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Binaries and Biology: Conversations With

Elementary Education Professionals After
Professional Development on Supporting
Transgender Students

Melissa J. Smith & Elizabethe Payne

To cite this article: Melissa J. Smith & Elizabethe Payne (2016) Binaries and Biology:
Conversations With Elementary Education Professionals After Professional Development
on Supporting Transgender Students, The Educational Forum, 80:1, 34-47, DOI:

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Published online: 16 Dec 2015.

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The Educational Forum, 80: 34–47, 2016
Copyright © Kappa Delta Pi
ISSN: 0013-1725 print/1938-8098 online
DOI: 10.1080/00131725.2015.1102367

THE EDUCATIONAL Binaries and Biology:

FORUM Conversations With
Elementary Education
Professionals After
Professional Development
on Supporting
Transgender Students
Melissa J. Smith
English Department, University of Central Arkansas,
Conway, Arkansas, USA; Queering Education Research
Institute, Hunter College, New York, New York, USA
Elizabethe Payne
Queering Education Research Institute, Hunter College,
New York, New York, USA

Schools are gendered cultural sites that leave little room for gender transgres-
sions, let alone affirmation of a transgender child. This article examines how
U.S. educators made meaning of teaching transgender students after attend-
ing professional development about transgender identity. Participants resisted
gender-affirming pedagogy and fixated on the logistics of accommodating trans-
gender students and keeping them safe. The authors argue that educators’ failure to
make structural changes is indicative of narrow interpretations of gender-inclusive

Key words: LGBTQ studies, professional development, transgender students.

The broad cultural and political context in the United States for addressing gender and
sexuality issues in K–12 schools is one rife with caution and anxiety. Proposals to make
schools safe for LGBTQ youth are often met with questions about the appropriateness of
directly addressing gender and sexual identity in school and the possibility of backlash over

Address correspondence to Melissa J. Smith, English Department, 317 Irby Hall,

University of Central Arkansas, Conway, AR 72035, USA. E-mail:
Binaries and Biology
challenging conservative community values (Payne & Smith, 2014). Resistance is most intense
in elementary schools, where adults cling to entrenched beliefs about childhood innocence
and adult responsibility for preserving it (Robinson, 2008). In these spaces, acknowledg-
ing gender and sexual diversity is often believed to cause harm to children whose lives
have not yet been tainted by sexual awareness or sexual knowledge (Curran, Chiarolli, &
Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2009; DePalma & Atkinson, 2009; Payne & Smith, 2014). A growing body
of research has noted the fallacy of such beliefs, challenging the construction of children as
devoid of sexuality and documenting the ways children’s lives are saturated with normative
gender expectations and assumptions about their current or potential heterosexual desires
(e.g., DePalma & Atkinson, 2009; Renold, 2000).

In our research on school support for transgender students, we have found that educa-
tors’ responses to the presence of a transgender student reflect similar adult commitments to
preserving childhood innocence, in addition to personal investment in normatively gendered
interpretations of students and preservation of the gender binary. In an earlier publication
(Payne & Smith, 2014), we explored how teaching gender transgressive children stimulated
fear and panic among educators, which seemed to be the result of disruption to their deep
investment in binary gender categories as the only gender possibilities. Educators expressed
fears about the possibility of their transgender students being visible (rather than “stealth”
or “passing”) in the school and of other students asking questions about transgender iden-
tity. They questioned the appropriateness of teaching children about gender possibilities
beyond the gender binary. The transgender children were understood to be hypersexual and
possible threats to their peers, and educators wondered if other children and parents had
a “right to know” that a child was not “really” a boy or girl. So, although these educators
took action to ensure the transgender students’ safety and confidentiality, they were highly
resistant to the possibility of exploring gender diversity through the formal and informal
school curriculum, and they were relieved that the broader school community did not know
about the presence of a transgender student (Payne & Smith, 2014).

