To the Teacher:
Over the past few years, transgender (trans) people have gained public visibility. We’ve seen more trans characters in movies and on television, sometimes played by trans actors. For example, the role of Sophia Burset on the popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black is played by trans actor Laverne Cox. Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair and spoke on numerous television shows about what has probably been the most high profile transition to date. Trans models have been featured in mainstream publications, ads, and TV commercials, and have appeared on runways around the world.
But this increased visibility isn’t the only thing that’s changing. According to a survey released by the Human Rights Campaign in 2016, one in three people personally know somebody who is transgender. That’s twice the number it was two years ago and an even bigger jump from 2008, when less than one in ten people reported knowing a transgender person. This is a positive development, because research shows that when straight, cisgender people personally know LGBTQ people, they are more likely to support laws that protect LGBTQ people. (A cisgender person is someone whose personal identity and gender corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.)
And yet being a visible transgender person today remains fraught with obstacles, struggles, and immense danger. This is certainly true of trans teens, who often face daunting challenges on their way to adulthood.
In the activity below, students will read out loud statements by a group of transgender teens, see a video of these teens speaking to their future selves, and consider what obstacles trans teens face. If you have not discussed transgender issues in your classroom before, consider beginning with this TeachableMoment activity on "Our Identities and Transgender Identities."
Before beginning this activity, think carefully about the maturity of the students in your class and about the level of trust that exists among your students. Review the lesson and consider whether students are ready to engage in the lesson in a way that is safe and respectful for everyone in the class. Be aware that you may have students in your classroom who are transgender or gender non-conforming, or have family members who are. Be sensitive to the needs of these students. Allow them (and all students) the option of not sharing.
As always, it is helpful if your class has established community agreements about how they will treat each other. If you have these guidelines, review them. If you don’t, consider creating them. Please see these guidelines for other suggestions for teaching about difficult or controversial issues.
Background for Teachers
If you are not already familiar with current understanding about gender identity and related questions yourself, some additional background reading will be helpful.
- See this FAQ created by the National Center for Transgender Equality: https://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/resources/Understanding-Trans-Full-July-2016_0.pdf. Also see the Center’s page on students and youth: https://www.transequality.org/issues/youth-students.
- This schema distinguishes gender identity from gender expression, biological sex, and attraction: https://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Genderbread-2.1.jpg.
- See this Teaching Tolerance post for a description of gender spectrum: https://www.tolerance.org/gender-spectrum.
- For guidelines on making your school safe for LGBTQ students and for further educating on these issues, please see resources available from GLSEN.
Below is some information that shows why promoting understanding and support for transgender people in our lives is important, and can even be a matter of life and death. These are for you the teacher to take into consideration as you introduce today’s lesson:
- The number of estimated people who identify as transgender in the U.S. according to findings from the Williams Institute is 700,000, about 0.3% of American adults.
- Research from the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey reveals that 41% of transgender participants had attempted, at some point, to take their own lives. Sexual assault was the biggest cause, followed by physical assault, harassment in school, and job loss due to bias.
- More than 50% of transgender teens have attempted suicide by their 20th birthday.
- Among the documented 1.6 million homeless youth across America, 40% are transgender, according to a study reported by Trans Equality.
- Transgender people experience job discrimination and have high rates of unemployment and poverty. (https://mashable.com/2015/07/24/transgender-challenges/#DgAAw2eP9gqk)
- A trans woman is killed internationally every 29 hours.
- Currently, the rate of murder by a cis person against a trans woman is 1 in 12, and for trans women of color that rate rises to 1 in 8. (https://planettransgender.com/trans-people-ban-together-and-ask-can-you-stop-killing-us-for-one-week/)
- The average life expectancy of a trans woman of color is 35 years.
Invite students to read the following poem by Langston Hughes out loud:
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.
Ask students to discuss with a partner what this poem means to them. Then either have a go-round for students to share their thoughts (with a talking piece if you are using a circle process), or ask a few volunteers for their reflections on the poem.
Teenage Transgender Voices
To prepare, arrange seats in a circle if you can.
Print out this pdf of "Teenage Transgender Voices." (The text also appears at this end of this lesson.) Cut each "voice" into a separate slip of paper and place the slips into an envelope.
Begin the lesson by telling students that today we'll be listening to the voices of transgender teens who came together for a photo shoot for the website Mashable in 2015: https://mashable.com/2015/08/31/transgender-teenagers/.
