Creating Compassion for Trans Students: An Open Letter to Teachers

By Lizzie Sokolova
Dear teachers,
I’m sure that you’ve felt hurt at least sometime in the past. I’m sure that you’ve felt like you weren’t accepted or like you didn’t belong. I’m sure that you’ve struggled to find validation from others, and I’m sure that you’ve seen the same patterns with your own students. At our very basic core as humans, all we want is to feel seen and heard. Transgender students are no different.
Personally, it took me years to come to terms with my identity as a non-binary (1) person, and it took me even longer to have the courage to come out (2). It might seem simple—easy, even—to tell people that you use they/them pronouns. After all, they’re just measly parts of grammar that most people don’t think about. But seeing my out and proud trans friends be ridiculed and misgendered by families, peers, and classmates made me wait to be called by the correct pronouns. Hearing students mock my use of singular ‘they’ made me judge myself for something as fundamentally integral as my identity. Watching fellow South High students make fun of trans folks by putting insults like ‘nor/mal’, ‘mayo/naise’, and ‘dad/father’ in their Zoom bios without being held accountable made me even more upset than I already was. Getting called slurs by peers in the halls and on social media made me scared to be myself. And yet, when I first put my correct pronouns—a marker of my identity—in my Zoom name, I felt heard. When my friends replaced ‘she’ with ‘they’, I felt seen: the same way I hope you’ve felt after getting a warm hug from a friend you haven’t met in a long time. If it’s the only thing you’ve ever known, being correctly gendered seems trivial to you. If it’s something you’ve never known, being correctly gendered is momentous. As English teachers will tell you, pronouns are not just a measly part of grammar that you shouldn’t think about. For the countless amount of transgender people in the world, they’re the marker of an identity that’s been silenced for far too long.
Since I know you (albeit for 40-minute increments five days a week), I know that you don’t want to hurt anyone. You’re an educator; you want your students to feel seen and heard. It’s why you call on the kids who don’t speak often, or why you bother to answer emails after hours. Maybe you’re not even sure what misgendering is. But, conscious or not, it’s still a problem that must be addressed and eradicated so that transgender students—many of whom often go unnoticed or ignored—can feel seen and heard in the classroom. Misgendering, or the wrongful use of one’s pronouns or gender identity, can have detrimental effects on students whose gender identity differs from their sex at birth (otherwise known as transgender or trans). Through personal experience or observation, we all know that most high-school students struggle with mental health issues. However, that problem is exacerbated for transgender students. The Human Rights Campaign has found that 40% of transgender youth struggle with depression, while only 12% of cisgender (3), heterosexual youth feels the same. The heightened risks of mental illness are almost inescapable for LGBT+ students and adolescents, but studies have shown that supportive school and home environments greatly cut back on these risks. The Journal for Adolescent Health has shown that every time a trans person’s name or pronouns are correctly used, their risk of suicidal behavior is cut by half. Incredibly simple actions like checking someone’s pronouns and gendering them correctly can have exponential benefits. From the personal experience of my trans friends and I, being misgendered heightens our sense of gender dysphoria while being accurately gendered boosts our self esteem and confidence—and who wouldn’t want their students to be confident?
As someone who has not only been misgendered themselves, but has also accidentally misgendered their friends, I know that the process of replacing someone’s deadname (4) with their correct name or pronouns can be overwhelming. Maybe you’re just too scared of making a mistake to know where to start. But it’s important to remember that just like teachers aren’t expecting every student to get an ‘100’ on every test, the trans community isn’t expecting absolute perfection right away. As students, we know that everyone makes mistakes: it’s how we learn and grow. So, if you realized that you used the wrong pronouns or if a student reminds you, simply correct yourself and move on. Studies have also shown that verbally correcting oneself is one of the best ways to remember someone’s pronouns, just like writing something down by hand is one of the best ways to remember specific information. There’s no need to apologize profusely or to bring more attention to the student at hand; in fact, that can be more alienating than it is helpful. Write your student’s pronouns down on the attendance sheet or in infinite campus the same way you would write down a student’s nickname. Try not to assume one’s gender identity the same way you wouldn’t assume someone’s sexuality or skill set. Send out pre-made pronoun forms to your classes the same way you would give out introductory activities. Introduce yourself by your own pronouns or put them in your Zoom name the same way you would put your name. While these things may seem redundant or even inconsequential, they validate the identities of students who get called slurs by their peers. Doing all of these two-second tasks and asking your students to do the same is an incredibly simple and easy way to be an ally. It’s free to support transgender students like me by simply reminding us that we’re not alone. 
As humans, I think we often find that the simplest gestures tend to speak volumes. We’re not asking you to dedicate your life to LGBT+ activism. We’re just asking you to treat us with the same respect and courteousness that you ask your students to spread. If you really care about all your students, you should have no problem with gendering them correctly. These incredibly simple day-to-day solutions can make all the difference for your students. It can make us feel validated and accepted; it can even reduce suicidal thoughts. As educators, you know that it’s your job to raise the next generation. As teachers, you know that the little things can make all the difference. And, as people, you have the power to make all the students around you feel seen and heard so that hopefully one day no more students will get misgendered and no more teachers will have to read this letter.
You have this power.
Use it. 
Thank you,
Elizabeth Sokolova (they/them)

  1. Non-binary: a term under the transgender umbrella that refers to anyone who does not identify with the female or male binaries.
  2. Coming out’, or ‘coming out of the closet’ is a metaphor used to describe LGBT+ people’s self disclosure of their sexuality or gender identity.
  3. Cisgender: describes those whose gender identity coincides with their sex at birth.
  4. Deadname: One’s ‘deadname’ refers to their former name or pronouns that are no longer applicable.