It took me three years of teaching middle-school science before feeling comfortable enough to come out to my students as a trans man. We were starting a unit focused on how identity impacts the practice of science, including the ways that specific groups are marginalized by normative ideas about who does science and how that changes what science does. In the introduction to the unit, I shared my personal experience of being a trans person in science, including what it was like to teach science as someone perceived as female, how others’ perceptions of me have shifted after my transition, and the ways that trans people are often erased by the language used by scientists and medical professionals to describe bodies, patients, and health practices.
As a queer and transgender human biology and health teacher, I don’t have many models for how to create a queer- and trans-inclusive curriculum and classroom. When I took biology and health as a middle schooler, the gender binary was fixed and unchallenged. Sex ed classes focused on the mechanics of (preventing) reproduction, and did not touch on the ways that bodily autonomy, growing with identity, and consent-focused communication intersect around romantic and/or sexual orientation and healthy relationships.
It is clear that there is a need for a more holistic, queer- and trans-inclusive curriculum for all of my students, not just those who may identify as LGBTQ now or in the future. As the person in charge of writing our human biology curriculum, I have had a lot of fun finding and integrating resources that reflect the real diversity in biology, both in humans and more broadly. Here are a few examples from my repertoire that I want to share:
As much as possible, I use examples of diversity among the reproductive strategies of different species to highlight ways that heteronormative assumptions about biology and evolution are unfounded. These images by the artist Humon are on my wall at school, and kids love reading about the diversity of animals’ courtship behavior. I also use an activity about reproductive behavior during our unit on gender, sex, and sexuality to underscore the diverse strategies species use to reproduce.
When discussing genitalia in my classes, students model the development of proto-genitals in utero using clay. All genitals start as the same core parts, and diverge depending on genetic and hormonal factors in the uterus. Going through the stages of genital development is not only useful for thinking about homologous structures, but also helps students start to think about the diversity of genitalia, including genitals that are not strictly a penis/scrotum or a vulva.
I try to teach sex ed without assumptions about who students might have sex with — or that they might have sex at all. Increasing asexual and aromantic visibility has led me to challenge many of the assumptions I made in the past about how to frame sexual health education. Though sexuality education is important for all students, not all students will have sex in their lifetimes, and not all students are interested in sex with anyone, let alone a person with any particular genital or gender configuration.
Talking about intersex experiences in a way that is normalizing and not voyeuristic is incredibly important in breaking down notions of fixed “biological sex.” We discuss a variety of ways that chromosomal variation can lead to differences in the way a person is assigned a sex at birth. I also emphasize the differences between the experiences of intersex people and that of transgender people with my students, since the two communities face different issues regarding sex, health access, and gender identity/expression.
I teach using case studies, specific and complex stories from medicine that students use to learn about a particular body system or concept. Whenever I write a case study for my classroom, I try to write them in ways that normalize queer and trans experiences and families. Just the act of including a queer or trans person in a story — without tokenizing them or making the whole story about their queer or trans identity — sends a clear message to students about what is normal and valued in the classroom. A friend of mine also does a case study in his classroom that traces the experience of an intersex adolescent experiencing a normative health class. The story traces the emotional experience of the student while also educating students about the ways that student’s biology fits into what they already know about chromosomal combination and organ structure and function.
When thinking about creating an inclusive classroom space, I actively invite student feedback and input. Our middle school’s Queer-Straight Alliance generated a list of recommendations to all faculty at our school about creating more inclusive classrooms. At the end of each grading period, I collect feedback through an anonymous survey and then discuss the results with my students as a larger group. This leads to productive discussions about how best to create the kind of classroom that best fits the needs of my students.
In the end, theory and practice are constantly tugging at each other in the classroom. Despite my best efforts, I still have to interrupt comments that my students make that reveal underlying assumptions about the sex a person was assigned at birth, their romantic or sexual orientation, or what is “normal.” I also often make mistakes, and am incredibly grateful for when students feel comfortable enough to let me know the ways my action have hidden their experiences from view.
Opening up these conversations and continuing to grow with my students has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Ultimately, my goal is to create the human biology classroom that I yearned for as a young and confused queer and trans student. All of my students, regardless of their identities, deserve a comprehensive, detailed, and responsible biology and health curriculum that is inclusive of many different ways of being human.
Lewis Maday-Travis is a queer and trans educator who teaches 8th grade human biology and health in Seattle, WA.
For more information on teaching an inclusive curriculum, check out GLSEN’s LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum guide.