This previous research illustrated that, despite reaching a historical moment when
legal recognition of queer relationships and identities is starting to gain momentum, the
possibilities for nonnormative gender identities are misunderstood by the general pub-
lic. Transgender children attend school in contexts where all children are assumed to be
boy or girl and heterosexual, and stories of schools refusing to honor name and pronoun
changes or to disrupt the status quo of gender-specific facilities, dress codes, and activities
are all too common. When new, gender-inclusive policies are adopted, they are typically
implemented in ways that accommodate the needs and experiences of individual students.
Policy implementation strategies that focus on minimum standards of safety and inclusion
rarely stimulate conversations about recognizing and valuing differences. In the case of
accommodating transgender youth, new policies are not necessarily leading to recognition
of the myriad examples of gender fluidity or gender nonconformity that have been present
in schools all along.

This article expands on our previous findings by examining how educators made mean-
ing of teaching transgender students after attending Queering Education Research Institute
(QuERI) professional development on educating transgender students. The transgender

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Smith and Payne
professional development workshop evolved from QuERI’s Reduction of Stigma in Schools©
(RSIS), a research-based professional development program that supports educators in cre-
ating more affirming learning environments. (For a description of RSIS, see Payne & Smith,
2010, 2011.) The “Transkids” version of the training covered differences between sex, gender,
and sexuality; research on schools as gendered spaces; limitations of the gender binary for all
children; recommendations for inclusive practices for transgender students; and guidelines
for changing curriculum and pedagogy to challenge the cultural norms limiting children to
binary gender performances. The findings in this article represent participants’ responses to
learning about systemic marginalization of nonnormative gender identities and sexualities
in K–8 schools. Overall, educators resisted recommendations to critically examine their
schools’ privileging of normative gender through gender-affirming curriculum and peda-
gogy. Instead, teachers remained fixated on “the problem” of fitting transgender students
into existing heteronormative institutional structures. That is, procedural issues such as
bathrooms, using correct names and pronouns, and anxiety about physiological changes as
the child reaches puberty took precedence over examining the cultural values of the school.
We argue that failing to challenge normative gender enculturation when supporting a trans-
gender student results in missed opportunities to disrupt youths’ fierce investment in the
binary and in policing “normal” gender performance—a root cause of bullying behaviors.
Furthermore, these findings are indicative of a broader problem preventing the creation
of inclusive schools for LGBTQ students: Educators and policy makers generally fixate on
fitting queer students into normative structures, rather than pursuing structural changes
that could disrupt institutional privileging of gender conformity.

Literature Review
Heteronormative Schools and Protecting the Innocent Child
When QuERI works with elementary schools, all professional development content and
recommendations revolve around a core premise: Gender and sexuality are relevant to how
children experience school, and they are topics to be discussed in the school setting. This
philosophy opposes adult-centered perspectives on childhood and education that assume
it is the work of adults to protect the innocence of children by keeping them away from
the dangers of sexual knowledge. Epstein and Johnson (1998) argued that the discourse of
innocence assumes children “lack sexual curiosity, knowledge or beliefs” and perpetuates
a belief that “they ought to be wholly unconscious of ‘such things’” (p. 96). It is assumed
that children are immune from sexualized images and that they “don’t draw conclusions
from the visible, invisible and imagined sexual behaviour of the adults and children around
them” (p. 96). Robinson (2008) argued that childhood innocence operates as the “defining
boundary between adults and children” (p. 115) and that “children’s sexuality within this
discourse is read as nonexistent. ... Thus, sexual immaturity is equated with ‘innocence’ ...
[which is] considered inherent in the child” (p. 116). The adult is positioned as protector
of the child, and this dynamic extends into schools, where educators take the protection of
childhood innocence as part of their professional obligations.

This adult perspective on childhood overlooks how sexuality is already part of chil-
dren’s school experiences. Renold’s (2000, 2002) research on children’s social experiences
in school indicated that children constantly navigate “a complex interactive daily network
of heterosexual performances ... as they negotiat[e] their gendered selves” (2002, p. 417).

