Fundamentally About Access

Reflections on Creating a Trans-Inclusive Learning Space

Queer writer and activist Jai Dulani shares his experience in creating a trans-inclusive learning environment by introducing his own key methods and values. How can classroom teachers get started? Have an anti-oppression framework, center intersectionality, and value safe space. 

As an educator and writer, I have experienced the classroom as both a trans student and teacher. (I use the term trans here to describe anyone who identifies with a different gender than the one assigned to them at birth. This includes gender non-conforming and non-binary identities.)

Being visibly queer and having worked with queer and trans youth for eight years in New York City, I am intimately familiar with the process of creating a trans-inclusive learning environment. I believe inclusivity in a classroom is fundamentally about access to learning, opportunity, and expression; it requires the intentional work of students and teachers alike to create a culture rooted in explicit dignity and respect for marginalized identities.

These identities are not only usually erased by dominant norms, but they are also punished, tormented, and attacked on a systemic scale. Especially in the current political climate, the hurdles for trans students to be psychologically and emotionally safe in a classroom are structural and multi-faceted. These obstacles vary enormously depending on the familial, cultural, educational, and legal systems shaping students’ lives, as well as the intersections of their own identities and those of their peers. Inside the classroom, explicit and implicit bias from teachers and students can deny or disregard the existence of trans people and/or reinforce familiar harmful messages about trans people.

Facilitating youth leadership programs in a non-traditional classroom setting, such as non-profit after-school programs that center social justice, I employed values and methods that: 1) have an anti-oppression framework, 2) center intersectionality, and 3) value “safe space.” When asked how to create an inclusive classroom for transgender students, I return to these guiding principles as a lens for best practices.

1) Have an Anti-Oppression Framework

For four years, I worked as a media educator at Global Action Project, an organization that works with high school-aged youth to create youth-produced media. Global Action Project used popular education methods, a methodology developed by Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. For us, this meant defining young people’s lived experience as knowledge. Period. Furthermore, it meant centering this knowledge as a catalyst for transformation.

Global Action Project developed a core curriculum that is shared on their website as a resource for all youth workers. The curriculum includes the “Oppression and Liberation” workshop, which explains the 3 Is of oppression: institutional, interpersonal, and internalized. This framework lends itself to a group being able to name the vehicles, structures, and impacts of oppression. As a media educator, I adapted the core curriculum for the two programs I co-facilitated, SupaFriends and Youth Breaking Borders—programs for LGBTQ and immigrant youth respectively. In SupaFriends, we analyzed media representation of LGBTQ people, learned about LGBTQ history, and discussed current political conditions and the corresponding dominant narratives impacting our lives—all towards the goal of producing a film with a conscious and intentional anti-oppression lens What this meant for us was developing a shared understanding and language regarding the ways in which oppression manifested in our lives and communities. For trans and gender non-conforming students, this means acknowledging that the gender binary is enforced in every aspect of life. To live outside of or to challenge this binary has consequences on an institutional, interpersonal, and internalized level.

One way I adopted the “Oppression and Liberation” workshop for SupaFriends was through screening the movie Ma vie en rose or My Life in Pink, a Belgian film about a young transgender girl. Prior to the film, we introduced the concept of the 3 Is. After the film, we collectively identified examples of institutional, interpersonal, and internalized oppression that the main character faced. Then, each student took time on their own to draw examples from their own lives of how they have experienced the 3 Is. This exercise provided opportunities for youth to share experiences safely and to name the harm they may have experienced with the power of a framework that didn’t blame them for the pain of those experiences. It also provided clear pathways to talk about combating oppression since the scale, source, and impact of oppression had been identified and could be targeted for transformation. At its core, the 3 Is is a framework for healing, organizing, and critical analysis.

In traditional classrooms, where there may not be room to conduct a workshop on systems of oppression, there are still many avenues for a teacher to demonstrate solidarity with a trans student by acknowledging that these systems of oppression exist. Much of this can be seen through the choices a teacher makes in the examples they choose to share and in what the curriculum reflects; there is as much literature and poetry by trans people as there are writing exercises that get students to critically examine gender and the related systems of oppression. My favorites include the novel Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness. Critically acclaimed trans poets include D’lo, Ching-In Chen, Qwo-Li Driskill, J Mase III, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Christopher Soto, Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, Kit Yan, Amir Rabiyah, and so many more. Trace Peterson, co-editor of the anthology, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, teaches a class called “Learning From Trans Poets,” which curates many of the above-mentioned poets. Additional resources for new and emerging work are Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color and the Lambda Literary website, which identifies and celebrates the best LGBTQ literature every year, including trans poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.     

2) Center Intersectionality

In the last few years, much more visibility and discourse has emerged about trans identity and issues. However, it is important to note which identities and narratives within that emergence have been publicly uplifted and amplified. Most trans young people don’t have the wealth or celebrity stature that has catapulted trans identity to the mainstream. Young gender non-conforming people are especially vulnerable to homelessness, family rejection, bullying, hate violence, policing, and employment discrimination. Thus, as Reina Gossett has articulated time and time again, the increased visibility of trans identity does not translate to safety for trans people. I would add, increased visibility also does not readily translate to having the lived experience of young trans people reflected in the curriculum or in the hearts and minds of peers and teachers. Race, class, immigration status, and housing status are some of the intersecting issues that must be confronted while thinking about inclusivity of trans students—the point being that there is no one trans experience, and centering intersectionality is key to not furthering marginalization.

