Book Review: The Teaching Transgender Toolkit: A Facilitator’s Guide to Increasing Knowledge, Decreasing Prejudice, and Building Skills
A decade ago, one might have been able to sidestep the “transgender issue” in Family Life Education. But with transgender soldiers being allowed—and then not allowed—to serve openly in the military, “bathroom bills” being debated in about half of the United States, athletes identifying as transgender, and multiple TV shows featuring transgender storylines, this gender minority can no longer be overlooked or ignored.
Nor should it be. Misperceptions, outdated beliefs, and lack of connections to the transgender community lead to the kind of marginalization and prejudice that are experienced by people in the transgender community. At a time when people may be struggling with their gender identity, too often they find themselves shunned by family, friends, and community—the very supports they need to come to terms with who they are and their place in the world.
The Teaching Transgender Toolkit is a welcomed, comprehensive resource for Family Life Educators and others who seek to normalize the lives and experiences of transgender people as part of our families and communities. Written for those who seek to educate others about the experiences and identities of transgender people, it offers a plethora of nuanced guidance, practices, lesson plans, and resources on the transgender experience and prejudice against the transgender community.
It’s clear when reading this book that it is filled with the wisdom of practice and with tested tools and resources for people in many settings, from K–12 schools to health care to nonprofit organizations. The practical content and the down-to-earth tone reflect the experiences of people who must have encountered and responded to every question, no matter how inappropriate or prejudiced. Their guidance on standing firm in upholding the rights and dignity of the transgender community while also being respectful and refusing to escalate with a badgering questioner will be useful in many situations.
For example, the authors suggest beginning an educational session by saying that we all sometimes use language that is now out of date or is no longer considered respectful. So, when it comes up, I, as a facilitator, will role-model ways to respond respectfully and without shaming. Then when a word or phrase that is considered inappropriate is used, the facilitator might say, “That was a word that was used in the past, but today we use the word ____.”
The core of The Teaching Transgender Toolkit is a series of detailed lesson plans aimed at helping people listen to, set aside prejudices against, and connect with members of the transgender community. These lessons are thoughtful and engaging on complex topics. The authors provide a variety of proposed training schedules that mix and match sessions for different timeframes, purposes, and audiences.
It’s important to note that many of these sessions would be best led by an experienced facilitator and presume foundational knowledge of the field (about which they provide solid information) and the transgender experience. As a cisgender ally, I would want to cofacilitate sessions with a transgender person, knowing that I would not be able to adequately articulate their experiences (although my experiences as a family member of a transgender person could also be useful in a workshop setting).
This text is useful and uniquely sets the stage for people to talk about transgender people, to get more comfortable with the language, to examine their own prejudices. All of that is terribly important and foundational. Nonetheless, I suspect that the authors would agree with one limitation of the book: From my experience, true change will occur when people come to know and care about someone who is transgender. That doesn’t happen when you talk about, but when you talk with. It’s less likely to happen in a lesson than in a lunchroom. In one of the essays in the book, Barnard College’s Jennifer Finney Boylan puts it this way:
In teaching transgender issues, it’s important to know the facts, both scientific and cultural, that make us who we are. But it’s easy, sometimes, when we wax rhapsodic with gender theory, to forget that we are talking about the lives of real individuals, men and women who are trying to live their lives with courage and grace, often against very long odds. And so, among the best ways of coming to an understanding of the trans experience is hearing the actual stories of trans people, and to understand through their tales that being trans is just another way of being human. (p. 70)
At one level, being transgender is an individual’s experience. Yet the way the family system responds significantly affects the transgender person’s journey. Thinking “it’s just a phase,” the family may decide to draw a hard line. As a result, too many transgender youth find themselves on the streets or in shelters. More often, transgender individuals find themselves taking the journey without the support, guidance, and resources of those who have been closest to them.
Furthermore, the transgender person’s transition deeply affects the whole family system. Not only does a family adjust to a family member with a new gender identity, name, and pronoun, but in many places, families may find themselves rebuilding their lives with a new friends; a new faith community; new worries about a child’s safety, health, and future; and new priorities that reflect being a transgender family. In extreme cases, families have even had to change schools or move due to prejudice or threats.
In both cases, Family Life Educators can play a vital role in guiding families through an important time of reflection, learning, and reconnection. Not only are the trans individuals discovering new things about themselves, but the family also has the opportunity to come together in new ways to support, care, and advocate for each other while also seeing the broader possibilities of the human experience.
Reviewed by Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Ph.D. (pronouns: he/his/him). Dr. Roehlkepartain is vice president of research and development for Search Institute, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is a cisgender ally with a close family member who is transgender. As part of this role, he leads the organization’s work on family engagement, which is focused on www.KeepConnected.info. Email: [email protected]