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Trans-Inclusive Teaching & Learning Practices

This section focuses on the more practical ways that staff can support trans and gender diverse students. This section includes quotes from trans students and excerpts from case studies collected here at the University of Warwick.

Avoiding Assumptions About Gender

It is incredibly important not to assume a student’s gender identity, and not to assume that a student is (or is not) trans, cis (not trans) or gender diverse. This can be damaging to students and make them feel excluded.

Assuming someone’s gender or trans/cis identity can lead to the use of incorrectly gendered language in reference to someone, which can be very distressing. Gendered language includes pronouns, and gendered nouns such as ‘man’ or ‘woman’

A student told us "Someone in one of my courses asked people their height to create two sample binomial distributions based on gender. He just went along assuming what gender people fit under which hurts even more."

Another student told us "Another is people gendering others when it's unnecessary. I'd answered a question and he called me the 'lady in the front'. It's so cringeworthy."

Dr Ric Crossman from Statistics gave us an interesting response with regards to how to tackle this very simple mistake that staff can make when referring to students:

"I've adopted a policy I encountered at a convention a few years ago, and make sure that when I identify a student in a lecture (if multiple students have questions, are volunteering, etc.) I do so by clothing/location/hair colour/accessories, etc. No more 'gentleman at the back'."

It can take years for an individual to feel comfortable with their gender identity and other identities that they hold. People should feel able to explore their identity and to apply categories and identities to themselves, but it is not for anyone else to label them with an identity which they do not own. It is important to approach teaching with an assumption of diversity, as Dr Kathryn Woods from the Faculty of Arts points out:

"I start with the assumption that within my classroom, that within my classroom, that all the students there have different understandings, ideas about, and experiences of, gender and sexuality. I also assume that for some students, university will have been transformational in terms of exposing them to attitudes about gender, sex and sexuality that are quite different to those they have encountered previously, or those held by their families, friends, and communities."

Avoiding Assumptions About Sexual Orientation

Whilst this guidance focuses on gender identity & diversity, it is important to discuss sexual orientation. If an individual identifies as trans or gender-diverse, it is vital not to assume their sexuality. A trans or gender-diverse student might be heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer, etc. This also means that whilst it is important to include diverse sexualities in the material (where possible), doing so does not make the content gender diverse.

Overcoming Binary Understandings of Gender

Binary understandings of gender mean, in practice, that a lecturer might limit their vocabulary in terms of gender identity by:

  • Only referring to two genders (male/female, man/woman, boy/girl etc.), or
  • Inferring by their use of language that there are only two genders (“ladies & gentlemen”, “both genders”, “the opposite gender”).

As presented in section one, understandings of gender are much more nuanced and expansive than this and so teaching should be more inclusive as a binary approach can isolate trans and gender diverse students.

Further examples of binary approaches to teaching include:

  • Dividing students into two groups by gender,
  • Stereotyping ‘male’ and ‘female’ activities i.e. asking male students to help move furniture around, and
  • Providing only two gender options when collecting data

Here are some examples of binary approaches given to us by students:

One student told us "In early modules, when explaining models for 'sampling from a population of two types.' This model requires every member of the populating to be in exactly one of two 'types'. Teachers used the genders of male and female as the most 'obvious example' of two such mutually exclusive types in the real world. This year I was glad the lecturer used an example of a pond with two different species of fish in."

Another student told us "In my modules they often use gender and code it as a binary variable, happened in at least 3 of the modules I took."

It can be interesting to use examples from outside the university that challenge these binary notions of gender in class, to begin to generate questions around why these binaries exist. Dr Maebh Harding from the School of Law gives a fascinating example of this:

"On Family Law we directly engage with and challenge the assumptions in English family law that centre the heteronormative experiences of family life. We interrogate legal reinforcement of gender roles in marriage and the importance of sexual identity. We evaluate issues of equality both in the way that the law treats different types of couples and the roles that the law expects within marriage. We look at the role that queer activists have played in shaping English family law and students are exposed to video footage of campaigners such as Celia Kitzinger from various campaign groups about the need for children to have a mother and a father and the need for marriage to be for hetereosexuals only."

It can also be fascinating when the boundaries of binary understandings of gender are pushed through teaching practices. Whilst this is expanded on in the Introduction to Queer Pedagogy, Nick Cherryman, MA/PhD in Sociology, offers an example of this:

"I deliberately wore heels to highlight the point that items are gendered by the observer, rather than being innately gendered. The heels were 5.5" stilettos, red PV - with a rubber sole and a small metal buckle. None of these items are gendered reading onto the materials. In wearing male-passing clothes and presenting as masculines but then disrupting this with items that refocused the attention elsewhere, it subverted - queered perhaps? - the expectations of the viewer."