36 • The Educational Forum • Volume 80 • 2016

Binaries and Biology
Awareness of sexual desire and heteronormative social expectations for girls and boys were
present and relevant to Renold’s elementary-age participants’ daily school experiences,
as were “heterosexism, homophobia, and heterosexual harassment ... as they negotiate[d]
and maintain[ed] gender and sexual hierarchies and hegemonies” (p. 417). Ethnographic
research such as Renold’s highlights how adult interpretations of childhood experiences
both oversimplify the social interactions children experience within peer groups and over-
look the gender and sexual socialization that occurs during the elementary school years. As
children learn and invest in the rules of normative masculine and feminine performance,
they also learn to use these social norms to police one another and battle for social position.
Elementary school is, therefore, a critical phase for teaching about gender and sexual diver-
sity and for raising both adult and student awareness of how heteronormativity regulates
the identity expressions of all students.

Elementary Schools as Gendered Spaces and Teacher Assumptions About Gender

When transgender children go to school, they enter environments where LGBTQ iden-
tities are doubly present—spoken into being through both the taboo against their mention
and the consistent presence of homophobic discourse (Allan, Atkinson, Brace, DePalma, &
Hemingway, 2008). Despite educators’ insistent claims that gender identity and sexuality
are not relevant topics for preadolescent children, numerous scholars have illustrated how
elementary schools are, in fact, significant social contexts for the gender socialization of
children (Epstein & Johnson, 1998; Renold, 2000; Thorne, 1993). In short, schools participate
in teaching children how to be a “boy” or “girl,” and they are sites where children learn to
interpret and enforce social rules for “correct” gender expression. These rules are shaped
by children’s developing knowledge of heterosexual relationships and desire. As Renold
(2000) argued, “sexuality, and specifically heterosexuality, is part of the everyday experience
in the worlds of primary school children and ... underpins most interactions and identity
work as they live out the gendered categories ‘boy’ and ‘girl’” (p. 310). These patterns are
hardly noticed and rarely questioned in the day-to-day life of a school. Introducing LGBTQ
identities—whether that be LGBTQ family structures, gay characters in children’s books, or
a gender-nonconforming student—disrupts this system of socialization and forces educators
to take notice of the presence of gender identity and sexuality in school.

Teaching and assessment cannot be free of the social conditions in which they are prac-
ticed, and teacher beliefs and attitudes about gender differences influence what teachers
perceive to be good working relationships with students, differences in student abilities,
and the ways in which teachers make choices about curriculum and classroom management
(Skelton & Read, 2006; Smith, 2014). Classroom dynamics often reflect the assumption that
girls and boys are essentially and naturally different (Rands, 2009), and teachers engage
with students according to the implicit and explicit gender assumptions they hold (Korth,
2007; Skelton & Read, 2006; Smith, 2014). Beliefs about who students are as gendered beings
inform elementary teachers’ assessment of children as learners, their curriculum choices,
and their classroom management styles, as well as their tone of voice and approach to
teacher/student relationships (Korth, 2007; Skelton & Read, 2006). For example, in Skelton
and Read’s (2006) study, teachers chose different interactive styles with male and female
students, using maternal or “softer” approaches with girls and more joking or friendly
approaches with boys and chose to handle similar situations differently based on gender.

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Smith and Payne
Teachers often framed their understandings of boys and girls as “opposites” and seemed
unaware of their “deep-seated gendered expectations of pupils” (p. 112). When transgender
students enter contexts like these, they disrupt the previously unconsidered ways educators
have utilized the gender binary in pedagogical practice. In our research to date (Payne &
Smith, 2014), this disruption has created feelings of anxiety and incompetence in partici-
pating teachers, which has motivated us to begin designing teacher training that will help
teachers understand how gender and sexuality are already part of the pedagogy and how
they can shift gender curriculum in ways that foster a more inclusive culture for transgender
or gender-nonconforming children.

Addressing LGBTQ Issues in Elementary Schools

Children construct their perceptions of difference and diversity through the dis-
courses educators make available or silence through daily practices, pedagogies, and
curricula (Robinson, 2002). Educators reinforce heterosexuality and gender conformity
(Surtees, 2008) through texts and images that rely on gender stereotypes or are silent
about possibilities for gender expression outside the binary. Existing scholarship on in-
cluding gender and sexual diversity in elementary schools has explored questions about
how to increase the visibility of gender and sexual diversity in elementary school spaces,
what happens when visibility is raised, and how to prepare educators to address these
issues in ways that push beyond tolerance of queer identities and engage in action to
disrupt the marginalization of nonnormative genders and sexualities (Allan et al., 2008;
Cullen & Sandy, 2009; Cumming-Potvin & Martino, 2014; Curran et al., 2009; DePalma &
Atkinson, 2009; Flores, 2014; Martino & Cumming-Potvin, 2011; Ryan, Patraw, & Bednar,
2013). These scholars have approached these questions through projects that examine
issues such as elementary educators’ responses to LGBTQ-themed children’s literature,
teachers’ efforts to challenge gender stereotypes in their classes, teachers’ experiences
working with children of lesbian and gay parents, and educators’ experiences working
with gender-nonconforming children.