A dear friend of mine, Myrl Beam, who teaches gender studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), spoke to me about how when non-binary white students dominate classroom discussions in grappling with their own gender identities, it runs the risk of centralizing their experience of gender—as if no one else experiences gender. Whereas intersectionality supports conversations that effectively capture how everyone has a gender identity and gender expression, but not everyone experiences the same consequence in society for that identity and expression. My short film, Caster Semenya: Wrong Is Not Her Name, uses media and pop culture to examine how South African athlete Caster Semenya experienced gender policing and how both race and gender influenced this unjust experience. Other resources where intersectionality informs examining the lived experience of trans people include: the award-winning film MAJOR, Eli Claire’s book Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure, and the collection Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex.

3) Value “Safe Space” 

“Safe space,” in the context of the work I’ve done, is a practice of a group coming up with agreements that shape the culture of the learning space. Many spaces committed to supporting trans and gender non-conforming students are in the practice of having everyone state their “preferred gender pronoun” (PGP for short) so as to have everyone respect and not assume the pronoun each individual chooses to use. I still remember the first time I was asked what my preferred gender pronoun was; I was at the cusp of a shift in my own identity—from identifying as gender-queer to identifying as trans. The opportunity to name my preferred pronoun and have it be respected was truly transformative and liberating. Moving through the world with a body that garnered contempt was terrifying and shaped how I carried myself—often like I wanted to disappear. The opportunity to practice self-determination opened up pathways I thought were not possible—to exist and be supported.

Safe space is essentially the attempt to practice our values. Many activists and educators have adapted practices based on trial and error. For instance, some have found that the exercise of having everyone name their pronoun can fall flat without skilled facilitation; trans people can end up feeling further marginalized or even outed if others treat the exercise facetiously. To mitigate any unwanted attention for a trans or gender non-conforming student, some educators have adopted the practice of having students write down their preferred name and gender pronoun for the teacher at the beginning of the course. This gives the teacher the opportunity to model addressing students with the correct pronoun and name, which can sometimes differ from the legal name on the roster.

For a classroom to truly be inclusive of trans students, educators must be committed to creating a safe space. There are many resources available online regarding best practices for creating a safe space for queer and trans students. However, beyond checklists that say to respect pronouns or to ensure access to a gender-neutral bathroom, for a teacher to truly exemplify the values of safe space is to exhibit comfort with and awareness of identity, privilege, and power. This sets a bar for vulnerability. As a trans person, I routinely look for cues that my existence will be acknowledged and respected. I do the same scan, though, for all points of vulnerability: Is the White teacher able to talk about race? Is the straight teacher able to talk about sexuality?

It is the teacher who sets the example of how to deal with conflict and how to model allyship. Dr. Beam at VCU said that he makes a point to talk about why we approach pronouns seriously; he talks about the importance of having the intention to see one another and reflect each other back to one another. “We are all moving through the world in a compulsory gender system and there is no way to opt out,” he said. “[We must] let go of visual cues. [There is] no easy lesson plan. We will all make mistakes.” He said he tries to destigmatize people making mistakes by being friendly about correcting pronouns when needed.

He also isn’t afraid to press pause and rearrange the syllabus when conversations are tense and require specific attention. Central to his pedagogy is naming that there are “some ways of being that are rewarded and some ways of being that are penalized. What/who is benefiting from this social arrangement?”

Another friend of mine, Ching-In Chen, a writer and professor, was talking to me about how teaching “intro to poetry” is different than teaching a gender studies class. They spoke about the importance of the writing examples they choose to share, and how if they choose work by trans poets, it is important not to workshop an identity, but rather continue to ask: “What’s happening in the poem? What is the poem concerned about?” They encourage students to be open to identities outside of their experience, but to approach the poem on its own terms: “What is it interested in? What is the writer trying to do?”

This, too, cannot be emphasized enough; trans people are so much more than trans, yet our identity and experiences deserve to be included, represented, and respected. It is fundamentally about access.

Jai Dulani is a Desi queer writer and activist based in Queens, New York, by way of Pittsburgh and Chandigarh, India. An interdisciplinary storyteller, Dulani has been a Kundiman Asian American Poet Fellow, a VONA/ Voices Fellow, and a BCAT/ Rotunda Gallery Multi-Media Artist-in-Residence. He has worked with young people in New York City, facilitating youth leadership programs with an anti-oppression framework at organizations including Global Action Project, Sadie Nash Leadership Institute, and South Asian Youth Action. From 2011–2015, Dulani served as co-director of FIERCE, an organization that builds the leadership and power of LGBTQ youth of color organizing at the intersections of gentrification and police violence. Dulani is co-editor of the anthology The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities. He was a 2016 Open City Fellow through the Asian American Writers Workshop.