“In preparing for battle, I have found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” Dwight D. Eisenhower
A Unique Path for Every Student
While a Gender Support Plan (GSP) is ideal for establishing overall conditions of support at school, a Gender Communication Plan (GCP) is used for the specific instance (or instances) in which a young person wishes to share a shift in their gender status. This might be wanting everyone to know that instead of the boy they thought someone was, in fact SHE is a girl. Or it could be sharing a student’s nonbinary identity and their request to be referred to accordingly. Among the pieces of any GCP are specific requests that will be made to others, such as the use of different name, pronouns, use of facilities, and more. Also included are firm expectations about the degree to which, if any, the student wants to discuss their gender. In many cases, the reason for implementing a GCP is to control the narrative; rather than a series of disparate communications, the GCP process ensures that clear information and expectations are being communicated to all.
For every young person who wishes to share new information about their gender at school, there exists a unique path for doing so.
Generally speaking, a GCP will entail the following elements.
Who will be involved in mapping out this process? Are the key decision makers in place to make this happen? This is the group that will chart the course and garner the needed resources and support for the student’s sharing about their gender.
First and foremost, an effective GCP begins by identifying what exactly is being communicated and to whom, as well as the requests/expectations being made accordingly. What name and pronouns are to be used? Does the student want to be approached with questions? Who should address questions from others that arise, and how will they be answered? What will this mean for participation in school or other activities?
If the student were to close their eyes and imagine the process unfolding perfectly, what would it look like? Are they making an announcement of some kind? Are they in the room at all? Is there an adult who would share the details? Perhaps the student wishes to read something to their peers, or have an adult do so. Maybe there will be some sort of lesson or activity about gender in general that precedes the communication about the student. In addition to what this will look like, it is also essential to determine the timing of this process. Careful planning should in no way be used as a way to prolong the timing; rather it is about ensuring the most ideal conditions possible for this experience to go positively.
With this picture in place, it now becomes a matter of making it happen. What conditions will need to be in place prior to the moment(s) of disclosure? Some of the things to consider include:
- Gender literacy training for staff, including how they are both expected to conduct themselves as well as respond to others in the school community.
- Parent/community information session (about gender diversity generally and, unless specifically called for in the GCP, NOT about the particular student, or even that a pronouncement of some kind is coming).
- Communications with a subset of adults/students, if any, about this particular student’s gender communication plans. This is typically timed in such a way so as to allow various allies of the student and family to rally around and support them through the process.
The Right Plan
A number of factors will go into the ultimate plan for moving forward with the process. Factors such as the child’s age, personality and emotional state, the level of family support, the school’s organizational design, and even the time of year all can impact how this process unfolds. It is important to avoid seeking some universal “correct way” for sharing information about a student’s change in gender status, and to instead focus on identifying the steps described above that will create the necessary conditions to make this particular student’s experience as positive as possible. More often than not, the process will be governed by a series of options from which to choose; the key is to ensure that knowledgeable choices inform how each of these possible approaches is handled, and that the trade-offs of each are seriously weighed. Every student’s journey will be unique, and while there are a number of important principles and areas of focus to bear in mind along the way, there are many, many ways to reach the destination.
Urgency and Timing
A student’s desire to share a shift in their gender status at school is borne out of a deep need to be seen as one’s true self. The level of the student’s urgency versus the careful planning of the process must be balanced. Ideally, the child is currently not experiencing a high level of distress at school. This allows the student, school, and family (if appropriate) to work together as a team to establish the most positive conditions in which the information can be shared. As described above, this could include training for staff, parents, school community members, and students; various forms of communication with any or all of these; and a carefully laid out plan for the student’s authentic identity to be shared. These steps need not take an inordinate amount of time, and in fact schools must be vigilant about not using this planning process to delay the process unnecessarily. Nonetheless, the ability to thoughtfully plan for this complex process best ensures a positive experience for all involved.
