Transgender in the Classroom

Rye, B.J., Elmslie, P. & Chalmers, Amanda (2007). Meeting a transsexual person: Experience within a classroom setting.  Canadian On-Line Journal of Queer Studies in Education, 3(1).



BJ Rye & Amanda Chalmers,  University of Waterloo

Pamela Elmslie, University of Toronto

I don’t have a problem with transsexuals; I just don’t know why they want to have sex with everyone.”

            So said a 20-something female undergraduate student studying psychology (comment overheard during a class).  Is this what today’s youth and prospective next generation of mental health professionals think about transsexual and transgender1 persons?  If so, what are the implications for future understanding and empathic consideration of the transgender community?  The goal of this paper is to describe how the experience of meeting a male-to-female transsexual person resulted in a qualitative change in students’ perceptions of transgender people.

            We assert that negative attitudes toward transsexuals may be transformed into positive and empathic ones.  We propose that a basic formula to produce more positive attitudes is a simple one: education plus exposure – that is to say, “real life” exposure.  Few university students are personally acquainted with transgender people.  In fact, when we surveyed students in introductory human sexuality classes (1999-2005, N = 2008), we found that only 5% (n =106) reported having knowingly met a transgender person.  In contrast, 61% (n = 1232) reported knowing a gay or lesbian person.  Students thus report having had relatively fewer experiences with transgender people.

According to the Association for Experiential Education (AEE), experiential education is an educational process whereby a learner constructs knowledge, develops skill, and clarifies values from direct experiences and reflection on that experience” (AEE, 2008).  Principles associated with this definition include: involving a learner on multiple levels (e.g., intellectually, socially, and emotionally); having a learner contemplate and examine her or his personal values; encouraging a learner to become aware of her or his own biases, judgements, and preconceptions, and to reflect critically on these; and promoting a personal learning process that has implications for future learning (AEE, 2008).  The educator’s role is to provide experiences that facilitate learning and are congruent with these principles.  

While mainstream media depictions of transgenderism tend to border on the sensational, a proper introduction to queer issues including talks and seminars by transgender individuals provides a unique and constructive forum for exploring transgender experiences. When a transgender person speaks about hir2 personal daily life, the listeners are provided with firsthand knowledge of the reality, complexity, and difficulty of life as a transgender person within an interactive context. As this information is presented, students are not only given the opportunity to hear the incredible stories that a transgender person has to tell, they are also challenged to explore their own beliefs, to examine their own attitudes and feelings toward transgender people, and to reflect on their past and potential future behaviour. 

            The hypothesis that meeting a transgender person will result in experiential learning and will have an impact on attitudes toward transgender people may be derived from the research on individual or panel presentations about homosexuality. The literature in this area generally supports the idea that exposure to gay people, and interaction with gay and lesbian speakers in the classroom, results in greater empathy for, more positive feelings toward, and greater comfort with gay and lesbian people (e.g., Croteau & Kusek, 1992; Goldberg, 1985; Green, Dixon, & Gold-Neil, 1993; Lance, 1987; McClintock, 1992; Morin, 1974; Nelson & Krieger, 1997; Wells, 1991).  Based on the aforementioned principles of experiential learning theory, it is hypothesized that meeting a minority person allows the learner, at minimum, to move beyond the objective, to reflect upon the ‘in vivo’ experience, and to create new abstractions based on this experience.  Listening to a speaker recount very personal experiences allows the students to move beyond theoretical detachment to phenomenological exploration.  This process is thought to result in empathy toward the speaker’s group, and this empathy is proposed to mediate attitude change (Cramer, Oles, & Black, 1997; Geasler, Croteau, Heineman, & Edlund, 1995; McClintock, 1992).

            This paper describes a “real life” learning experience whereby students in upper level human sexuality classes met a transgender person.  We will discuss this learning within a formal educational framework - Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning.  We will begin by describing the framework as well as some of the course content, and will then apply it to this particular learning situation.

