Considering Transgender People in Education: A Gender-Complex Approach

By Rands, Kathleen E. | Journal of Teacher Education, September-October 2009 | Go to article overview

Considering Transgender People in Education: A Gender-Complex Approach


Rands, Kathleen E., Journal of Teacher Education


If I could change one thing, it would be that all people were required to understand that there are more than two categories of gender. That way other kids won't have to suffer like I did.

--17-year-old transboy (quoted in Brill & Pepper, 2008, p. 67)

Our biggest issue with the school was their lack of knowledge. At first it was suggested that we switch schools to one that is 12 miles away. Thanks.

--Parent of a 7-year-old transboy (quoted in Brill & Pepper, 2008, p. 154)

Schools serve as a setting in which students come to understand gender. One group that is largely left out of discussions of education consists of transgender students, those who transgress societal gender norms. The high level of harassment that transgender students face poses sizable obstacles to school success. If the field of education is committed to equity and social justice, then teacher education programs must prepare educators to teach gender in more complex ways that take into consideration the existence and needs of transgender people. This article is intended to begin the discussion of transgender issues in teacher education by providing a rationale for why teacher educators need to care about transgender issues, presenting definitions of basic terms and concepts related to gender and transgender, offering a new framework for understanding gender privilege and oppression, examining three previously proposed or existing types of gender education and proposing "gender-complex education" as an alternative, and exploring possibilities for "gender-complex teacher education."

Definitions and Terms

Foundational Gender-Related Terms

To work with future teachers on approaching gender in more complex ways, teacher educators must develop a vocabulary of gender. According to Bornstein (1994), gender identity "answers the question, 'who am I?' Am I a man or a woman or a what?" (p. 24). Bornstein wrote that it is "one's sense of self as a boy or girl, woman or man (or, as we are increasingly realizing, as a nongendered, bigendered, transgendered, intersexed, or otherwise alternatively gendered person)" (Tranzmission, n.d., p. 10). The term originated in the field of psychiatry, which included "Gender Identity Disorder" as a classification in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychological Association, 1980) beginning in 1980 (Wilchins, 2004; Zucker & Spitzer, 2005). This conception of those who do not follow the dominant model of gender identity as "disordered" is a manifestation of and has contributed to the oppression of transgender people. Whereas the origin of the term gender identity is less than ideal, when used without a connection to "disorders," it is a useful term.

Gender expression, a second useful term, refers to "the manifestation of an individual's fundamental sense of being masculine or feminine through clothing, behavior, grooming, etc." (Wilchins, 2004, p. 8). In other words, gender expression consists of the behaviors in which a person engages that show that person's gender. Significantly, whereas people choose how to express gender, they do not choose how others will perceive their genders. This leads to another term, gender attribution, which is the process "whereby we look at somebody and say, 'that's a man,' or 'that's a woman'" (Bornstein, 1994, p. 26). Gender attribution is based on various cues. Among the types of cues, Bornstein (1994) listed physical cues (body, hair, voice, skin, movement), behavioral cues (manners, decorum, protocol, deportment), textual cues (histories, documents, names, associates, relationships), mythic cues (cultural and subcultural myths that support membership in a given gender), power dynamic cues (modes of communication, communication techniques, degrees of aggressiveness, assertiveness, persistence, ambition), and sexual orientation cues (whom one dates, with whom one has sex, with whom one has romantic relationships). …

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