Collectively, this scholarship illustrates the consequences of educational institutions’

investment in heterosexuality and normative gender. However, it also offers a few glimpses of
possibilities for disrupting heteronormativity when educators are knowledgeable about gender and
sexual diversity and have a systemic understanding of how and why queer identities are marginalized
in school spaces. Unfortunately, LGBTQ identities are often absent from teacher education
curriculum, and when they are addressed, instructors often rely on deficit discourses that
focus the need for change on the youth themselves instead of on structural inequalities that
create the need for therapeutic intervention or antibullying programs (Jennings & Sherwin,
2008). “As a result, even those teachers who may want to learn how to facilitate equitable
learning environments for LGBTQ youth by countering the most insidious forms of hetero-
sexism are not, in many cases, being prepared to do so in [multicultural education] courses”
(Gorski, Davis, & Reiter, 2013, p. 238). The professional development model utilized in this
research project represents an effort to fill some of these knowledge gaps.

In Fall 2009, RSIS was approached by two Central New York elementary schools within
the same metropolitan area with reports that their teachers were experiencing “panic” and

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Binaries and Biology
“freaking out” over the presence of transgender children in their classrooms. The initial
training was called “Trans 101 for Teachers” and was framed by the sociology of education
field and critical theory. It was about an hour long and included (a) the introduction of
trans-specific vocabulary; (b) repeated explanations of the differences between sex, gender,
and sexual orientation; (c) research on elementary schools as gendered spaces; (d) research
on teachers’ perceptions of gender and utilization of gender in pedagogy and classroom
management; and (e) recommendations for more inclusive policies and practices for trans-
gender and gender-nonconforming children.

This is an interview-based study with individual teachers and school staff who had ex-
perience working with transgender elementary school children within a single metropolitan
area. We found these participants through the professional development work that began
in 2009. As more schools requested our assistance with supporting transgender students,
we invited educators in those schools to participate in the study. The complete data set
includes nine individual interviews and one group interview for a total of 12 participants.
The participants included district-level administrators, school principals, student support
professionals, and classroom teachers from five different schools in two different school
districts in the same metropolitan area. A subset of the interviews—nine—is utilized in this
article. Those nine included three classroom teachers, three student support professionals, a
school nurse, and two school administrators, and all experienced professional development
training prior to their interview. The other three participants were interviewed prior to
receiving training in their schools. They are excluded from this article because the findings
reported here focus on responses to professional development.

Informal written surveys asking what participants knew about transgender students
prior to training, what was most helpful about the training, and what they felt they needed
moving forward were filled out after all the training sessions attended by the nine partici-
pants, and some of those survey responses are referenced in this article. Interviews ranged
in length from 45 minutes to 2 hours, with questions focused on the educators’ perceptions
of the professional development experience, personal experience with transgender children
in elementary school, their perceptions of their school’s success in supporting a transgender
child, and their ideas for specific kinds of support and education school professionals need
to adequately support these students. Verbatim interview transcripts were read repeatedly
and coded with low-inference emergent codes (Carspecken, 1996) to sort interview data
according to frequently recurring vocabulary and topics. These categorized data were reread
repeatedly and coded with a more detailed system of emergent coding, which facilitated
the identification of robust themes within and across the broad data categories. The themes
presented in this article were identified as issues that participants brought up frequently in
response to their professional development learning.