            Many educators conceptualize learning in terms of a taxonomy of three general domains.  This classic educational theory comprises cognitive or intellectual learning, affective learning (associated with attitudinal and emotional change), and psychomotor learning involving performance or action-based change (Bloom, Englehart, Hill, Furst, & Krathwohl, 1956; Boud, Cohen, & Walker, 1993; Cranton, 1989; Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1964; also see Woloshyn & Rye, 1995 for an application of this taxonomy to general sex education).  Traditional university teaching formats tend to follow the cognitive approach to learning (Boud et al., 1993) in which students are addressed in a lecture format and tested at a relatively objective level (using multiple choice exams which tend to measure knowledge and comprehension). 

            True to this traditional cognitive dimension (Bloom et al., 1956; Boud et al., 1993; Cranton, 1989; Krathwohl et al., 1964; Woloshyn & Rye, 1995), a group of undergraduate students received lectures and readings relating to transgender topics.  They were also engaged in class discussions based on the material pertaining to sexual differentiation and gender-related sexuality.  Topics included: Chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, the effects of predominant prenatal hormones, the development of internal sex organs and external genitalia, and the activating and organizing effects of hormones at puberty.  The social and psychological dimensions of sex and gender were discussed, such as: Assigned gender at birth, sexual orientation, gender roles and societal expectations based on sex, and personal gender identity (For a more in depth presentation of these topics, see Money, 1994, pp. 1-6, 81-89). Specific to transgender issues, the courses (“Psychosexual Organization” and “Advanced Human Sexuality”) examined issues of transphobia and discrimination, medicalization and sex reassignment surgery, and pathology - including the labelling of transgender people as having “Gender Identity Disorder.”

            These students had little cognitive difficulty understanding the many variations that can occur in the physical and physiological domains of sexual differentiation.  They accept that a fetus can have XY chromosomes and yet develop with an otherwise female body.  In this situation, part of the X chromosome is absent and the fetus does not respond to the hormones that would “create a male.”3  However, when the ambiguity involved a seeming incongruity between gender identity and biological sex, the students had less appreciation for the complexity of the issue. For example, when a person with the biological attributes of a male body identifies as a woman, the psychological gender identity is female/feminine but the body is perceived as male/masculine by societal standards. Comments such as, “I don’t get it” and “I don’t understand” were expressed by students in response to such an explanation of transgenderism.

            To understand how this type of reaction is formed, we must look at the underlying cognitive factors that create such confusion and predispose individuals towards negative or what may be interpreted as transphobic attitudes. The term transphobia is used to denote emotional reactions to transgenderism or transgender people characterized by fear or extreme negativity, revulsion, distancing, aggression, etc.  To understand how such attitudes can be changed, we need to consider the affective learning domain - an area of learning concerned with the emotional impact that the educational content has on the individual student (Bloom et al., 1956; Boud et al., 1993; Cranton, 1989; Krathwohl et al., 1964; Woloshyn & Rye, 1995). 

            The confused reactions of the students in response to the concept of transgenderism are caused by the rigid structure of dominant ideological constructs of biological sex and gender identity. People perceive an inconsistency in transgenderism where their ingrained symbol-systems do not allow for one.  This inconsistency creates dissonance and discomfort because it threatens the stability and coherence of the hegemonic, accepted, and strongly reinforced ways of conceptualizing human subjectivity in our society. For many people, particularly those with a high degree of sex and gender schema rigidity, the conflict between pre-existing concepts and new information about transgenderism can cause a strong defensive reaction. Fortunately, these pre-existing symbolic meaning systems are learned, which means they can be changed.  If we are able to become conscious of the flawed nature of heuristic reasoning and the inherently problematic and oversimplified schemas it entails, we can overcome confusion, negativity, and transphobic attitudes intellectually.4

            There is, however, a second means of achieving a reduction in the negative reactions toward transgenderism which arise from perceived symbolic inconsistency.  This is where the affective experience of the student becomes crucial. An emotional experience can bypass and effectively avoid the threats to reason represented by the inconsistency (McClintock, 1992). Meeting a transgender person not only provides the learner with information, but also exposes him or her to a new mode of reasoning which relies heavily on empathy and the recognition of similarity and continuity between the self and the other. Adopting and utilizing this mode of reasoning allows the problematic symbolic systems to be accessed and modified obliquely. Humanizing the concept of transgenderism decreases cognitive resistance when the learner’s new emotional understanding is able to counteract the feeling of dissonance triggered by a perceived symbolic inconsistency. The stronger the empathy gained towards the transgender individual, the less important or motivational the pre-existing ideological factors will become. Future responses to transgenderism may then be increasingly characterized by acceptance rather than by confusion or rejection.

