Supporting our Trans, Non-binary, and Gender Non-Conforming Students through Mindfulness and an Anti-Oppression Framework

Last winter in the middle of the school year I came out as trans and non-binary. Navigating the highly binary-gendered world of our educational system, I struggled deeply with daily misgendering. When others were unable to see me for who I declared myself to be, I felt my newly realized identity invalidated and erased. I knew that this was largely not the result of any mal-intent on the part of my students or colleagues, but rather the direct result of society’s oppressive normative structures seeping into the fabric of our academic institutions.

As a 31-year-old with a strong queer community, various support networks, and a plethora of coping mechanisms to help me survive this experience, I worried about the journeys of our trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming (GNC) youth in schools across the country who are denied access to similar resources. Therefore, I began to look into ways that school communities could better support students’ social-emotional well-being during their identity evolution process.

As reports from The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 Survey[1] and GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey[2] show, the impacts of sustained discrimination on the academic outcomes and psychological well-being of trans, non-binary, and GNC youth are dire and disturbing, to say the least. Additionally, these effects are compounded when trans-identifying students have additional intersecting marginalized identities.[3]

With this knowledge in mind, I probed more deeply the intersectional complexities of identity development and explored the coping mechanism that seemed to have the most powerful impact on my own transition: the study of mindfulness. Each time I was incorrectly called “Ms.”, or felt dysphoria hearing my voice congratulating a student, or experienced disgust seeing my reflection in the mirror of the school bathroom, I turned to the non-judgmental present-moment awareness of mindfulness to help calm the encroaching despair. Thinking of all of the students and educators across the country trying to thrive within persistently unjust systems, I wondered if mindfulness could provide a similar beacon of hope for them as it had for me.

Scholarly literature and a new, but growing, body of research show that mindfulness can indeed help trans, non-binary, and GNC students cultivate a positive relationship with their gender identity, self-acceptance, self-pride, and resilience in the face of daily discrimination. An additional necessary component of this is teaching students to contextualize their emotions and experiences in relation to the ways in which society affirms and stigmatizes certain identities. For me, each time that I was misgendered I tried to remind myself that the pain I felt was not a result of my physical self being inherently wrong, but rather a terrible consequence of society’s oppressive binary views of gender identity and expression. Although this understanding did not eradicate my unhappiness, it was a vital tool in helping me affirm my own identity despite continuous microaggressions. Therefore, if teachers choose to bring mindfulness into the classroom, as in the valuable ways that Janice Houlihan describes[4], it is critical that teachers offer this practice through a social-justice, anti-oppression lens.

By teaching mindfulness in conjunction with an analysis of internalized oppression, trans, non-binary, and GNC students will have a framework for unpacking the harmful narratives that have been ingrained inside of them by society. According to Beth Berila in her 2016 article, “Mindfulness as a Healing, Liberatory Practice in Queer Anti-Oppression Pedagogy,”[5] many of these students have already developed the qualities of mindful present-moment awareness through the process of discovering their own identities and determining what aspects of themselves are safe enough to express in a given situation. Explicitly incorporating anti-oppression work into mindfulness practice builds on the skills these students have already refined by providing a scaffold to dive deeper into this liberating, but often-times triggering, introspective process. By joining the skills of mindful awareness with the language to name and address heteronormative and cisgender systems that oppress them, students are better equipped to confront society’s potentially harmful messages and begin to process the ways in which these narratives may have created internal barriers to self-acceptance.[6]

As Iacano Gio demonstrates in his recent case study entitled “An Affirmative Mindfulness Approach for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth Mental Health,”[7] educators must offer these students not only the remarkably beneficial tools of mindfulness practice, but also the framework necessary to nurture the compassion, lovingkindness[8], and non-judgmental awareness that is central to survival and resistance of pernicious normative systems. Specifically, trans, non-binary, and GNC students sometimes falsely blame themselves and their identities for their own suffering, thinking they are somehow deficient or lacking in self-worth.[9]

