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Talking About the T in LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender)

How can science centers and museums become more welcoming and safe places for members of the transgender community? Frieda E. Smith, head of finance and operations and senior consultant at data2insight, and Kaden Borseth, director of teen and family programs at Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Atlanta, explored this question along with attendees in an ASTC 2016 session on Monday morning.

At the beginning of the session, Borseth shared a resource called the Genderbread Person, which helps to illustrate the differences between biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and romantic or sexual attraction. Biological sex refers to the anatomy a person is born with—male, female, or intersex. Gender identity is the sense of gender that every person feels inside and can be girl/woman, boy/man, transgender, nonconforming, or an infinite number of other possibilities. Gender expression is a person’s presentation as feminine, masculine, or androgynous. Cisgender is when all these things line up in a traditional gender binary model, but many people do not fit into these boxes. Someone who is transgender has a gender identity or expression that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Who a person is attracted to is not part of gender identity or expression but is categorized separately as sexual orientation.

Transgender people identify in many ways, some of which include

  • Man, transgender man, trans man, trans guy, female to male, FTM
  • Woman, transgender woman, trans woman, trans girl, male to female, MTF
  • Genderqueer
  • Nonbinary
  • Cross-dresser
  • Gender nonconforming.

Borseth pointed out that the word “transsexual” is outdated and offensive to many trans people, though not all. Borseth also encouraged attendees to ask people what terms and pronouns they prefer. (Borseth identifies as a trans man and prefers to use the pronouns “they” or “he.”)

Teresa Aldrich, senior educator, community science, at Saint Louis Science Center, Missouri, shared her experiences (via video) of being the parent of a child who is transgender. “One thing I would really like for science centers to have is unisex restrooms, or even just family restrooms where anybody can go in,” she said. She also encouraged science centers to treat all visitors with kindness and respect. “From a selfish standpoint, science centers should be polite to people if you want them to come back. From an unselfish standpoint, you don’t want to hurt their feelings—it’s just not the nice thing to do,” she said.

Borseth shared the story of their journey as a trans man and emphasized that “every trans person you meet might be totally different.” They continued, “My mission by telling my story is to create an open environment, to help you be more aware of trans issues and bring that back to your science center to help the trans community.”

Smith, an ally to the trans community, shared some responses from her interviews with six trans people, ages 16 to 65. Here are some of the “most important takeaway[s]” the respondents wanted to share:

  • “People are who they say they are when they say it. It’s important to respect people as themselves.”
  • “None of us ‘choose’ this . . . The only choice is to live as our genuine selves.”
  • “We need some understanding. If you choose not to proactively help in any way, just refrain from being an impediment. Please don’t get in the way and make it any harder than it already is.”
  • “Try to support someone. Just because you don’t understand doesn’t mean you can’t learn and ask and be there for them. Even just listening . . . can really help. And it’s OK to ask questions.”

During the presentations and subsequent large group discussion, the following advice emerged for science centers and museums looking to create safe and welcoming environment for trans employees and visitors:

  • Ask people about their preferred terms and pronouns. Don’t single people out—instead, you might ask everyone in a group to write their preferred gender pronoun along with their name on a nametag. Do not ask questions about a person’s surgical status, their life before transition, when they will begin transitioning, or why they dress, talk, or act a certain way.
  • Provide gender-neutral bathrooms in your science center. If you already have single-person bathrooms, this can be a simple matter of changing signs. Advertise that you have gender-neutral bathrooms on your museum maps and in your community.
  • Add “gender identity and expression” to your science center’s nondiscrimination policy.
  • Make sure your health insurance accommodates the needs of trans people, including hormone therapy, surgery, and counseling. In many cases, this coverage can be added easily with a minimal increase in costs.
  • Provide training for staff and establish a diversity group.
  • Use gender-neutral language on signs and forms and in conversation at the museum. For example, ask a child, “Where’s your adult?” rather than “Where are your mom and dad?”
  • On camp forms, ask for campers’ preferred pronouns. If you ask about gender on a form, use “boy” or “girl”; don’t use “male” or “female” as choices as these refer to biological sex, not gender.
  • Don’t segregate classes and camps by gender, or if you do have a girls’ camp, accept everyone who is interested, even if they don’t look like a girl to you.

Additional resources are available in ASTC’s Advocates for Diversity Community of Practice.