Posttraining Conversations
During the teacher interviews, the most frequent response to the question “What was
most helpful to you?” during the transgender professional development was information
about vocabulary. Participants were typically surprised at how different workshop content
was from what they had known or assumed about terms such as sex, gender, gender identity,
gender expression, transsexual, and transgender. Interview participants reported that this new

The Educational Forum • Volume 80 • 2016 • 39

Smith and Payne
information about gender and transgender identity that challenged the gender binary was
the most memorable element of the RSIS transgender training:

I’ve learned so much just from you [the researchers], just in talking about how in a
lot of different cultures it’s not just the gender, we don’t just have two genders, there are a
few, sort of, right? ... It’s just amazing to me that that exists.

And I know from our presentation that this idea of boys and girls and everything
like that [that gender is not binary], I realize, but I’m just saying, I have classes that have
students that look like boys and students that look like girls. [referring to single-gender
student groups]

She told me about how she had come to understand that “transgender” can mean a
lot of different things, not just switching from one gender (sex) to the other. (Field notes
after an interview, 5/10/2010)

These responses indicate surprise upon learning that gender is socially constructed—not a
stable, biological truth—and that transgender is a category of identities that does not neces-
sarily mean a medical change from one sex to another. The idea that there are not just two
genders and that transgender does not necessarily mean switching “from one gender to the
other” was “amazing” to many participants. The participants’ statements about their lack of
previous knowledge about gender identity and gender diversity highlight the importance
of requiring LGBTQ content in educator preparation programs (see Jennings, 2012; Sherwin
& Jennings, 2006).

Disrupting Binaries
Processing new information about the gender binary and distinctions between sex, gen-
der, and sexuality was challenging and disruptive for many of the education professionals
we spoke with, and during interviews they often returned to privileging sex assigned at
birth as the “truth” about the child. Myriad concerns surfaced throughout the interviews,
including questions about whether children are old enough to “really” know their gender,
the choices the parents were making about accepting the child’s gender identity, and the
impending physiological changes at puberty. In the case of a male-to-female (MTF) child,
homosexual panic left interviewees feeling guilty that they could not “warn” the elementary
school boys and their parents that their attractive female classmate was “really” a boy (Payne,
2015). These concerns all reinforce the idea of a biological and fixed relationship between
the characteristics of the sexed body and gender, and they call the validity of transgender
identity into question.

The presence of the transgender child in school and the content of the training session
“Trans 101 for Teachers” created a disequilibrium for these educators as the constellation
of sex-gender-sexuality (Youdell, 2005) was challenged. When discussing the faculty’s ex-
perience with transgender professional development, one school leader said,

Most of [the educators who attended the training] did not have that information
under their belt that day. The uh, especially two things stood out, one being understanding

40 • The Educational Forum • Volume 80 • 2016

Binaries and Biology
that it’s not a sexual situation, it’s a gender situation. They’re still struggling with sepa-
rating that in their head. They’re trying to figure that out. The other piece is the curricu-
lum piece of teaching binary gender. ... Those are the two probably most negative pieces.
Everything else was extremely positive. They felt that they were informed; they felt that
they needed to process what they learned.

The specter of “homosexuality” lurked only slightly beneath many of the educators’ concerns
(Payne, 2015). In this case, the school leader referenced the trouble that many had with
separating a MTF child’s gender identity from a gay sexual identity—that it was a “gender
situation,” not a “sexual situation.” This particular trouble is rooted in the relationship
between the binaries of sex and gender. The other troubling piece was the challenge to
recognize and resist binary gendered teaching practices. Most of the educators we have
worked with had not previously thought about their own gendered teaching practices prior
to the enrollment of a transgender child. Recognizing their practices were gendered was
surprising to many teachers, and thinking about other ways to teach without relying on the
gender binary seemed daunting, if not impossible.

When participants described changes to their teaching practice following the training,
or changes in their ways of thinking about student gender, their responses indicate that
they were holding on to the need to place students into one of two gender categories, and
at times there were doubts about which category was correct for a student. For example,
a fourth-grade teacher expressed ongoing conflict over how to address her transgender
student because of differences between the child’s gender identity and the school’s student
records, and her strategy for negotiating this was to eliminate any reference to gender from
her interactions with this particular student. Throughout her interview, she made several
statements referencing her thought process for deciding how to speak to and address her
transgender student:

I stopped using pronouns. I don’t do that anymore.

