At east city high, a large high school in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, the gymnasium was located in an outbuilding. There were two entrances, one on the east side for girls and one on the west side for boys. These entrances led to gendered washrooms and changerooms and then flowed into the main gymnasium, where all classes met at the start of the period to rendezvous with their teachers. This setup required students to select a binary gender just to get into class.
At the start of the year, Mr. Gonzalez,1 a Physical Education (PE) teacher at East City High, gave Raeyun,2 one of his Grade 10 students, special permission to use the boys’ changeroom. However, Raeyun did not want to use the boys’ changeroom. He was worried that being surrounded by other boys would only serve to underscore the ways he was different from them. Not only did Raeyun never use the boys’ changeroom, but he also never once got changed for PE at school. Instead, Raeyun came to school already in his PE clothes and stayed in them all day, no matter how sweaty he got during class. Raeyun cleverly figured out that he could sneak into the gymnasium through the back entrance by taking a staircase up from the staff parking lot. This tactic allowed Raeyun to avoid choosing a gender at the start of class.
I spent a year at East City High, moving alongside several gender-nonconforming3 youth as they went to class, attended extracurricular activities, fanned out across the campus for lunch, participated in artistic and musical performances, and just generally lived their lives. The youth who participated in the study all had different relationships with gender nonconformity, like Raeyun, whose relationship was complicated. He was a Filipino trans guy and aspired to pass; however, he experienced the world of East City High as a gender-nonconforming person most of the time. Even though he wanted to pass, Raeyun’s gender was not easily understood at East City High. Often people struggled to see Raeyun as he saw himself. Raeyun once described this complexity to me, saying: “I’m not like completely [gender nonconforming], but I’m also not like a cis guy, so, kind of like midway. Like I’m part of the binary but I’m also like part of the binary in a weird way.” Though few adults at the school understood Raeyun’s gender, many people noticed that Raeyun did not “fit in” and responded to his presence in accordance with the accommodation approaches laid out by the district’s trans-inclusive policy. Throughout Raeyun’s time at East City High, teachers pulled him aside and offered individualized workarounds and alternatives, ways for Raeyun to still participate in gendered activities without feeling left out.
As accommodation approaches become more popular in North American schools, it is important to consider which students are welcomed by it (or not), and how a reliance on accommodation neglects to challenge cisheteronormativity. While the current emphasis on inclusive washrooms and changerooms is important, this focus does not address the larger issue of rethinking how pervasively schooling is organized around a system of visible, binary gender. Accommodation as a primary approach relies on gender nonconformity as a visible identity – an identity that sticks out and can be easily categorized as not fitting in at school. Visibility, as scholars have examined, relies on racialized, ableist, and settler colonial norms (Beauchamp, 2018; Gill-Peterson, 2018). For instance, popular ideas about gender nonconformity privilege white, thin, andro-masculine forms of expression. Since people at East City High frequently struggled to understand the complexities of youths’ genders when they did not fit into these normative expectations, most of the youth that I worked with were not seen as gender nonconforming by others at the school.
How do schools’ accommodation practices privilege binary enactments of trans identities? What might it mean for all youth if we, as educators, did not rely on the presumption that we can see our students’ genders? What types of relationships with gender beyond the binary might we be able to welcome into our classrooms and schools if we let go of the need to know youths’ genders? I aim to open up these questions through highlighting the experiences of two of the gender-nonconforming youth I moved alongside during my research.
Accommodations approaches: a brief introduction
Schools across North America have responded to the growing awareness of trans and gender-nonconforming students by implementing trans-inclusive policies and procedures. These policies often rely on creating and providing accommodations. The concept of accommodations has a long history in North America, from race politics to disability law. Currently, educators, activists, and legislators are using the language of accommodations as a framework for including trans students in schools. The basic intention of offering accommodations is to create greater equity of access. One of the main criticisms of accommodation approaches is that they focus on the individuals who encounter obstacles, rather than the systems and institutions that create those obstacles.