            In order to facilitate affective learning and transcend the traditional cognitive lecture format, students in the psychosexual organization and advanced human sexuality classes were introduced to a guest lecturer who addressed her experience as a transgender individual in very personal terms.  This contrasts with many introductory human sexuality classes and textbooks where students receive a relatively short discussion of gender identity and transsexualism. Textbooks tend to treat transsexualism briefly, often by presenting an un-detailed story of a transgender person, such as Christine (formerly George) Jorgensen or Dr. Renee Richards, nee Richard Raskin (e.g., Kelly, 1998; Rathus, Nevid, & Fichner-Rathus, 2000).  Students in the classes met Janet Ferguson5, a male-to-female transsexual, who spoke to them about her personal experience and transgender issues as a whole.  The effect was remarkable.  Students were deeply affected by Ms. Ferguson’s courage, strength, and ability to confront and transcend the many issues that she has faced.  Hearing the story directly from a transsexual person turned out to be one of their best learning experiences – as cited by the students.  This is a clear example of affective learning.

            Through transgenderism lectures, students gained insights into ideas, events, and feelings with which many of them were unfamiliar. Consciousness-raising around transgenderism included discussion of issues such as identity confusion and the search for a stable sense of self; having to fight and struggle just to be oneself; becoming subject to psychological evaluation and the medicalization of one’s gender identity; suffering alienation from family and friends; seeking and finding a community, and gaining acceptance within it; physical transformation and the sense of wholeness, renewal, and transcendence that can accompany it; and finally, the fulfilment found in the ability to help others and educate them about these issues.

            Not only were the students in the lecture exposed to the anguish and fear of social stigmatism and prejudice, but they also learned of the spiritual strength it takes to persevere through such hardship. On some general or abstract level, most students were able to relate to these emotional experiences. If they are able to identify with the feelings associated with victimization and injustice, individuals may then be more able to take the perspective of the other, who they may previously have regarded as a member of a socially distant out-group. When we perceive the human similarities between ourselves and other people, we may become aware of the potentially harmful impact of our own attitudes and actions upon others.  In this way, we may develop the capacity to empathize, and can begin working to counteract negative and oppressive tendencies in our attitudes and behavior toward others (McClintock, 1992).

            Meeting a transgender person face-to-face, even in a classroom setting, can have a positive impact on those who hold transphobic attitudes resulting from ignorance of transgender issues. Such an experience may also have a strong effect on a student who was personally questioning his or her gender and perhaps dealing with some of the same issues being discussed. Meeting a transgender person may not only show such an individual that he or she is not alone by giving them someone with whom they may identify, it can also provide them with information about where to get support, if needed. Finally, listening to such a lecture may impart a realistic idea about the joys and difficulties one can expect to encounter in terms of others’ reactions, and the pursuit of sex reassignment surgery or other options, such as hormone therapy or other (non-medical) practices, for achieving desired body shapes or other gender signifiers.

            Unfortunately, there is also a slight possibility that the experience of meeting a transgender person could have a negative impact on students’ attitudes toward transgenderism.  Learning about transgenderism could potentially have two very different effects: It may normalize transgenderism or it may reinforce its pathological status.  A student who approaches such a lecture from a clinical perspective and treats the speaker as a “psychological case study” or in similarly detached terms, is not likely to benefit positively from affective learning, or to learn affectively at all.  Similarly, students who are motivated to maintain pre-existing, rigid, or resistant attitudes toward non-traditional forms of gender - for religious or other personal reasons - may find themselves disturbed, afraid, offended, defensive, or otherwise resentful.  For these individuals, the experience of meeting a transgender person may constitute evidence used to rationalize or validate the maintenance of negative beliefs about this group.  In this instance, affective learning will not produce the intended positive result, but could potentially impact the individual in a negative direction.

