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Support for trans students starts with their names
by Vincent Cefali
2019-05-08

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This fall, my former student Stefan came back to visit me. I was excited to hear about the beginning of high school, but he looked incredibly distressed. "How is freshman year going?" I asked, hoping to hear that he was coming into his own. Visibly upset, Stefan said, "Oh, it's alright, but my teachers keep calling me Stephanie. It's even on my ID." Now I could see what the problem was.

As a student in our middle school, Stefan received a range of supports to make him feel safe. For example, we had a specific plan that acknowledged his gender, pronouns, and preferred name. This was all done with the help of administration, social work, teachers and his parents. We want to ensure the safety and security of students whose biological sex does not match their gender identity and so we provide these supports to all our transgender students. The high school that Stefan now attends does not provide this same type of support.

Providing an inclusive environment for all students is incredibly important. In its 2017 National School Climate Survey, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that "42.1% of transgender and gender nonconforming students had been prevented from using their preferred name or pronoun." Something as simple as a student's name is not a guarantee. Can you imagine the negative impact on learning for students like Stefan when he is a reminded daily that who he is and how he sees himself does not matter enough?

We need to provide comprehensive protection for trans students in the state of Illinois. We need to give guidance and demand compliance for districts so that very student feels connected and valued at the school they attend. For trans students, it starts with their names. As we continue to see violence towards trans women and men grow, it is important to validate and support our trans students here first, in their school experience.

What does such guidance and compliance look like? Our school district uses gender support plans from the organization Gender Spectrum. They provide specific criteria for the student to identify areas of need to make the school day safer and more inclusive. The plan asks students to make choices about preferred name, preferred pronouns, and use of restroom and locker room facilities. Once these have been outlined based on the student's needs, all staff connected to the student's schedule is made aware of them. Everyone is brought onboard to help make sure the student is successful.

The success of a gender support plan is only possible if there are resources available. Social workers, teachers, and school administrators should be equipped with the knowledge to help students begin the process to create a gender support plan and advocate for any student who might need one. The plans are one step in the process. Right here in my home state, Illinois House Bill 246 ( HB246 ) would require the teaching of LGBTQ history in our state's schools. If we are going to recognize the contributions of LGBTQ people in our history classes through HB246, we should also support those same students in our classrooms today.

As a teacher, I want nothing more than to allow every student to thrive and flourish in my classroom and beyond. It is one of the joys of teaching students like Stefan, who shine through as beacons of self-confidence and acceptance. Every student wants to feel valued by their teachers. Comprehensive supports like the gender support plans for trans students in Illinois will do just that. Teachers and administrators around the state will be equipped with the research, knowledge and tools to make trans students feel welcome. After all, schools should be set up as a place for all students to thrive and to succeed.

Vincent Cefali teaches choral and general music at Lincoln Middle School in Berwyn, Illinois, and is a 2018-19 Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellow.


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