At East City High there was a hard-fought trans-inclusive policy that instructed teachers, counsellors, and administrators in responding to trans and gender-nonconforming students. This policy directly named possible accommodations that students could receive at school: the right to access the washroom or changeroom that matched their gender identity, to be addressed by the name and pronoun they “prefer,” to dress in clothing that aligned with their gender expression, and to join athletic activities that corresponded with their gender identity. Though these rights were written for all trans students, including gender-nonconforming and non-binary youth, the material conditions and knowledge of staff largely limited the policy’s reach to binary trans students. For instance, there were only gendered sports teams and gendered changerooms, so a gender-nonconforming student who was not a boy or a girl had no sport team to join or changeroom that matched their gender identity. Also, few teachers at the school were familiar or comfortable with gender-neutral pronouns. As a result, students rarely felt invited into sharing “they/them” pronouns with anyone but close friends. The policy facilitated the experiences of students who knew they wanted to transition from one binary gender to another, but there was little space or understanding for youth who related to their genders as fluid, flexible, and changing.
In listing out specific accommodations, the policy also indicated the presumed points of conflict, concern, and/or challenges for trans students in schools. The policy attempted to highlight when and where trans students would encounter difficulties moving through their days in the same manner as cisgender students, and then offered possible workarounds. There are two main issues with this approach. First, this framework singles out trans students as problems in need of a solution in school. This issue has been covered extensively elsewhere in critiques of accommodation practices generally and specifically in relation to trans youth (Airton, 2013; Loutzenheiser, 2015; Travers, 2018). Second, this approach hinges on the intertwined ideas that trans students are visible to educators and that only visibly gender-nonconforming students will benefit from gender-inclusive schooling. Let’s examine this idea further.
Fitting into PE class
Each term, Mr. Gonzalez led his Grade 10 PE class through fitness testing. Fitness testing is not required by the province and not all PE teachers at East City High incorporated this activity into their curriculum. However, it was a main feature of Mr. Gonzalez’s class. To pass a fitness test, Mr. Gonzalez instructed students that they had to perform according to an index of gendered standards that he maintained at the front of his binder. Though Mr. Gonzalez had elected to use these tests in his classes as forms of assessment, he still worried about how they excluded Raeyun. “What am I supposed to do with my trans students?” Mr. Gonzalez once asked, pointing at his page of gendered standards. Mr. Gonzalez was worried about fairness and safety, and he wanted to protect Raeyun. Therefore, he worked to create modifications for what he viewed as Raeyun’s “unique” situation. The assumption was that Raeyun, as a visibly gender-nonconforming student, was the only one who would benefit from a less binary alternative in class.
However, many of the trans youth that I worked with over my year at East City High were never seen by their teachers, counsellors, or the administrators as gender nonconforming. Since they were not visibly gender nonconforming, like Raeyun, these students were never presented with any options for workarounds at school. For instance, almost no one read Scarecrow Jones, a Grade 9 non-binary student, as gender nonconforming. “In terms of other people, no, I think that they probably do not see me [as gender nonconforming],” Scarecrow Jones explained. “Since I’m not out to many people, I don’t want to give anyone any reason to think that I am not what I appear to be.” Scarecrow Jones’ gender nonconformity did not align with others’ expectations, so they were not offered any special permissions. To others, Scarecrow Jones did not look as if they needed them. Therefore, Scarecrow Jones got ready for PE in the girls’ changeroom, was counted as a girl during activities, and was judged based upon the standards for girls. Even if Scarecrow Jones’ teacher had noticed that they were non-binary, there was nowhere else for Scarecrow Jones to get changed, no other team for them to join, and no other standards by which they could be evaluated. Scarecrow Jones described PE as “this weird heteronormative culture, like heteronormative, cisgender ingrained into everyone’s brain that’s just making it so much more difficult, and so much weirder for everyone every day.” Scarecrow Jones understood the gendered dynamics in PE class as affecting “everyone every day,” not just gender-nonconforming students. Furthermore, they believed that teachers’ strategies of offering individualized alternatives for visibly nonconforming students did not address, let alone disrupt, the cisheteronormative culture and curriculum of PE class that they found so difficult and weird. Scarecrow Jones did not want a third option; they wanted a less gendered experience of PE in general.
