Supporting Transgender People: Know Better, Do Better

Supporting Transgender People: Know Better, Do Better


By Jim Flynn, Trainer/Consultant, PEP Early Childhood Plus


At PEP we work with children who struggle in a myriad of ways. Many have endured trauma and discrimination. We know from this work, that building trusting relationships with these young people can be the difference they need to overcome their challenges. This is certainly true when it comes to transgender students who regularly face discrimination and negative comments. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of understanding when it comes to transgender people – and particularly so transgender children – which can lead to comments like those below.


These types of comments come from  family members, school administrators, clergy, places of employment, politicians, and media, to name a few.  Statements like these represent an ongoing assault to the core identity of transgender people and contribute to sobering statistics. Transgender people, for instance, are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender counterparts. In a 2018 survey, 51 percent of transgender male teens reported at least one suicide attempt.


As a society, we cannot go on in ignorance about the consequences of our collective misunderstanding. We must learn more about what it means to be a transgender person and how we can do better supporting transgender people. We must educate ourselves. As Maya Angelou so eloquently stated, “Do the best you can.  Then when you know better do better.”


The good news is, there is plenty of information out there. Entire books are written about gender identity and supporting transgender people. In the meantime, here are some concepts to help familiarize you with the basics. Deeper understanding can help anyone become more empathetic, supportive and empowering to the transgender community.


The Difference Between “Sex” and “Gender”

It is important to understand that the terms “sex” and “gender,” when describing identity, do not necessarily mean the same thing; however, people frequently use them interchangeably.  The term “sex” refers to biology.  Infants are assigned their sex at birth based on their external anatomy. The term “gender” is used by a person to describe where they might place themselves on the male to female continuum. A person may identify as masculine, feminine, a combination of both, neither, or in-between. Gender identity is a social construct.  In other words, it is up to every individual to determine their gender identity based on their internal sense of who they are — not their anatomy.


Gender Isn’t Binary

In mainstream culture in the United States, we have had the tendency to view gender as binary. Many people (depending on one’s generation) have been educated to believe that “male” and “female” are the only two options. For these individuals, recognizing a continuum of gender or supporting transgender people may run counter to their cultural upbringing. Yet, there are many other cultures that do not view gender in this manner.  For example, in Thailand, 10 percent of the population is composed of a group called the Kathoeys, who identify as transgender. Some Native American cultures assert that there is a third gender, one which is viewed as having a higher spiritual vibration. In India, the Warias are recognized as a gender fluid population. Currently in the United States, 12 percent of millennials identify as transgender or gender fluid.


The Biological Nature of Gender Identity

People who are born with both masculine and feminine body parts may shed additional light on gender fluidity. The term used to describe this person is “intersex.” People who are born intersex eventually declare their gender, based on the internal sense of who they are. In a fascinating paper in 2009 by Swaab and Garcia, they hypothesize a possible biological determinant of gender identity:


During the intrauterine period, the fetal brain develops in the male direction through a direct action of testosterone on the developing nerve cells, or in the female direction through the absence of this hormone surge. In this way, our gender identity (the conviction of belonging to the male or female gender) and sexual orientation are programmed into our brain structures when we are still in the womb. However, since sexual differentiation of the genitals takes place in the first two months of pregnancy and sexual differentiation of the brain starts in the second half of pregnancy, these two processes can be influenced independently, which may result in transsexuality.”  (Please note that in 2009 the terms “transexual” and “transgender” were used as synonyms and that is no longer the case.)


Based on evolving knowledge, ongoing studies, and opinions from medical and psychological communities, being a transgender individual is biologically “hard wired.” Supporting transgender people means understanding that they are not arbitrarily choosing their gender.  Studies on human development have shown repeatedly that from a very young age children are certain about their gender. In the case of a transgender child, however, society tells them they are wrong. When cisgender persons identify their gender, it is not viewed as a choice. From a very young age transgender persons are not afforded that same privilege.


Language Matters When Supporting Transgender People

So, in addition to educating ourselves, how can we be more supportive? Sometimes, simply the proper use of a term helps to inform someone that you are supportive. The word “transgender” is an adjective.  Although widely used as a noun for a short period of time, the transgender community prefers that it not be used in that context.  The proper use is, “She is a transgender person.” We should avoid statements like, “She is a transgender.” It is also not proper to refer to a person as “transgendered.”  In the descriptive sense, making the statement, “She is transgendered,” would be like saying, “She is lesbianed,” or, “He is gayed.”


Following the idea that language matters, it is helpful to know what pronouns to use. People are very well versed at referring to a person as he or she. Some struggle, however, with using the singular version of they.  The use of “they/them/their” in a singular context might be initially confusing, but it lets someone know they are supported. If you are unsure of someone’s gender, you might want to ask, “What are your pronouns?”


In 2019, I participated in a conference in which the person attending the reception desk was wearing a beard but also, eye shadow, lipstick, and high heels.  I knew that we would be interacting over the next four days, so I asked, “What are your pronouns?” I was given a big smile and told that the pronouns were he/him/his. He also added that he was married. Clothing and outward expression, he said, should not be viewed in terms of masculine or feminine. It was also clear that the organization he worked for was supportive.


Organizational Protections through Policy and Practice

An organization should ensure that the protections in place for cisgender people in the form of written policies and observable practices are supporting transgender people (employees and clients) in the same way. This includes bathrooms that are constructed in a manner that provide privacy for all people who are using them. This also includes bathrooms that accommodate people who identify as gender fluid. A recent study found that gender fluid children often chose to not use the bathrooms during the school day. They also sometimes chose to not drink liquids as a way to avoid using the bathroom. This led to an increase in urinary tract infections in this population during the school year.

Classrooms can engage in gender neutral practices and teachers can learn about what those practices entail for children at differing developmental stages. One easy way to get started includes using gender neutral language such as postal carrier versus mailman or law enforcement officer versus policeman. Another practice is to avoid dividing the classroom into groups based on gender. Doing so can create anxiety for those who don’t identify as male or female. Additionally, clear guidelines regarding how to address bullying need to be in place.

Professionals in education and mental health should maintain a resource file that addresses the specific needs of the transgender community, including supports for parents of transgender children.  Parental support is important. One study conducted in Ontario, Canada found suicide attempt rates among adolescents who identified as transgender were 4 percent among those with strongly supportive parents. For those whose parents weren’t supportive, the rate was as high as 60 percent.


Keep an Open Mind

Being supportive takes many forms such as, educating ourselves, advocating for those with less power and using inclusive language. There are many other ways of supporting transgender people, as well. I encourage you read further about ways you can mitigate harm to the transgender community. In the practice of inclusivity, it is helpful to remain curious and avoid being certain about what another person may be experiencing. It is impossible for anyone who does not identify as transgender to know more about a transgender person’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences than they do. That’s why it’s crucial to always keep an open mind, listen, learn, and empathize.

References: For a full list of references, click here.