Definition of "Transgender": Transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex the doctor marked on their birth certificate. Gender identity is a person's internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or someone outside of that gender binary). For transgender people, the sex they were assigned at birth and their own internal gender identity do not match. (From the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD)
Explain that the envelope you're holding contains the voices of transgender teenagers. Tell students that you'll be sending the envelope around the circle to each person. The envelope will serve as a "talking piece." That is, when the envelope comes to you, it’s your turn to speak. Each student will take a slip of paper out of the envelope and read what’s on it out loud.
Instruct students to hold onto the envelope while reading the statement to avoid unnecessary distractions. Allow for a few seconds of silence before passing on the envelope to the next student. If anyone feels uncomfortable with the statement they draw, they can exchange it for another one in the envelope, or pass on reading a "transgender teenage voice" altogether.
Now pass the envelope to the student on your left or right. Students should continue passing it around the circle until all students have had a chance to read out a statement or until you have no more "voices."
Next, pass the talking piece around several times, asking students some or all of the following questions:
- How did it feel to listen to these young voices? Explain.
- Which voice made the biggest impact on you? Why do think that is?
- Talk about how particular voices made you feel or affected you. Explain.
- How do you think this activity relates to your life, and/or life here at school?
Transgender Teens Speak to Themselves 10 Years From Now
Show students the following 2-minute video in which some of the students, whose voices were shared today, speak to themselves 10 years from now:
Debrief/discuss the video with questions such as these:
- What are your thoughts and feelings about the video?
- Were you able to connect with any of the teens in the video? How?
- Was there anything they said that touched you? Explain.
- Was there anything they said that confused you? Explain.
- What did people hope for that was different from what you yourself would hope for? What did people hope for that you also hope for yourself?
Next, ask students:
- Was there anything new you learned about trans people from this activity?
- Do you have any questions about trans people that were raised by this activity and/or that this activity wasn’t able to address for you?
Think back to Langston Hughes’ poem and to the "too rough fingers" that transgender youth are exposed to. What is a hope you have for the young people in this video, or for one particular person in the video? If you were able to speak to them, what is one thing you might want to tell them?
Invite students to share out.
Handout: Transgender Teenage Voices
"Will you ever get there, to the point where you're real in everywhere, within the hearts of your parents, within the hearts of yourself?" (Kathrine, 19, she/her)
"After 18 years of repressing her true identity, she finally mustered up the courage to come out to her immigrant parents. Terror set in: "What if they don’t accept me?" (Kathrine, 19, she/her)
"The brief talk went exactly how she had predicted. Her parents disapproved. In an instant, she was dead to them." (Kathrine, 19, she/her)
"Depression quickly set in, and for Katherine — who had self-esteem issues since she was a child — thoughts of suicide became very real." (Kathrine, 19, she/her)
"Living in an unsupportive household with family that ostracizes her, Katherine feels trapped. Not only is she a prisoner inside her home, but in her own body. "Maybe if I went away, it’d all be better," she would think." (Kathrine, 19, she/her)
"People call me a "transtrender." .... It’s because of what I look like and how I’m not taking hormones for my transition, but there are plenty of transgender people who don’t want to go through that process. I like how I look, I really do. It’s up to other people to change their perception of me rather than for me to change myself to fit what their perception is." (AJ, 19, he/him)
"I wear dresses sometimes, but that doesn’t make me less of a man. I definitely have a feminine side. I enjoy having my makeup done and can still look pretty and be a man." (AJ, 19, he/him)
"For as long as I can remember I’ve always been feminine. I used to always put on the princess gowns and run around, and the little plastic high heels that you can get at the dollar store. At first I was like, "Why am I having to identify as a boy? Why do I have to be a boy when I want to be a girl?" So it was kind of confusing." (Charlie, 12, she/her)
"In fourth grade is when I started to transition. My hair started to grow out and I started pinning my bangs back, putting a bow up there. I got my ears pierced. As for now, my dad is still wishy-washy. I don’t really see him anymore. I don’t have visitation with him so I don’t really know how that’s working right now. He texts me every once in a while. He’s coming around." (Charlie, 12, she/her)
"My transition has been five years in the making. I’m very anxious to start the process. I know from research the older you get the harder it is to make the transition look better. I’ve seen some people who transitioned at an earlier age and how much more feminine they look." (Lucy, 18, she/her)
"The one thing I hate the most is how much testosterone* I have. I shaved last night; I’m growing hair back on my face, on my arms. It’s just so much to do. My girlfriend, though, is super supportive and is like, "I don’t care what you look like. If you have a good personality and a good heart that’s what I care for." (Lucy, 18, she/her) Mashable