And I see Casey as a boy, but because I still have to have female on my [attendance]
card, I feel I need to call Casey a she. But I’ve always seen Casey as a boy.

Because Casey sees himself as a he, and on the [attendance] card we have female
because that’s what we have to put, you know, so I wouldn’t say he/she. (All student
names are pseudonyms.)

Despite training on differences between sex and gender and transgender identity, as well as
the importance of honoring a child’s chosen pronouns, this teacher maintained an invest-
ment in the belief that gender identity and biological sex are inseparable. Regardless of her
impressions of the child’s gender—based on the child’s appearance, she could accept him as
a boy—school records represented a truth about this child that could not be disregarded. Her
repeated statements about this issue indicate that this teacher experienced anxiety about the
possibility of making the wrong decision about pronoun usage or saying the wrong thing to
or about her student. The discrepancy between school documents—which were understood
to represent the child’s “real” gender—and her experiences of him as a boy made her feel as

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Smith and Payne
though it was impossible to accurately place this child in a gendered category and use the right
pronouns. Her fear of making the wrong pronoun choice resulted in her decision to remove
gender from the equation, and she said repeatedly that “Casey is just Casey”—a genderless
student. By quite literally separating this child from any mention of gender labels, she was
able to resituate him into the existing structures of her classroom and teaching practice.

This avoidance or distancing strategy allowed her to separate herself from critical
reflection about her own gender assumptions and teacher identity. Rather than a move
toward gender inclusion, her ceasing to use gender at all is an act of resistance to accepting
the child’s gender of choice, allowing the teacher to maintain the truth of her own binary
gender system. This teacher’s responses reflect an overall theme in the data in which teachers
expressed some comfort with their ability to teach transgender children when they were
able to fit the child into one of the binary categories. As long as the child easily passed as the
transitioned gender, teachers made claims that the child’s gender identity “didn’t matter”
in their daily routine. However, gender fluidity, the possibility of future physical changes,
and situations where transgender children were present in gender-segregated spaces led
teachers to fall back on binary gender systems to help them decide how to place the trans-
gender student in the school.

Biology: Issues of Body

During and after professional development, educators frequently asked questions
about how to navigate moments when transgender children’s bodies drew educators’
attention toward their gender identity—situations when the children expressed affection
or desire toward a peer, or when they wanted to divide students into gender-segregated
spaces. These were moments when educators reaffirmed their positions as protectors of
childhood innocence. Further, their investment in normative alignment of body, gender
identity, and sexuality resulted in interpretations of transgender children as hypersexual
and potentially damaging to the innocence of other children who deserve to pass through
childhood without being corrupted by sexual knowledge (see Robinson & Davies, 2008).
Instead of changing educational practices that assume normative gender, they reaffirmed
their investment in comfortable heteronormative assumptions about how schools should
support healthy student development during elementary school years. That is, teachers
expressed an impulse to either reposition the transgender students within heteronormative
institutional structures or to physically create distance between transgender students and
their innocent peers. This reaction from teachers suggests that they were neither open to the
possibility of expanding their own knowledge about the limitless range of possibilities for
gender identity and expression, nor did they see reason to give students opportunities to
learn about gender difference. In fact, students needed to be protected from gender difference.

This desire to protect the innocence of normatively gendered students was most visible
during discussion of students’ experiences as they go through puberty. Educators expressed
concerns about how educating a transgender child would become more complicated or
difficult once the child reached puberty. Navigating the mandatory, gender-specific mat-
uration videos was a logistical worry that was mentioned by most participants—both
out of concern for which video the transgender child needed to watch and concern over
the appropriateness of allowing a transgender child to watch videos about reproduction

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Binaries and Biology
and physical development with groups of their peers (who did not know the transgender
child’s “real” sex). One classroom teacher’s worry was typical of comments that appeared
throughout the data:

We are having [the maturation film] soon. The girls see one video tape and the boys
see another video tape. What am I gonna do with Riley? I mean, I almost feel like having
Riley do both. Should I? Should I not? I don’t know. But that’s, I mean, I’m gonna talk
to the [health] teacher and ask, but then I’m going to get “Why is Riley with the boys,”
or “Why is Riley with the girls?” ... Or do I just not have Riley do it at all? But it’s
something Riley needs.