            Since the transgenderism lectures have been given in the context of relatively small university classes, most students usually refrain from displaying overtly transphobic behavior. This may not be because students hold positive attitudes, per se; rather, students may not want to be viewed by their classmates as abusive or intolerant.  The social desirability of acceptance and open-mindedness has the effect of shielding students in the classroom from the immediate impact of their peers’ negative feelings. Sometimes, however, transphobic attitudes are expressed in class discussion.  For example, prior to hearing the lecture given by a transgender person, and during a lecture and class discussion on transgender issues, one student voiced the opinion that a male-to-female transgender person “is a man”, and therefore should not use the “women’s bathroom.” She expressed that she would not want a transgender person “peeing beside” her.  The expression of such ideas can, however, be positive because they provide an opportunity to address students’ lack of knowledge and to engage in discussion with them about their fears.  In this case, responding to the comment with a discussion of how people’s dislike of and behavior toward transgender people causes them great difficulty in the course of their daily lives provided students with an alternative perspective that may cause them to re-examine their own feelings. The student who made this comment may never have considered that navigating segregated public bathrooms could be a terrifying and dangerous experience for a transgender person6.

             The intention of having a transsexual person speak in these classes was to facilitate the affective learning process and thereby foster greater acceptance of transgenderism among students.  This exercise was designed to help alter pervasive patterns of discrimination stemming from flawed concepts and oppressive logics by equipping students with tools for overcoming their own cognitive barriers and for eliminating the practice of prejudice.  At the basic or lowest level of affective learning, people must listen and respond to the information presented.  In so doing, they may then achieve a higher level of affective learning.  Higher levels of affective learning involve: valuing – relating the information to existing or new beliefs, attitudes, and values; organization – synthesizing the new information into one’s existing value system; and characterization – integrating this newly adapted value system into one’s self definition (Bloom et al., 1956; Cranton, 1989; Krathwohl et al., 1964; Woloshyn & Rye, 1995).  In applying Bloom’s taxonomy to transgender issues, a lower-level affective goal would be simply to have the student empathize with the difficulties that transgender people face as a result of prejudice. A higher-level affective goal would be to have the person assimilate new information about transgender prejudice into their abstract and general belief system.

            Evidence of the students’ affective learning was demonstrated in written feedback that was to be given to Ms. Ferguson.  In one of the human sexuality classes, approximately half of the students submitted an anonymous comment sheet regarding the transgender presentation (a total of 14 sheets).  In a second advanced human sexuality class, 22 students submitted written comments.  In the psychosexual organization classes, all students responded to Janet’s talk (23 in total).  In the latter two classes, comments were not anonymous; however, this factor did not appear to influence the types of comments submitted.

            Several common themes emerged in the written comments, most prominently, a feeling of “understanding.”  The students’ comments indicated that their new sense of understanding extended beyond comprehension of the concepts of transsexuality and transgenderism.  They expressed empathy towards transgender people.  Students vicariously felt some of the difficulty and joy of the “coming out” and “transitioning” processes.  Words and phrases that were prevalent included “understanding,” “informative,” “enlightening,” and “opened my mind.”  As an example of one such comment, one student said: “I feel I have a better understanding of transgender[ism]7 …. and hearing her story has been very beneficial.  I feel that meeting someone and hearing their personal story makes the understanding and the knowledge more powerful.”  Still another student shared:

I’m glad that Janet came and talked to us because this allows more understanding of what transsexual[ity] is.  Now it is ... clearer and easier to grasp the gender concept.  I think that knowledge definitely encourages acceptance or makes it a step towards greater [understanding of] differences toward gender issues.  This talk was overall very constructive for better understanding and knowledge in general.