* testosterone = hormone that is responsible for development of male characteristics
"Not everyone’s been supportive like my parents." (Lucy, 18, she/her)
"I struggled with depression and anxiety ever since I was 13 or 14. The biggest thing for me as a trans person is that I feel like a lot of the depression and anxiety came from how people treated me." (Morgan, 19, he/him)
"People still mistreat me. On the streets in the city people will stare at me and walk past me and continue to stare at me. I was waiting in line to get into a public pool, and I turned around and looked at a couple loudly arguing about if I was a boy or a girl. Me and my friends just ended up leaving." (Morgan, 19, he/him)
"Soon, people won’t question me. I just started testosterone* and am super excited. It’s all been happening very, very quickly for me in the best way. It’s a little overwhelming because I was so miserable and now I’m overjoyed about everything. (Morgan, 19, he/him) Mashable
* testosterone = hormone that is responsible for development of male characteristics
"Some of the biggest changes are my voice. Every four to five days I wake up with my vocal chords feeling scratchy and my voice is deeper, and it’s really cool. My facial hair is also growing in as well as my sideburns. Recently, I shaved the sides of my hair when I got a cut. It’s going to be nice when my mustache grows in hardcore." (Morgan, 19, he/him)
"I brought this San Francisco Giants hat with me ... My older brother said to me, "You know, now that I have a brother, I want to make sure he’s cool and has swag." He bought me this and it makes me feel more masculine. Right now, he’s the only one who really accepts me." (Zane, 17, he/him)
"I didn’t come out as transgender until I was 15. To tell you the truth, I was in a very bad physiological state when I came out. I actually had a suicide attempt and then I was like, "I can’t take this anymore." That’s what made me come out to my parents." (Zane, 17, he/him)
"It’s very difficult since I’m South Asian and I’m Muslim. My parents let me live with them, so I’m grateful for that. But that’s about it. They don’t accept who I am; they just tolerate it." (Zane, 17, he/him)
"Growing up was very difficult because my family was not supportive at all. When I was younger, they all sort of thought I was gay. That’s when my father would bully me along with my brother, older brothers, my mother, my grandmother — everyone. They would say that I’m going to hell." (Nicole, 18, she/her)
"My father would ... would embarrass me in front of people. He told me he was ashamed of me." (Nicole, 18, she/her)
"It’s actually been very difficult. I’ve been hospitalized twice and went to behavioral hospital for self harm." (Nicole, 18, she/her)
"The only reason I was able to transition with the hormones and the surgery was because, when I was in third grade, I was taken from my family by child protective services because they found drugs in my mom’s system. My foster mother took me in and we stayed in contact ever since. She pretty much saved my life." (Nicole, 18, she/her)
"I’m not in contact with my family anymore. But if I was, I would love to sit them down and let them have it. I would love if they couldn’t say anything to me; for about a half an hour I’d let it all out. They still don’t know how badly they hurt me. They broke my heart over and over." (Nicole, 18, she/her)
"Both of my parents are Chinese immigrants, so they’re very strict and traditional. When I told [my mother] it wasn’t a phase, she broke down and started crying. My father wasn’t exactly on board with it. But soon enough, he went from not using any pronouns to now calling me "him" and "he," which is cool." (Chance, 18, he/him)
"I’m non-binary and neutral in my gender. It means I’m neither/nor but also both. I don’t have a specific word or phrasing for it, but I put a lot of thought into what that means." (Eli, 18, themselves)
"When I first started to identify as non-binary I thought I had to cut my hair super short and masculine. After a couple of months, I started to wear whatever I wanted and be more comfortable with dresses, skirts and loose jeans. I think the biggest misconception is that you have to look a certain way. Commonly, the main stereotype with non-binary individuals is that it means they are thin, white and masculine. But obviously that’s not who I am and what I look like." (Eli, 18, themselves)
"I knew something wasn’t right really early on, at like three or four years old. I asked my mom one day how someone knew if they were gay. The next day, I was like, "That’s not it." ... I started on puberty blockers at about 13, and that’s when I started transitioning." (Quinn, 19, she/her)
"At first, my dad and my stepmother didn’t understand or accept this transition. But later, my stepmother came around and actually convinced my dad to help me with getting the hormones I needed." (Quinn, 19, she/her)
"When I was younger and transitioning, I was friends with another transgender girl. At that time, people on the streets of New York would throw objects and glass bottles in our direction." (Mona, 19, she/her)
"My mom has been the biggest fighter for me. There are times when people look at me in a funny way or say something negative. My mom will be like, "Why don’t you keep your comments to yourself?" I’m always like, "Mom, don’t fight this, don’t worry," but to be honest, I do get bothered by it. It’s sad that someone would want to go out of their way to ruin someone’s day. It hurts, but I feel very strong and determined to live my life this way." (Mona, 19, she/her)
"It hurts, but I feel very strong and determined to live my life this way." (Mona, 19, she/her)