The logic of dividing students into sex-specific groups for discussions about puberty, repro-
duction, and sex is that segregated groups create safe spaces for discussing topics that are
assumed to be uncomfortable or personal. The maturation videos are targeted at groups of
students with specific biological characteristics, and it is assumed that only students bio-
logically aligned with video content need to have access to the knowledge. So, the presence
of a biological boy in a viewing of the “girl” video would be perceived as an intrusion and
threaten the safe environment educators wish students to experience when they view these
videos—and vice versa. The transgender child disrupts the school’s system of providing
gender-exclusive knowledge to their students.

Likewise, the possibility of romantic attraction between the transgender child and an-
other student was presented as a problem that created anxiety for educators and worry that
there was a need to create separation between transgender students and possible targets for
romantic attraction. Crushes, flirting, and kissing signaled transition toward adolescence,
and the transgender students’ now-visible sexuality was interpreted as threatening, while
their gender-conforming, heterosexual peers’ romantic interests were understood to be
healthy and normal. Teachers of younger children talked vaguely about their relief that
they did not need to be seriously concerned about the possibility of crushes between their
transgender student and a peer. One fourth-grade teacher described social patterns that
she typically saw among her fourth-grade students, which included the possibility for
crushes: “The girls play with girls and the boys play with boys. Sometimes, depending on
their age level and maturity, [fourth grade is] when the crushes start to begin. Thank God
this is, like, an innocent class.” According to this teacher, gender-segregated play was still
most common among fourth-grade students, but as students moved through the year, it
was also possible for kids to start expressing romantic feelings for one another. She con-
sidered this to be “mature” behavior for fourth grade, and it only happened when she had
a group of students who were socially advanced for their age. Her relief over her class’s
innocence implies that she felt that she was avoiding potential problems that would occur if
the transgender child had been placed in a more “mature” class. In another school, where a
fifth-grade MTF student was rumored to have kissed a boy, the teachers’ panicked reaction
resulted in a meeting where they discussed the possibility of discouraging the flirtation
or taking action because the boy had a right to know he was “really” kissing another boy
(Payne, 2015). The homophobic assumption was that the boy would be somehow damaged
or traumatized upon learning he had been attracted to a biological male, providing an
example of how the child was read by the teachers as being a boy. Homosexual attraction

The Educational Forum • Volume 80 • 2016 • 43

Smith and Payne
was unthinkable in the elementary school environment, so educators felt they had to find
ways to separate the transgender child from her alleged boyfriend to regain comfort with
having a gender-transgressing student.

In general, posttraining questions about “What do we do when the student hits puberty?”
or “How do we handle it when a trans student wants to date?” were searches for answers
on how to keep transgender children within the binary structures of the school. A theme
that connects all data we have collected in schools supporting prepubescent transgender
students is the anxiety about what will happen if and when the child does not easily fit into
his or her transitioned gender category. That is, as long as the child easily passes, remains
stealth, and the school is not put in a position to directly address the gender diversity within
its community, anxiety subsides. Puberty is positioned as something to dread and something
that is uncomfortably beyond the school’s control.

The professional development model that we used in school districts was designed with
three objectives in mind. First, we wanted to alleviate educators’ anxiety about accommo-
dating and supporting a transgender student. To do this, we provided information about
gender differences and transgender identity, and we participated in conversations about
logistical issues that arose when a transgender student enrolled in the school. Second, we
tried to help educators understand how schools operate on the assumption that all students
fall into one of two binary gender categories. Using findings from qualitative sociological
research in the field of gender and education, we provided workshop attendees with evi-
dence of students learning strict, heteronormative gender norms through day-to-day school
experiences. Finally, we attempted to help educators envision and implement pedagogical
practices that challenged, resisted, or disrupted heteronormative, gendered assumptions
about student identities. Our recommendations included diversifying the representations
of gender identities and expressions in images and texts throughout the school, redesign-
ing single-gender classroom activities, and closely examining the academic curriculum for
materials and activities that reinforce gender stereotypes.

