No Discrimination, But No Representation:
A temperature check on our school’s curriculum’s representation of trans and non-binary people
Jonathon Kho '23, Maren Knutson '22, and Luke Rapallo
Our school prides itself on its core values of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging; however, there may be room to improve on these values when it comes to transgender and nonbinary representation and inclusion. This article aims to get a temperature check on how well the school is doing at creating a safe and welcoming environment for transgender and non-binary students, and, in particular, learn more about how the curriculum represents trans and nonbinary students. To represent the experience to the fullest of our ability, we will also delve into the history of trans representation and how that affects the current state of affairs in our school.
Throughout history, transgender and non-binary voices have been renounced (often violently) by cisgender people in leadership positions. To understand how much progress has been made and how much progress there is left to make, we interviewed History Department Chair Ms. Hardwick. When asked about major notable moments in the fight for transgender/non-binary rights she said, “The biggest one that comes to mind is Stonewall, which is sort of one of the big moments in gay rights history, … it's getting to be not as hidden but that was really driven by particularly trans women, and so that was a movement that I think predominantly has always been associated with sort of gay rights, but it really is LGBTQ and was driven by trans women at that time.” This speaks to the common struggle between the variety of different members of LGBTQ+ community, and how big moments in the gay rights movement were often backed by trans people and vice versa.
How well are our history classes doing at showing the trans perspective throughout history? On the topic of trans representation in our curriculum, Ms. Hardwick said, “So we really only discuss it primarily with Stonewall as one of those moments of like the byproducts of civil rights with all these other rights movements. So immigrant rights, Mexican rights, women's rights, LGBTQ rights, so it gets mushed into that sort of group mush,” she continued, saying, “probably not the word that I want to use, but it's kind of accurate.” The major question this leaves us with is, is this “mushed” approach to civil rights a thorough enough approach to trans/non-binary history for our students?
We asked an anonymous non-binary student about their perspective on the history curriculum and how it represents transgender/non-binary perspectives. Discussing that, they said “well, to be fair I think it’s really hard to incorporate so many details in history, but I also think it’s just not valued as much in our curriculum and in the AP curriculum specifically.”
The SSSAS English curriculum introduces students to various books with a variety of topics, but the books our English department teaches have yet to include transgender/non-binary representation. The head of the English Department, Ms. Cranford, explains, “We have texts that have characters that buck against non gender roles and stereotypes and we have characters that identify as gay. There might be some coded language, but not any (characters) that are openly transgender or openly non-binary.” Ms. Cranford further explains, “ I wonder if part of that could be when we start looking at older texts, maybe the language isn’t there and maybe there is more oppression, not allowed to be that in society.”
Identifying as transgender or non-binary is more acceptable in our society today, and as a result, there is a lack of classics that contain characters that are clearly transgender. However, Ms. Cranford explains how certain texts hint at transgender or non-binary representation, such as in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth gives her “unsex me now” speech, claiming that she wishes to be a man. Whether Lady Macbeth’s longing to be a man is associated with social or identification reasons, this is the most classic literature in the English curriculum touches on the topic of transgender/non-binary representation.
Despite the fact that none of the books the English department teaches include transgender/non-binary topics, both teachers and students would like to see more representation in the curriculum. Ms. Cranford explains, “In the English curriculum we can definitely bring more transgender and non-binary themes into the curriculum and there are different ways of doing that.”
Additionally, an anonymous non-binary student theorizes, “I think it’s in our human nature to want to read more about ourselves, but I think that’s the reason why we have so little representation, is because we don’t have representation in the people choosing the curriculum.”
Despite the fact that currently, no faculty members in the English department identify as transgender or non-binary, Ms. Cranford has recommended the novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides to both the English department and to fellow students. Middlesex follows a Greek intersex immigrant named Cal Stephanides who has 5 alpha-reductase deficiencies, causing him to have certain feminine traits. Cal struggles with accepting his own identity while also adjusting to American life with his family during the 20th century.