This can be further intensified when considering the oftentimes incongruent relationships trans, non-binary, and GNC students might have with their own bodies, something that can surface and become triggered in complicated ways when participating in body-scans and body awareness exercises that lay the foundation for mindfulness practice. Thus, using mindfulness to recenter students’ blame onto oppressive systems rather than themselves can foster the self-acceptance and healing necessary for academic success and positive emotional well-being. As Thich Naht Hanh states, “If you can see how your suffering has come to be, you are already on the path to release from it.”[10]

Although the research backing the interconnection between mindfulness, social-justice, non-normative identities, and adolescent development is still emerging, the findings are optimistic and promising.[11] There is a distinct call to action right now for us as educators to teach mindfulness from an intersectional standpoint, thus helping this centuries-old practice have the most profound impact possible on all of our students, particularly those with marginalized identities. By teaching a mindfulness practice rooted in an anti-oppression pedagogy, we are fortifying our trans, non-binary, and GNC students with the skills necessary to actively disrupt systems that oppress them while simultaneously cultivating a sense of empowerment and resiliency that ensures that their identities can never be erased and are, in fact, honored and celebrated.

[1] National Center for Transgender Equality (2016) retrieved from http://www.ustranssurvey.org/

[2] GLSEN (2018) retrieved from https://www.glsen.org/article/2017-national-school-climate-survey-1

[3] GLSEN (2018) retrieved from https://www.glsen.org/article/2017-national-school-climate-survey-1

[4] “It’s time we outsmart stress and take a stand for teacher well-being.” Transforming Education blog (2018) retrieved from https://www.transformingeducation.org/its-time-we-outsmart-stress-and-take-a-stand-for-teacher-wellbeing/

[5] Berila, Beth. (2016). Mindfulness as a Healing, Liberatory Practice in Queer Anti-Oppression Pedagogy. Social Alternatives, 35(3), 5-10. Retrieved from https://socialalternatives.com/sites/default/files/pdf/issue/free/soc_alt_vol_35_3small.pdf

[6] Berila, Beth. (2016). Mindfulness as a Healing, Liberatory Practice in Queer Anti-Oppression Pedagogy. Social Alternatives, 35(3), 5-10. Retrieved from https://socialalternatives.com/sites/default/files/pdf/issue/free/soc_alt_vol_35_3small.pdf

[7] Iacono, Gio. (2018). An affirmative mindfulness approach for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth mental health. Clinical Social Work Journal, 1-11. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s10615-018-0656-7

[8] Lovingkindness, as mentioned here, is in reference to a form of meditation called Metta meditation which involves silently repeating phrases that wish happiness and well-being for oneself and others. During Metta meditation, an individual is planting the seeds of kindness in the form of intentions that opens one’s heart to compassion and love.

[9] Vosvick, M., & Stem, W. (2018). Psychological quality of life in a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender sample: Correlates of stress, mindful acceptance, and self-esteem. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. Retrieved from https://doi-org.ezproxyles.flo.org/10.1037/sgd0000303

[10] Hanh, T. N. (1999). The heart of the buddha’s teaching: Transforming suffering into peace, joy, and liberation. New York City, NY: Broadway Books.

[11] Due to the necessity for brevity in this blog post, it was not possible to reference all of the studies, scholarly literature, and current practices that address the interconnections between mindfulness and anti-oppression pedagogy. If access to further examples of research and scholarly literature is desired, please feel free to reach out to the author directly for links to various forms of content promoting this particular framework.

By |2019-01-16T09:47:42+00:00January 11, 2019|

About the Author:

Jersey (they/them pronouns) is a trans/non-binary educator with over 6 years of teaching experience in middle school, high school, and early childhood classrooms in the states and abroad in both general education and special education settings. They are currently pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Mindfulness Studies from Lesley University, where they received their Master’s degree in Education, and are working on developing online resources for individuals with intellectual disabilities alongside members of this community. Their email is [email protected]

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