            Students were also impressed by Janet’s ability to speak openly and honestly about her life.  They were sympathetic to her personal struggle as a transsexual person.  The capacity to empathize with and appreciate another person’s situation is an integral aspect of affective learning (Cramer et al., 1997; Geasler et al., 1995; McClintock, 1992).  Perhaps a pre-condition to affective learning is an appreciation of the genuineness of the speaker.  This is congruent with the concept that the emotional involvement of the learner fosters a perception of the learning task as authentic (AEE, 2007).  Many students acknowledged their perception of the honesty of Janet’s talk and expressed their appreciation for it.  For example, one student wrote,

I appreciate her candidness – ...she was so open and frank – this was such an informative and enlightening class.  I don't think there is any [thing] equal, educationally, to having someone as ... well-balanced, open, and honest as Janet tell her story.

Conceivably, Janet’s honesty fostered a sense of trust in the students, allowing them to be more receptive to the information she provided (See Yorks & Kasl, 2002, for a discussion of the necessity of empathy as a precondition for trust).  An environment of trust and respect promotes the student’s ability to synthesize factual elements with the emotional and “value-laden” aspects of the information being delivered (Yorks & Kasl, 2002).

Another prevalent theme was that the students hailed the experience of meeting a transsexual person as an educational one. For example, one student stated: “This was a great learning experience!”, while another indicated: “I think this experience has been extremely valuable.”  Yet another student summarized by saying: “I felt that it was extremely educational and worthwhile for Janet to come and talk with us.  I learned a lot from her visit and felt that she was very articulate and precise when explaining her personal life.”  These comments demonstrate affective learning such that the learners expressed valuing of their learning experience as an end in itself.  In order to value an experience positively, it must resonate with an existing schema of value and compare to other things found to be pleasurable or believed to be good or worthwhile. The students mention their existing values in the comments they wrote in response to Janet’s talk. Along with education, learning, understanding, and enlightenment, students related the experience to other things they value - tolerance, open-mindedness, empathy, acceptance, and non-discrimination.

            Some students experienced the highest levels of affective learning, such that they synthesized the new information into their value system and exhibited characterization as their new knowledge changed their conception of themselves and the other (Bloom et al., 1956; Yorks & Kasl, 2002).  The experience challenged the students to explore their own concepts of diversity, inclusion, and community through personal reflection and personal analogies (Itin, 1999).  This kind of higher order learning within the affective domain is illustrated by the following quote:

I really enjoyed the lecture Janet gave. At first, I was really uncomfortable because I'm gay.  This may seem odd that I was uncomfortable, but after listening to Janet's story, I was able to put myself in the position of heterosexual people.  I've always had this attitude that heterosexuals should just accept me for who I am and not question my orientation.  Well, now after having Janet come in and speak, I can understand how uncomfortable I could initially make some people feel by being gay.  I was actually very upset by this and phoned a friend to talk about it during the break.  When I came back, I realized that there was really nothing to be afraid of. Janet is just a person just like me, she's transgender whereas I am gay.  I really didn't understand transgender people before this.  I thought I did, but I didn't ... In the past it has angered me that people haven't been able to accept me, but I see now after hearing Janet speak, how it may be hard for people ... before hearing Janet ... I was afraid of [transgender people].  I didn't think that I was until I was faced with one ...We are all people trapped in these gender roles and society has conditioned us that way. I guess we are slowly working towards change. Like Janet said, people will accept transgender people, but maybe not in her lifetime, just as more and more people are accepting homosexuals.  Thanks for bringing Janet in to talk to us.

             Such a comment illustrates the possibility that meeting a transgender person may have fostered a more positive attitude toward transgenderism, and resulting behaviour, at least for this particular individual, by stimulating personal identification with two out-groups simultaneously - ‘those I have oppressed’ and ‘those who have oppressed me’.

            In unpublished research, we have found that there is a correlation between being personally acquainted with a gay person and lower levels of homonegativity (r(1964) = .41, p<.0001). Herek (1986) also reports a strong correlation with past positive experiences with a gay or lesbian individual and positive attitudes toward homosexuality in general. While we cannot infer that familiarity determines attitudes based on these correlational findings, the students’ comments did seem to indicate that familiarity may breed affection rather than the proverbial contempt8


            It is evident from this discussion of students’ reactions that, in general, the experience of meeting a transsexual person in the classroom appears to produce the desired goal of positive change in their perceptions towards transgender people.  Also, it appears that, for some students, higher-order affective learning fosters a synthesis of new beliefs and attitudes into students’ pre-existing value systems and, by extension, modifies their self-definitions.  This qualitative evaluation of the impact of the transsexual speaker is consistent with predictions that would be made on the basis of experiential learning theory.