If the student’s emotional well-being will be compromised if they are asked to delay this process any longer, the school must quickly lay out a plan for the child’s gender to be recognized, with immediacy as the priority. In such situations, it can be anticipated that there will be a variety of issues that will emerge for which the school must be prepared, including staff members being caught “off-guard,” questions from other students, and concerns from parents.
This situation is akin to “walking across the bridge while building it,” and will entail, at least initially, the school reactively responding to issues as they arise. This is one of the unfortunate consequences when a school is perceived to be unsupportive of students’ gender diversity and the subsequent sense for some of not feeling fully seen within its walls. This is especially likely when the school has not taken any steps to proactively establish more gender inclusive conditions for all students. In these instances, it then falls to the school to help clear the way for this student’s true self to emerge. It should be noted, however, that a student’s distress may be reduced once they know there is a “date certain” for the information to be shared, providing the school with an opportunity to get at least some of the key conditions in place. Also, this kind of reactivity will hopefully only occur once, as the school comes to recognize the importance of gender inclusion work as beneficial for all students and takes the necessary steps to get it in place.
Age and Grade-level
The age and maturity level of the child is another key variable that will influence how sharing information about a student’s gender will unfold. A younger student may be less involved with designing the actual process, while older students may play a greater role in shaping the experience. In situations where a child does not have support at home, the process for a primary grade child can be very difficult, if not impossible without parental buy-in. An older student may ask the school to work with them to keep the process private in order to protect them from any negative consequences they may encounter when not at school. Additionally, the student’s age will also impact what and how the information about their gender will be communicated to the other students, what role, if any, the student will play in the process, and potential concerns that may be raised by the larger school community.
However, it is also important to recognize that the student’s individual personality, and not their age, is frequently the leading factor in determining how the process will unfold. So along with the student’s age, their disposition is equally important here. Some young people are by nature shy and reserved, especially when it comes to issues as intensely private as their own gender. But there are others who have no such qualms about being at the center of communication, in fact strongly believing "who but me" should be sharing this information.
Privacy and Disclosure
The degree to which others will or will not be aware of the student’s gender status is also a major factor in the kind of support that will be necessary and the ensuing plan for generating it. In some cases, this won’t be anyone’s decision; the child is sharing information publicly in a school or community in which they have been known based on their assigned sex for some time. In other situations, the student’s move to a new school setting—say from one level to the next or to a new location—affords the opportunity to privately assert one’s authentic gender. In either case, the issue is not if the school supports the student, but how.
When communicating a student’s gender status with others, it must be remembered that the student is undergoing an incredibly personal experience; few young people want to be the center of attention, particularly about such a private matter. Whether others have known the child previously or if this is brand new information for everyone, the school must recognize the student’s right to experience this process with dignity and respect. It is incumbent upon the school’s leadership to protect the student’s right to feel safe from others’ comments, questions or rumors. The school must work actively to ensure that the student’s environment remains safe and conducive to learning.
Considerations After the Fact
Even in the most thoughtfully developed situations, the school must still be prepared to respond to genuinely innocent confusion or uncertainty that may come up from members of the school community, including setting clear boundaries about questions being directed at the student or family. This often means a delicate balance of providing information about gender diversity broadly while not talking specifically about an individual student. Again, in schools that have proactively worked to be more gender inclusive, a student’s sharing about their gender sits in a larger context of gender acceptance, creating a framework in which a gender-expansive student’s experience can be better understood. However, regardless of how public the process is or the degree to which the student or family are open about its details, the school must not reveal any information about the student that could be seen as a violation of that child’s privacy rights.
Sadly, schools must also be prepared to protectively respond to negative reactions about the child’s change in gender status. Even as they undergo this often-difficult process, these students and their families can be subject to ignorant intrusions and even outright hostility from the larger school community. As such, schools are uniquely positioned to serve as a buffer from the non-accepting judgment of others. Without speaking about the specific student, there are a number of important ways that schools can effectively respond to these questions and concerns.
Click below for our series of articles on "Responding to Concerns."