Educator responses both before and after professional development indicate that par-
ticipants felt responsible for the safety and learning of their transgender students, but their
strategies for integrating transgender students into the school were attempts to fit them into
existing heteronormative structures. The moments when transgender students pushed back
or transgressed those structures created high levels of anxiety and a search for ways to put
them back into a safe, binary gender category. The teachers’ investment in binary gender
and commitment to protecting the innocence of children limited possibilities for exploring
opportunities to learn about and value gender diversity in the school environment. The
cultural roots of LGBTQ marginalization remained unchallenged, but the educators gener-
ally felt successful in their support for transgender students because all students remained
safe and disruptions were minimal. QuERI’s vision for helping schools become inclusive
for transgender kids certainly includes logistical adjustments to accommodate the needs
of individual students in specific contexts, but the broader goal is to help schools move
past individualized frameworks for accommodating transgender kids—which tend to
position the children themselves as problems that need to be fixed—and look toward the

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ways that heteronormative school culture makes the presence of a transgender child seem
so impossible in the first place. Through the professional development we provided, we
hoped to raise educator knowledge about the multiple ways that schools are reliant on strict
heteronormative definitions of male and female and to provide tools for disrupting these
practices throughout the school environment. We argued that destabilizing the gender binary
and teaching children (and adults) about gender diversity would contribute to creating a
school culture that is inclusive of all gender identities and expressions and decrease peer-
to-peer, gender-based aggression. To our knowledge, none of the educators who attended
the professional development workshop made focused efforts to disrupt binary gender
categories in their schools.

In light of these research findings, we have been thinking about how to use the profes-
sional development format to help educators push past anxiety and develop competence
around issues of gender and sexual diversity. The reality of most school contexts is that
professional development time is limited. Therefore, these recommendations assume that
educators will have opportunities for only 1 or 2 hours of training to prepare them for work
with transgender students. Because participants reported a significant amount of learning
occurring during the vocabulary portion of the training model, we remain committed to
the belief that foundational knowledge about sex, gender, and sexuality is a necessary
starting point for this kind of professional training. Furthermore, misunderstanding about
transgender identity is so pervasive that it would be irresponsible to facilitate this kind of
professional development without taking time to ensure that all participants have at least
a basic understanding what transgender identity is. Our second priority for professional
development is to help participants move past logistical accommodation issues and think
more broadly about how to create a gender-inclusive school. While we recognize the im-
portance of helping schools manage issues such as name changes and bathroom usage, we
also believe it is necessary to spend more professional development time illustrating the
types of common, everyday school practices that privilege heterosexuality and gender nor-
mativity and exclude queer identities. To support educators in applying new knowledge
about gender diversity to practice, it is important to also provide examples of possibilities for
shifting these practices in ways that recognize diverse gender possibilities and to facilitate
discussions among educators about manageable steps they can take to begin disrupting the
gender assumptions that are embedded in their schools’ policies and practices. Ultimately,
we hope educators will recognize how a gender-inclusive culture improves the quality of
school life for all students and adults, not just students who have identified themselves as

We interpret educators’ avoidance of gender diversity as a missed opportunity. Often

gender is an invisible—or at least uncontested—issue in schools, and educators are rarely
pushed to examine how their practices or institutional structures privilege traditional mas-
culinity and femininity while marginalizing nonnormative gender identities. However, the
presence of a transgender child in the school brings gender to the surface; it shines light
on the ways that schools are reliant on the assumption that all children will fit one of two
categories, and it raises awareness of gender bias and gender stereotyping. Formal and
informal curricular changes aimed at teaching students about gender diversity and gender
bias are fundamental to creating school environments where no one will be anxious or

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fearful about having a transgender child in their class, and school cultures where a broader
range of gender expression is valued. To help educators understand their responsibility to
transgender youth in terms of addressing heteronormative school culture—rather than solely
focusing on the child’s safety—educators need increased access to high-quality professional
development that challenges them to consider skills and knowledge for affirming gender
diversity or disrupting gender bias and heteronormativity. This knowledge will potentially
help educators provide support for transgender children and LGBTQ youth that pushes
back against curriculum and institutional practices that tell queer kids they do not belong.

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