If you are teaching at a secular university and have not yet encountered a student who is going through (or has already been through) gender reassignment, you will before long. I had my first such experience a few years ago and I learned some valuable things in the process. Although my experience occurred within the context of higher education, much of what I learned is equally relevant in other settings. I have written the following with conservative Christians in mind, simply because they are the ones who struggle the most in trying to be compassionate without compromising their principles:
Always use the student’s preferred name. You might call the name of Charlene on the first day of class and be corrected by a voice asking to be called Charlie. Or Patricia might ask to be called Pat. Or the requested change could be something a little less smooth – such as Bruce demanding to be called Caitlyn. Regardless, always show respect for the person by using the name they prefer because it is just that – a preference. There is nothing inherently male or female about a first name. This is a non-issue. Don’t make it one.
Avoid using pronouns. Pronouns are different. When Bruce goes from simply asking to be called Caitlyn to demanding to be called “she” you have a potential problem. Calling Bruce “Caitlyn” is simply honoring a preference. In contrast, calling Bruce “she” is telling a lie. In a nutshell, Bruce is now asking you to accommodate his mental disorder by lying and saying he is something he is not. Just as there is a good reason to refrain from lying and saying “she” there is also good reason to refrain from saying “he.” The reason is that it is completely avoidable. When my first transgendered student asked to be called by a male name on the first day of class I had no idea that she would also become my best and most outspoken student. There were numerous times throughout the semester when her comments were so enlightening that I almost responded by saying something like, “Did everyone hear what she just said?” In such cases, when I came to the part of the sentence with the personal pronoun I simply substituted the student’s first name, which is more personal anyway. Professors who make an issue of this by sending around sheets of paper the first day of class asking for each student’s preferred pronouns are just being pretentious. This is another non-issue. Learn your student’s names and use them whenever you call on them in class. Issue resolved.
Don’t take the bathroom bait. Some people say that North Carolina’s HB2 was an “unnecessary law.” I agree. Had it not been for the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Charlotte passing a city ordinance (requiring all private businesses to allow access to any bathroom on the basis of perceived gender), the state legislature would have had no need to address the issue. Generally speaking, transsexuals have quietly used the bathroom of their choice for years with no problem – that is, until LGBT activists politicized the issue.
When my first “transitioning” student decided she wanted to walk into the men’s restroom just as I was walking out I simply ignored her. It was awkward to be certain. But it wasn’t worth calling in the bathroom police. If you are ever assaulted in a bathroom by a transsexual then do what you would do if a normal person outside a bathroom assaulted you: Call the police and/or defend yourself. If not, just go about your business. This is yet another non-issue. Don’t make it one.
Provide an alternate basis for student identity. I cringe every time I hear the phrase “LGBT people” because it implies that those who are outside of the heterosexual norm are somehow defined by their sexuality. As educators, we should have no part in the undignified business of encouraging people to build their identity around their sexuality. We cannot love people by actually encouraging the spiritual evils that victimize them – even when the culture praises us for doing so. Thus, whenever I see my former student (who is obviously going through radical hormonal therapy to appear male) I do not ask her how her gender identity transition is going. I ask her how her studies are going. I thank her for being such an attentive student. I tell her how much I enjoyed having her in my class. I let her know that she stands out because of her mind not because of her membership in a newly contrived class of victims.
This is really all you need to know about how to deal with the transgender issue. Best of all, my advice is free of charge. I guess some problems are so simple they don’t even require a diversity consultant.