Creating a Supportive, Inclusive Environment
School policies and practices must send a message that all students are safe and free to bring their “whole” selves to school, that every student can safely explore the many varied aspects of their identity, and that harassment and bullying are never acceptable by or toward any student. The best practices do not simply make schools safe and affirming for trans and gender-diverse youth; they make schools safe for all students—lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth; youth whose gender expression varies from what is considered normative for their birth-assigned sex; gender-expansive or gender-creative youth; youth whose gender identity and/or expression goes beyond the binary; and cisgender, gender-conforming, straight youth.
Gender-Diverse and Nonbinary Youth
Gender-diverse and nonbinary youth face certain challenges that can differ from those encountered by trans youth who gender transition. Virtually every time they fill out an application, they are asked to check male or female. There are no other choices. When children lined up along the hallways to use the bathroom in first grade, it was boys on one wall and girls against the other. There were no other choices. Trans youth who identify as nonbinary are forced over and over to make a choice when neither choice adequately represents their identities. This means confronting the message on a daily basis that they don’t fit in—anywhere.
Not only do you not fit in; you do not even really exist. Not on your driver’s license. Not on your college or job application. There is simply no way for nonbinary youth to check a box that reflects who they are. Given that gender is ubiquitous in our society, people gender us constantly. While it has begun to change, much of the time when we interact with customer service personnel, we are “Sir’d” or “Ma’am’d.” The outcome of this for nonbinary youth is that they are continually being misgendered. This contributes not only to a feeling of not fitting in but also a profound sense of being invisible in the world. If there is no language, no pronouns, that adequately reflect who they are, then they are invisible. There is no way to address them; “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Ms.” do not describe who they are. There are no pronouns that work adequately when people discuss their progress in a teacher’s meeting—“he,” “she,” but not ME.
Given that their identity is neither male nor female, some nonbinary youth use more recent gender-neutral pronouns, such as “zie” for he or she and “hir” for him or her. Some nonbinary youth use plural pronouns, like “they,” “them,” and “theirs.” Other youth prefer not to use pronouns at all and simply use their name. Nonbinary youth often find themselves not taken seriously by adults. They are frequently told they are “just confused” about gender, or that there simply are only two genders and sooner or later they will have to accept this. They are told “You can play around like this while you’re in high school, but once you get into the real world, you’ll have to choose one gender or the other”. They are told, “People in the work world are not going to play along with your little gender pronoun games.” Adults, even medical and mental health providers, may ask, “Why do you have to make things so complicated [for me]? Why can’t you just choose a box?” Or, they are sometimes admonished for “just being difficult.”
The gender-fluid or nonbinary adolescents and young adults with whom I work struggle not so much with themselves and their own identities. Instead, they struggle with how to live in a world constructed and still operating around a binary gender system—a system that does not acknowledge their existence and insists on putting them in a binary box despite the lack of fit. While they have claimed a place underneath the large trans umbrella, most of these young people do not want to gender transition in the traditional sense of moving from their birth-assigned sex to living in the opposite/their affirmed gender. Instead, they simply want a world where gender matters less or doesn’t matter at all. They want a world where there are multiple genders, or no gender. Despite this, we have often had conversations where they grappled with whether or not to gender transition simply because it would be easier to live in the world as a young man or young woman rather than as someone who is gender-fluid or nonbinary.
Elijah C. Nealy, PhD, MDiv, LCSW, is assistant professor in the Department of Social Work and Equitable Community Practice at the University of Saint Joseph in Hartford, Connecticut. As an out transgender man, he has spent the past twenty-five years working extensively within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities.