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Being (The Only) Trans In the Classroom – And What You (A Cis Ally) Can Do About It

In my dream world, every classroom would be covered in rainbows and trans flags, filled with trans and queer students like myself and, frankly, taught by queer and trans professors. However, I live in reality, and, for me, reality often means being the only trans person in a room – and the classroom is no different.

In my three years at post-secondary, this semester is the first time I’ve ever had another (openly) trans person in the classroom with me, and I must say, the feeling is liberating. To be able to look over at another person who truly understands what you’re going through and to have a moment of y’all hearing this shit too? Cis people be wild. The number of classrooms discussions that have just been soaked in transphobic ignorance is truly baffling. There’s a part of me that doesn’t blame cis folks – society has taught all of us that anything that doesn’t fit our ideas of “normal” must be investigated at all costs. This allows for the fetishization of trans bodies and experiences in a way that is not only expected but rewarded. Cis students are given full marks for “debating” whether or not a historical figure could be trans while constantly misgendering them – all while I’m having an extremely triggering experience in the back corner of the room. And, to top it all off, this “debate” is considered an example of advocacy and inclusion in the classroom. 

Yeah, no. 

So, what can you, as an ally to trans folks in the room, do?

1. Listen to trans folks and value their lived knowledge.

Look, joking aside, this meme does have some merit. When it comes to gender, trans folks have a really unique experience that allows us to understand, firsthand, how absolutely ballistic gender is. It makes no sense and it’s the most natural thing to me. When we speak up in gender studies or sociology or whatever about how gender influences us, you, and society, take note of your privilege and open your mind to learning from people who know gender most intimately. 

2. Don’t misgender people – even dead folks. 

Nothing throws off my class experience more than listening to people misgender trans or gender nonconforming folks. All I’m thinking of is, “great, they don’t see trans people as who they truly are which means they don’t see me as who I am.” Trans people deserve respect and using proper pronouns is the base level of respect you can give any person. You’re not sure what pronouns to use? Let me help you out: someone was assigned female at birth, but spent their whole life or their adult life presenting as a man and it was only found out after their death that they weren’t cis? He/him is pretty safe to assume. You’re talking about someone who consistently “cross-dressed” as a woman? She/her is the way to go. Someone who seemed to disagree with the whole binary gender thing in general? Mood, but they/them is your best bet. While we’re at it, if you know the person had a birth name and a “preferred” name, let’s use their preferred name, yeah? Deadnaming a trans person is just as bad as misgendering them. 

3. Don’t expect me to educate you

While it’s vitally important to listen to us speak, it’s not our job to educate you. We deserve a stress-free (well, as stress-free as you can get in post-secondary) education just as much as you do. No offense, but I don’t need to take time out of my “me” time before an 8:30am class to answer your questions about whether or not I have a penis and if I want to get surgery to “rectify” that (yeah, that’s really happened). When and where I want to spend my time and energy educating people is up to me, not you. Listen when we speak, but otherwise here are some great resources for you to check out about what it means to be trans and how you can be an ally: 

https://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender

https://www.glaad.org/transgender/allies

https://transequality.org/issues/resources/supporting-the-transgender-people-in-your-life-a-guide-to-being-a-good-ally

Essentially, when it comes to being an ally to trans folks, there are really three simple points to remember: allyship is a verb, and a practice you constantly engage in; be respectful; and be open to educating yourself and learning from others. Being trans is hard, being the only trans person in a room is hard, but you can help make it easier by creating a safer space through allyship in the classroom and the community.