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Teaching tolerance

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NOVEMBER 09, 2017

When my sister told me she was trans, her eyes wide open for my response, I almost laughed. I told her that she should give it some time, that she was too young to make such a big decision. I didn’t understand why she took off in front of me when I suggested that maybe she was just gay, why she screamed in disgust when I asked her to put off transitioning until we were no longer in the same school.

I am now an avid supporter of trans rights. My intolerance was the result of an appalling lack of education. I come from a high school that refuses to acknowledge the existence of trans individuals. I will never forget when my health class teacher abruptly stopped teaching one day, sparing us from our packets filled with embarrassingly detailed sexual terminology.

She looked sickeningly excited as she told us about the trans guest speakers who used to come to our class until both students and parents complained. The class erupted in whispers and laughter as she stereotypically described one of the past speakers: a broad-shouldered, football-player-looking individual who was also somehow a woman. I can still see her smug expression — she was in on the joke, ridiculing someone for being different from her or what she was used to. And yet, because being trans is still considered taboo to so many, her position as an educator was not threatened, despite the fact that she created a hostile environment for trans people in her class.

I feared for my sister’s experience at a school so appalled by trans people that they weren’t allowed to show themselves to students or speak about their experiences because of some fear of it spreading or denial that they even exist.

Such treatment of trans individuals can contribute to the high incidence of transgender suicide. A study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality focused on the root causes of suicide among those who identify as transgender. The study found that discrimination or victimization — in school, work, medical settings and by law enforcement — makes trans individuals much more vulnerable to suicidal behaviors. Though many people’s experiences as transgender are impacted by their socioeconomic status, their ethnic and racial backgrounds, illnesses, disabilities and many other factors, the most prevalent cause of suicide is misunderstanding, which leads to discrimination.

The way to prevent misunderstanding regarding trans people is to promote LGBTQ+ education. In schools, such as my high school, that lack basic LGBTQ+ education, educators must implement lessons that portray LGBTQ+ history, people and events in a positive light. More-inclusive curriculums have been shown to decrease intolerance, and students are less likely to feel unsafe or miss school as a result of their gender identity. Someone like my health class teacher might be less likely to disparage trans people.

My sister was able to survive despite the lack of education. She was lucky enough to have a supportive family and a host of specialists working with her during her transition. She took education into her own hands, unapologetically coming out as trans and refusing to accept any unfair treatment. She has spoken on panels and had many difficult conversations in order to protect herself and promote knowledge about the transgender community.

Even with her activism, my sister experienced discrimination from her peers. It became evident to me one morning in high school as I walked between classes with a friend from my biology class. We passed my sister, and as soon as she was out of view, my friend tugged at my arm. I turned to her, and she said, “That girl who’s actually a guy is so weird.” I mumbled a noncommittal response, stunned by her blunt transphobia.

Trans students at her school are constantly misgendered, afraid to tell teachers or administrators, afraid to tell their parents, afraid of the reaction of their peers. The lack of education (and lack of any discourse surrounding trans existence) denies many trans students their identities. They must live as not totally themselves, an experience that can evoke negative feelings even without discrimination, because their peers lack the knowledge to see them for who they are.

Isabel Lichtman writes the Thursday blog on mental health. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @isabellichtman.

NOVEMBER 09, 2017