This analysis is limited in scope because it was not an empirical investigation and because it included only undergraduate students enrolled in human sexuality courses.  However, future research could focus on samples of teachers, educators, counsellors, police officers, and any other number of service-oriented occupational groups wherein the individual may come in contact with a transgender person.  This research could reduce transphobic attitudes and discrimination by fostering greater empathy and understanding of the transgender experience.  “Training the trainer” is important in the area of sexual diversity because it has implications for the general reduction of prejudice against those who are gender variant.

            Learning about transgenderism must go beyond the cognitive. By exposing university students to a transsexual person, we have encouraged them to build the foundations for an empathic understanding of transgenderism. While not all transgender experiences are alike, and the range and variety of individual differences is vast, this paper reveals that exposure to one particular transgendered person can foster a new understanding of that person’s experience. This experiential component is a critical aspect of learning that is often overlooked in traditional education settings (Yorks & Kasl, 2002).  Such an experience can,  however, be greatly appreciated by learners as illustrated by the following quote:

I would like to thank Janet for coming in and talking to us about her situation.  I think the only way people will learn is by hearing real people's stories. By putting a face to the issue, it makes it real -- not freak entertainment bits that are shown on television.  I realize that if it is not easy for me to understand or deal with it, I can only imagine how extremely difficult it is for transgender people to deal with the changes that are going on in their lives.  More and more, through guest speakers, readings, and the movies shown in class, I am gaining a better understanding of these often misunderstood issues that affect these peoples' lives so deeply.  Thank you, Janet.  Your presentation was excellent!



1 We use the terms transsexual and transgender rather loosely throughout this paper.  We recognize that there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the multiple definitions of these two terms (McLernon, Maurer, Raj, & Ross, 2000).  For the purposes of this paper, transgender is an umbrella term that describes people who are gender variant – that is, their psychological sense of gender identity does not correspond to the physiological indicators of their sex.  In effect, the psychological, social, and physical dimensions of sex and gender do not combine to create a uniformly “male” or “female” person. By our definition, a transsexual is a transgender person and may be defined as a person who desires to have the body of “the other sex” (e.g., a male who wishes to be female).  This desire often culminates in sex reassignment surgery and/or hormone therapy to change the body to appear or be more consistent with psychological identity.


2 Hir is a gender neutral pronoun used to make language more inclusive of variant gender identities.


 3 A person with a biological incongruity such as this is referred to (somewhat incorrectly) as a “hermaphrodite” or (more accurately) as an “intersexual.”  For a more detailed discussion of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, the type of pseudo-hermaphroditism or intersexuality described here, see Warne (1997).


4 The deep introspection and radical criticism of cultural meaning production required by this method may be better addressed by contemporary philosophy and post-modern feminist sociology.  The familiarity with these avenues of theory required for this approach to transgender issues places it beyond the scope of the specific undergraduate courses described here.  For this reason, we feel the affective-learning approach is more appropriate since it is more consistent with course content.  


5 Ms. Ferguson gave permission for her name to be published.  She founded and co-ordinated the Hamilton Transsexual Peer Support Group (Ontario, Canada).  Ms. Ferguson spoke about her childhood, feelings of gender dysphoria, the coming out and transition process, the prejudice and discrimination she has suffered as a transsexual person, community and family support, making new friends, and embarking on romantic relationships.


6 As an aside, this student retracted her washroom-related statement after Janet Ferguson’s talk to her class.


7 Most of the quotes of the students were edited for clarity, grammar, punctuation, etc.  Generally, these changes were minor and indicated by square brackets.


8 Although listening to a transgender speaker in a classroom setting does not foster the same level of personal intimacy with the topic as having a close friend or family member transition, the experience of having met a “real life transsexual,” of learning about their life and feelings, and of being given the opportunity to ask questions at least introduces an element of personal familiarity with the issue which would otherwise be completely absent for the majority of students. 



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