Our Voices

Bringing Trans and Non-Binary Rights to the Everyday Classroom

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the Human Rights Campaign made history this spring, as the organizations partnered to release a free classroom resource aimed at making students better allies of the LGBTQ+ community in their everyday lives. Laura Osterndorf, training manager for RFK Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power program, was a driving force in this collaboration. In a recent conversation, she detailed how the lesson plan was developed, aiming to guide students on pressing topics including the ongoing stigma and violence faced by the LGBTQᐩ cLGBTQ+ ommunity, the urgent need for better identity documents for non-binary individuals, and how the media’s portrayal of transgender people can shape our perspectives.

Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How did the idea for this lesson plan come about? Do you feel like there has been a void in the classroom in terms of teachable lessons about trans rights up until this point?

As the Speak Truth to Power training manager here at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a focus of mine is to examine what voices and perspectives have not been previously represented in our lesson plans and school curricula, and find ways to tell their stories connected to important current events.

At the moment, there is a record amount of anti-trans legislation being introduced and considered across the country, and 2021 has been one of the deadliest years yet for trans and non-binary people. So it felt like a very necessary time to highlight people from the trans community as human rights defenders and recognize these folks as people who we should be celebrating and defending.

Up until now, schools may mark Transgender Day of Visibility, Transgender Day of Rememberance, or LGBTQ+ Pride on their calendars, but many still lack inclusive sex education and fail to recognize that gender-expansive people have always been with us making a positive difference in our communities throughout history. This lesson plan is an attempt to begin to fill that void.

How were the people featured in the lesson plan chosen?

These five individuals were selected carefully. We wanted to show that trans and non-binary folks are everywhere in our communities and also wanted to show there’s no one trans experience, and that you can be a defender in a way that is authentic to who you are. There are so many different avenues and ways to build awareness and advocate for human rights in your community. So we were thrilled to select Andrea Jenkins (trailblazing politician and writer), Gavin Grimm (student activist), Jacob Tobia (actor and writer), Laverne Cox (actress and advocate), and Schuyler Bailar (athlete and inspirational speaker) to represent people from all walks of life who students could identify with.

Something that was new to this lesson but I want to ensure that we continue in all of our materials is identifying pronouns of our human rights defenders. When we share our pronouns as educators, we help students become more comfortable with using pronouns to identify themselves which helps to decrease harm that might occur when someone is misgendered.

How did you work with the Human Rights Campaign to create this lesson plan?

Our collaboration with the Human Rights Campaign started because as soon as we identified this project, we knew that we also wanted to honor the work and identify the voices of advocates who had been on the ground doing this work for a long time.

HRC came to mind right away as an incredible leader in the area of LGBTQ+ rights. When we reached out to them to see if there would be an interest in collaboration, they loved the idea of highlighting folks from the trans and non-binary community as human rights defenders to be celebrated and looked up to.

Our organizations were then able to put our heads together to talk about strategy and the focus of the lesson. HRC was a fantastic partner to work with. Since they have been active in this space for so long, they could provide the most up-to-date terminology, materials, and stories to honor the communities and individuals in the lesson. As the lesson launched, we really appreciated collaborating with them on panels and campaigns that would take the lesson further and commemorate Transgender Day of Visibility.

Can you speak a bit about how this was intentionally crafted—the components of the lesson plan?

Much of the lesson is centered around the integration of social and emotional learning—we wanted activities that allowed students to explore their own self awareness around the social constructions of gender and identity. That’s why we begin the lesson with the questions “What makes you, you?” And, “Who is your authentic self?”

We want people to be conscious about ascribed identities put on us by society that differ from the innate sense of who we know ourselves to be. This exercise will hopefully help students to realize that we are more than our bodies, and so are other people, too.

We also related those questions back to the framework of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the equal rights and freedoms that everyone is entitled to under the law. We use the human rights framework based on equality of all persons to define the difference around sex, gender, gender expression, and identity. As we build this common language, we hope educators and students will better understand how trans and non-binary people exist in society, and how harmful, yet pervasive myths can be debunked.

In crafting this lesson, there was an understanding that many times the news often focuses on the violence imposed on the trans and non-binary communities. In addition to sounding the alarm on these atrocities, we also need to be celebrating the major contribution of trans and non-binary human rights defenders in society and throughout history, sharing their stories in an ethical way and representing the multiplicity of perspectives. Again, here, we really went back to the Human Rights framework and what the United Nations is starting to do, in recognizing and advocating for trans and non-binary people around the world.

In the final activities of the lesson, we encourage students to be allies and accomplices of trans and non-binary people in their own communities in both simple and profound ways. These actions can begin with small steps—just talking to your friends and family, having everyday conversations about our misconceptions or perspectives on gender, speaking out against microaggression, and continuing to educate ourselves as lifelong learners.

What kind of feedback have you received so far?

Before we launched the lesson, we were able to test it out with a few educators in our network. We used a test case with a high school educator in New York City. They said that they felt this lesson was relatable for students and for both trans educators and cis allies. They really got what we were going for in terms of striving for global social change grounded in critical thinking and kindness and said the lesson helped them have real-life discussions about students’ life experiences with gender in an accessible way.

We also had an educator from Austin, Texas, look at the lesson plan. They said they really appreciated seeing lessons on the trans and non-binary community and that they had felt it was time to really highlight this material and these types of conversations.

Our lesson also went international with one of our educators in Spain who said this lesson gave them places to start to have these clear conversations, including what are the differences between sex and gender, gender expression and gender identity, that might have seemed elusive in the past, and open their students’ hearts and minds to become better allies fighting for LGBTQ+ rights around the world.

It was also really important for me to hear from trans and non-binary youth to ensure they felt seen and heard in the lesson. Here, we were really fortunate to share the lesson with some of the RFK Young Leaders who said that they really appreciated the content and teaching methods and wished they had had something like this lesson in their classrooms when they were young. That really gets to the heart of why we do the work that we do. It’s about changing systems to create a safe and more equitable learning environment for everyone.

Did this lesson lead to any ideas for future collaborations with the Human Rights Campaign?

We really appreciated our work with the HRC and definitely hope to continue these acts of allyship and activism ourselves. To be true accomplices for LGBTQ+ rights, this can’t just be an action we take once. Anti-trans legislation has not slowed down. Human rights abuses haven’t stopped. We want to be a part of that advocacy that works with the trans and non-binary communities, highlights and support this activism, and take our lessons even further.