While the English Department currently does not have materials that touch on transgender or non-binary topics, religion and ethics classes face this subject head-on. Some people use their views on religion to defend their treatment of LGBTQ+ people, and some have found that being LGBTQ+ itself is unethical. At St. Stephens and St. Agnes, however, some of the religion and ethics classes are taught by one of the leaders of GSA: Dr. Strednak-Singer. Strednak-Singer teaches New Testament, a 9th-grade religion class dedicated to an introduction to biblical scholarship and an application of justice and morality to contemporary issues. When asked if LGBTQ+ issues have ever intersected with his religion class, Strednak-Singer answered: “If the focus of the New Testament class is on applying biblical ideas of justice, compassion, things along those lines to contemporary social dilemmas, well, now that I have an opportunity to provide students a chance to do a research project on nonviolent resistance of the LGBTQ movements.” This is a way to incorporate teachings of LGBTQ+ movements into classes where they may not be learning about these issues. Additionally, this class intersects religion and LGBTQ+ issues, allowing students to discuss the connection LGBTQ+ topics have with religious topics.
In the ethics classes, it is harder to find that intersection. Many students have said that they were not taught about any discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in either their sophomore or senior ethics classes. When asked about this, Strednak-Singer defended his teachings by saying: “Are these issues that apply to everyone? Absolutely. Are these going to be the things that your generation is fighting about in 10 years? I'm not sure.”
In the last 10 years, our country made massive strides towards equity and inclusion to make LGBTQ+ issues more normalized instead of controversial. However, recent laws being proposed threaten to undo much of the work that has been done. The “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill in Florida is an example of this, as it prevents teachers from speaking to elementary students about LGBTQ+ topics. This is a step backward from normalizing LGBTQ+ topics because students are unable to learn about the impact this community had on our world’s culture.
While non-binary and transgender students have stated that they do not feel discriminated against in class, they do not feel represented. One student stated: “I think it would be great for straight people and cis people to learn more about our history and how we came to have our rights and all of the people that contributed to our community, because I think that’s important for everybody to learn, especially because ignorance is so common these days.”
However, we cannot deny that our school has come much further than many others in our area and in the nation in terms of diversity and inclusion. As we are an independent school, we belong to both the Diocese of Virginia and the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools. From a June 2017 article on The Diocese of Virginia website, there are six key points concerning transgender people in their church schools and camps, which all proclaim full equity and inclusion. One that is especially relevant today is “We will provide a safe environment in our schools and camps for transgender persons, for those who support them, and for those who do not understand our commitment to these principles.” This tenet sets a standard for the treatment of transgender people in Episcopalian schools in Virginia. A 2014 guidebook from the NAIS also sheds light on this particular issue. The main theme of the guidebook is that “schools should work to create an overall safe, welcoming, and inclusive school environment.” The guidebook also states that “Schools should engage in training programs that include gender identity as a protected class, and educate students about embracing diversity in all its forms including gender identity.” Both the NAIS and the Diocese of Virginia seem to be in agreement that transgender students should be included and provided a safe environment in school.
St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes upholds both of these tenets and works hard to create a diverse and inclusive culture. The school has made an effort to promote equity among transgender and non-binary students by installing two single-stall bathrooms in the main building. They have also made an effort to bring in speakers such as Schyler Bailer, a transgender male swimmer, to share his story and discuss what it is like to be transgender. They have also made an effort to talk about transgender discrimination and representation in our DEIB advisories. However, even with all of these efforts, is it enough?
When asked if he thinks the sour school has done enough for transgender and non-binary students, Mr. Wenger, our Associate Director of Institutional Equity and Diversity, answered that he cannot answer that question, only our students who are trans can. He said: “I want to know, for my trans students, do you feel we've done enough? And if not, what should we be doing? What more can we be doing? That's a question that in some ways, also transcends the school to the sense of, we have a small number of trans students in the school at the moment. And they have very specific experiences. They have radically different experiences as individuals. I'd be curious to hear from more trans teens about their experience, what they needed, what they didn't get, what they did that was so important for them.”
The consensus from our student interviews seems to be that they do not feel discriminated against, but they also do not feel represented in our curriculum. While our school has made many efforts to make our transgender students feel safe and equal, there can always be more done to make sure students can see themselves in what they are learning.
Transgender representation is always a work in progress. There will always be more steps to take in order to ensure that our transgender and non-binary peers feel comfortable in the community. The best way to find out how to make them comfortable is simply asking them, and implementing the recommendations that they advise - to listen to the voices of people who have historically not had their voices heard or represented.