Accommodations beyond PE class
While PE class is perhaps more easily understood as a gendered space, these issues transcend subject areas. Though East City High had a reputation for being progressive, diverse, and inclusive, I was never in a class in which an adult created space for the possibility of gender nonconformity without either being asked to by a young person or in response to the presence of a known trans youth. Both Raeyun and Scarecrow Jones were enrolled in French Immersion at East City High. At the start of the year, Madame Blanchet took Raeyun aside and asked him what pronouns he wanted to use in French. His visible gender nonconformity compelled Madame Blanchet to reach out and initiate this conversation. While this act was helpful for Raeyun, it also singled him out as not fitting in and in need of an alternative in class.
The first time I went to Mr. Gallagher’s French drama class, he conducted a mini-lesson on French gender-neutral pronouns. I did not attend his class until the beginning of October, which meant that Mr. Gallagher had not believed it necessary to broach the existence of these pronouns until compelled to do so by the presence of my visibly gender-nonconforming body. However, Scarecrow Jones was in that class. We spoke about this situation months later. Scarecrow Jones told me, “The only time anything (related to trans topics) has ever happened is when you were in Mr. Gallagher’s class and he explained the gender-neutral pronoun.” Mr. Gallagher only brought up pronouns the first time I attended, though he always used them for me. Since he was not able to see Scarecrow Jones as gender nonconforming, Mr. Gallagher never pulled them aside, as Madame Blanchet had with Raeyun. Mr. Gallagher understood accommodating trans people as important, but by waiting until I arrived to tell students about these pronouns, Mr. Gallagher communicated both his belief that knowing this information was only pertinent if it directly affected someone, and that he would be able to tell if that were the case.
Accommodation approaches rely on the assumption that gender nonconformity is a visible identity. There is a presumption that we as educators will be able to tell if our students are trans, which allows us to respond by creating alternatives in our classrooms and schools. I argue that instead of understanding trans-inclusive policies as providing resolutions for gender-nonconforming youth in schools, we look beyond accommodation strategies to our pedagogies. For instance, rather than require our students to make their genders visible to us in ways that we can understand, we can always teach for the possibility of gender nonconformity. Educators do not need policies to create classrooms that reimagine normative expectations about gender; we can cultivate this shift by not only teaching trans topics but also through actively challenging gender roles and heteronormative assumptions in our own teaching and among students. This move means no longer categorizing students by gender, abandoning gendered assumptions that inform how we teach and interact with our students, and integrating material throughout all subjects that likewise invites these complexities.
Welcoming gender nonconformity into our classrooms means we do not need to pull students aside to ask about their pronoun preferences, because those pronouns already exist as possibilities in the classroom. Furthermore, if we approach our classrooms with the idea that students may be gender nonconforming, we no longer have to be on the lookout for signs a youth may be trans and thus in need of an accommodation. What harm would it cause to tell all students about gender-neutral pronouns and use them in our teaching? What relationships with gender might we invite into our schools if we let go of the belief that gender is binary, visible, and that we have a right to know how our students identify on any given day? Instead of asking students to make their genders known to us, we can let go of the idea that knowing students’ genders is the same as knowing them.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
1All names are pseudonyms.
2The youth participants chose their own names and pronouns.
3 “Gender nonconforming” is an expansive term that encompasses a multiplicity of gender identities. It underscores how a person either intentionally challenges or is perceived to disrupt normative gender constructions, including not conforming to expectations connected to their gender designated at birth.
Airton, L. (2013). Leave “those kids” alone: On the conflation of school homophobia and suffering queers. Curriculum Inquiry, 43(5), 532–562.
Beauchamp, T. (2018). Going stealth: Transgender politics and U.S. surveillance practices. Duke University Press.
Gill-Peterson, J. (2018). Histories of the transgender child. University of Minnesota Press.
Loutzenheiser, L. W. (2015). “Who are you calling a problem?”: Addressing transphobia and homophobia through school policy. Critical Studies in Education, 56(1), 99–115.
Travers, A. (2018). The trans generation: How trans kids (and their parents) are creating a gender revolution. University of Regina Press.