Including Trans and Gender-Diverse Voices

It is important to listen to students that identify as trans or gender diverse and include their voices in the development of material that may affect them. Some examples include policies that may affect the well-being of trans and gender diverse students or teaching material that discusses gender diversity. Trans and gender diverse students may wish to be proactive in helping the university support and represent them and so it is important to hear what they have to say. An example of this practice of inclusion comes from Dr Clare Blackburn from Warwick Medical School:

"The online resources and session on transgender health issues came out of a meeting I invited final year students to ( a LGBTQA+ person from the Student Union also came along). I wanted to develop some teaching in these areas but wanted to offer teaching and learning that students found helpful. At the meeting we decided to develop online learning resources and have a face to face session on trans people and health. Some students have reviewed the resources before we made them available to all students."

As well as including trans and gender diverse students' voices in the content and policies provided, it is also important to include trans and gender diverse content in teaching in general. It is good for students to hear from people they identify with on issues that they find interesting and/or relevant to their own lives. Dr Clare Blackburn also elaborated on this:

"In the final year of the course, we have a session on trans people and health. This is delivered by a trans woman lecturer and included a plenary involving trans students from the Student Union who are willing to share their experience of health care."

Approaching Debates About Gender

It can be difficult to bring debates around gender into the classroom. Students come from all different backgrounds and have wildly differing understandings of gender and gender identities. If not handled carefully, students may intentionally or unintentionally bring up points that invalidate others in the room and this could cause upset and feelings of isolation for those students.

It is important when bringing debates around gender explicitly into the classroom, to prepare students for these. This means letting students know in advance what will be discussed so students can prepare themselves for the discussion. This may also mean putting a notice in advance that emphasises that students will come to that class with differing basis of knowledge and to remember to respect those in the room. This statement of respect will need to then be emphasised in the class to ensure that students understand what behaviour is expected of them and what will not be tolerated. It may also be worth getting students who identify as trans or gender-diverse to talk to the rest of the class about what a discussion regarding gender means to them. This can only be done with advance notice and the student’s explicit consent, do not push students into doing this if they do not feel comfortable with it.

Listed below are some quotes from the case studies where staff have approached debates around gender and/or sexuality:

"Generally, very positive: our feedback has been very good. But these issues have to be handled carefully, in no small part because prospective students haven't yet built up a sense of trust between me (as lecturer) and themselves, or between each other. They have to be carefully supported so they feel able to comment on sensitive issues."

Dr Gavin Schwartz-Leeper, Liberal Arts Induction

"Some students came with some challenging questions, however, this was handled very well by external speakers and students were respectful."

Stuart Knight, discussing the Warwick Stonewall 50 Celebration

"I have also found, to considerable shock, that some of the students could be quite ethically challenged. This was demonstrated in their problematic positions in the course, and in their conduct. So, I have started including ethics as an issue into the course, which means that students, often for the first time, learn the concept and its importance."

Dr Anna Hájková, Department of History, discussing the module Sexualities, Ethnicity, Class: Reinterpreting the Holocaust

"I have occasionally had students ask to change from the Child Law module onto other options because they find this portrayal of family life morally unacceptable. In general though, students are very open minded and supportive of the idea that the law should accommodate all family types equally. They are optional modules so my cohorts are self-selecting."

Dr Maebh Harding, School of Law, discussing the module Child Law

"Talking about these issues openly and sensitively, and creating a positive learning environment through which to do this, has also helped students feel comfortable in contributing to seminars more broadly."

Dr Katheryn, Faculty of Arts, discussing the module European World 1500-1700

Respecting Confidentiality

There are important considerations around confidentiality in relation to students’ gender and trans identity. It is important not to ‘out’an individual who identifies as trans or gender diverse as doing so can cause them to be discriminated against. This also means respecting the individual’s boundaries and for them to not feel forced to give out personal information. Again, Dr Ric Crossman from Statistics highlights the importance of confidentiality:

"There was also an example I wrote for audience participation, so I could gather a small data set and analyse it during the lecture, and the students would have a direct connection to the results discussion. The data I asked for was gender, height, and which hand is dominant. Aware of the issues surrounding gender, or of putting someone who is trans/non-binary on the spot by asking them to state their gender in a public setting where they might not feel comfortable doing so, I explained to students what data I am asking for before requesting volunteers to give me that data."  

Using Preferred Names

As per the University of Warwick’s policies, all staff and students should refer to trans and gender diverse students by their chosen name in all circumstances. Some trans individuals do not change their legal name immediately, or may have no intention of doing so. It is therefore important to communicate with the student to find out how they would like to be addressed. Trans and gender diverse students should not have to reveal what their name was before transitioning or choosing a different name and it is inappropriate to ask.

Another way to incorporate gender diversity in teaching is to include gender-neutral names when presenting examples. Dr Ric Crossman from Statistics presents an example of this:

"One of the examples in a decision theory module I taught involved two people deciding where to go on a date. The original names of the couple made it very clear they were a boy and a girl - I changed these to more gender-neutral names (Alex and Kim, if I remember rightly)."

Some extra examples of gender-neutral names include Andy, Ashley, Bobby, Chris, Harley, Jamie, Sam. 

