could have just as easily headed here.  And with a best friend who works security at one of the most popular gay bars in town, the whole incident was beyond unsettling.


One of the many administrative hats I wear at school is Director of Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  I was thus quite grateful to be able to coordinate and participate in our school’s response to the shooting.  We had a memorial, an open discussion for students (many of whom are Hispanic and many of whom are from the Orlando area), and a panel discussion.  The turnout for all of these was impressive, particularly during a summer session, and included not only our students but also many faculty, staff, and administrators.  In the wake of these events, our college has reached out to work more closely with the university’s Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.  It feels very good to be making a difference.


But I’ve also been thinking about how to make a difference in my classroom, not just for queer and Latino students but perhaps more particularly for transgender students.  If you follow the news closely, you may have noted an alarming rise in violence against transgendered people, particularly those of color.  Our school already has a list of gender neutral bathrooms, the result of a grassroots petition by a transgender student in our college, but I wanted to make sure I made my classroom a safe space for transgender students.


Here are some of the practices I’ve adopted:


  •       Preferred Name. Before calling the roster on the first day of class, I ask students to let me know if they use a name other than the one the registrar uses.  I’ve always done this because sometimes Katherine goes by Katy or Jerome by Jer.  It’s more important than ever since at our school the registrar can only change a student’s name in the system after a legal name change, a byzantine process in Florida.  Transgender students who haven’t transitioned or who don’t have the resources for a legal name change may be stuck with an official name that doesn’t match their gender identity.
  •       Preferred Pronouns. I always do a quick ice breaker activity on the first day so I can learn my student’s names.  I usually ask about their major, their experience with writing, and something really interesting about them (this last one is always a lot of fun and helps me learn names quickly).  I now also ask students for their preferred pronouns, allowing transgender students another way to claim their identity within my classroom.  I also normalize this by providing the class all the same information about myself.
  •       Modeling Behavior. I try be particularly conscious about my behavior in front of the class and particularly aware of my use of language.  Students look to me to set the standard for the classroom and I can do a lot to make sure that our class is safe and inclusive.
  •       Class Discussions. Some of the readings in Emerging are also useful for fostering conversation, thinking, and writing about issues around gender in general and transgender specifically.  Ruth Padawer’s “Sisterhood is Complicated” explores the complications that arise when transgender students transition from female to male at all-female schools.  Julia Serano, author of “Why Nice Guys Finish Last,” is herself transgender and uses her unique perspective to discuss the challenges of being a man in relation to dating and rape culture. Kenji Yoshino’s “Preface” and “The New Civil Rights” looks at the pressures to “cover” or downplay a disfavored aspect of identity.  You might also use Kwame Anthony Appiah to talk about our need to coexist with those different from us or Francis Fukuyama on the importance of human dignity or Dan Savage and Urvashi Vaid on the violence faced by queer youth.  As Yoshino points out, changes in civil rights are more likely to come through conversations than laws and as Appiah notes practices can change before values do.  Discussing queer and transgender issues in the classroom, then, offers us a way to make change even if there are no transgender students in the class.


Life has pretty much returned to normal here in South Florida, though there is a much more visible police presence outside the bars in Wilton Manors even now.  Classes started for us August 22 and a new wave of students are filtering through our classes. As we continue to heal from what happened in Orlando and as transgendered people continue to face horrific violence around the world, it’s good to know that in some small way I can make a difference.  You can, too.  Please share other tips you have for making your classroom a safe and inclusive space.

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.