Asking For & Using Pronouns

Using the wrong pronoun can cause individuals to feel disrespected, misunderstood and/or dysphoric (substantially uncomfortable with perceived gendered aspects of their physical appearance). It is therefore important not to assume a person’s pronouns and if unsure, to politely ask.

There are many ways to politely ask for someone’s pronouns; it can be case of simply introducing yourself with your pronouns and asking theirs in return, or asking what they would like you to use when addressing them i.e.

“Hello, I’m Hannah and I use she/her pronouns. What pronouns do you use?”

“What pronouns would you like me to use for you?”

It is important to find out students’ correct pronouns so as not to misgender them. This can be done in a group setting i.e.:

“As we go round, if everyone could share their name and pronouns that would be helpful. I’ll start – my name is Hannah and I use she/her pronouns.”

Whilst this is a valid way of finding our student’s pronouns, this may cause some students discomfort and bring up the issue of confidentiality. Another way could be to provide students with a piece of paper to write down their preferred name and pronouns. Alternatively, you could ask students to email their preferred name and pronouns to you, which is more private and less daunting. There are pros and cons to each method and so you should choose what might work best for you and your students given the setting of your teaching.

If you only have a short interaction with a student or did not get a chance to find out their pronouns, using gender-neutral ‘they’ pronouns as a default will work until you can.

If you make a mistake then simply apologise briefly, correct yourself and move on with the conversation. Drawing too much attention to your mistake or the individual may cause that individual distress as it draws attention to the issue.

Below is a list of common gendered and non-gendered pronoun sets:

She She believes me I spoke to her Her hand reaches out The gift is hers She thinks to herself
He He believes me I spoke to him His hand reaches out The gift is his He thinks to himself
They They believe me I spoke to them Their hand reaches out The gift is theirs They think to themself
Ey Ey believe me I spoke to em Eir hand reaches out The gift is eirs Ey think to emself
Ze Ze believes me I spoke to zir Zir hand reaches out The gift is zirs Ze thinks to zirself

The pronouns Ey and Ze are rare, but are included to aid you as a reference if they are requested of you. You can practice forming pronoun sets at www.practicewithpronouns.comLink opens in a new window 

Supporting Transitioning Students

You can read more about transitioning here, along with related legal issues and Warwick's policies. In this section we will discuss the practicalities of supporting a transitioning student.

It is important to listen to and be patient with a student who is transitioning. Allow them to feel open enough with you to let you know how they would prefer to be addressed. Exploring one’s gender identity can take time and preferred names and pronouns may change multiple times before an individual finds the one they are comfortable with.

It is imperative that no assumptions are made about an individual’s transition path. It is a complex and highly individual journey, which generally takes place over a significant period of time. During that time people may explore different gendered aspects of expression, such as their clothing, make-up, and voice. Some trans people choose to have medical interventions such as hormones and/or surgery whilst others do not. All paths are equally valid and should be determined only by the person concerned. Asking a trans or gender-diverse person about surgical status is therefore not only highly inappropriate but may invalidate those who have chosen not to take a medical route.

As a member of staff, it is key to not only support the student but to let the student know that they have the full support of the institution.

Keeping Informed and Up-to-date

Language and discussions around gender identity are rapidly accelerating and, with the recent consultation about the reformation of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 which may result in changes to the law, it is important to keep yourself well informed and up to date. There will be a list of resources that can help with this.

Challenging Transphobic Language & Behaviour

It is important not to tolerate anti-trans remarks and behaviour or humour that invalidates anyone’s gender identity. Not only does this kind of behaviour fall under unlawful direct discrimination and should be challenged according to Warwick’s policies and values, but this behaviour also results in students feeling isolated and unprotected if left unchallenged.

It can be difficult to know when and how to challenge instances of transphobia or harassment concerning gender identity. Students who make these jokes and remarks may be unaware of the harm that their words are causing and so making a big scene in class can result in that student, and the student/s who the comments or behaviour may be affecting, feeling embarrassed and singled out. Some academics feel it useful to take the comment or ‘joke’ as a starting point to have a discussion and deconstruct the language to emphasise its effect but again this can result in some students feeling isolated and may only be appropriate in certain disciplines or classes. It may therefore be good to ask the student to stay behind and have a private discussion about their behaviour or language and reiterate the policies and values in place that do not tolerate discrimination. Having a private discussion, however, means that the student/s who the comments or behaviour has affected have not seen the behaviour being dealt with and thus may feel that the student has ‘gotten away with it’. It may therefore be pertinent to talk to the students affected to let them know that the situation has been dealt with and if they experience any more harassment, to let them know the correct channels to go through. It is best to avoid emailing any student involved as this could feel impersonal and may be missed or ignored. These are just a few suggestions on how to tackle this kind of behaviour, it is up to you to decide what is most effective for you and your students.

Harassment can be dealt with at an institutional level by:

  • Having effective and well communicated policies in place that are enforced and explicitly cover gender identity.
  • Making harassment a disciplinary offence.
  • Monitoring policies and impact on a regular basis.
  • Developing clear procedures for investigating complaints.