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Putting Books to Work: Transgender Pioneers

By Judith A. Hayn, Jay Cobern, and Laura Langley
 | Oct 12, 2016

Chaz Bono. Martin Gitlin.
Caitlyn Jenner. Carla Mooney.
Lana Wachowski. Jeff Mupua.
Laverne Cox. Erin Staley.
2016. Rosen.

Series Summary

chaz bonoTransgender Pioneers is a four-book series written as short, factual reads that should appeal to teens of all ages. These books, written in a breezy fanzine style, focus on transgender trailblazers who are not only famous in their own right but also have become well known because of their sexual identities, which are different from those with which they were born.

Chaz Bono, the child of superstars Sonny Bono and Cher, grew up as sweet Chastity in the public spotlight and under the scrutinizing glare of the media. His story is told with sensitivity, highlighting the emotional and mental upheavals Chaz undergoes as he transitions into a young man. Bruce Jenner attracted fame and garnered awards, both athletic and monetary, after he claimed the title of World’s Greatest Athlete as the 1976 Summer Olympics decathlon gold medal winner. Contemporary audiences know Jenner as the stepfather of the Kardashian clan through their lucrative foray into the phenomenon of reality TV. Her struggles with her identity now as Caitlyn Jenner have been lifelong, and her transition from one role to another while in the public eye makes for an emotional read.

Lana Wachowski’s transition story weaves through the timeline of her impressive film career and features the challenges she faces with media relations, celebrity status, and family. Laverne Cox’s success as an entertainer gives her a platform for promoting awareness of issues that affect the transgender community while she publically embraces her transgender identity.

These four volumes not only reveal the unique aspects of each transgender celebrity but also detail the differences faced by each; their stories are written with sensitivity and accuracy. Considering the misconceptions and lack of understanding about transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, the series’ biggest impact could be in the factual information about these well-known persons, their private and public agonies and triumphs.

Cross-Curricular Connections: English, health, science, art, social studies

Ideas for Classroom Use

Creating a Visual Biography

laverne coxFor one of the subjects in the series, create a poster or infographic that depicts significant moments in that individual’s life. This might look like a timeline, a web, or a flowchart, but you are not limited to these suggestions. Using the timeline at the end of each biography, write a balanced and succinct summary of the book. Trade with a partner or another set of partners and evaluate using the following questions: Is there anything important that was left out? Is there anything unimportant that could be left out? If you hadn’t read the book, would you understand what the timeline was about? There are several poster creation websites; and PowerPoint offer options.

Group Summarizing

Assign small groups one of the six chapters of any of the books. Each group will form a list of significant events from their chapter on a large sticky note that has been folded in half. From this list, each group will generate a one- or two-sentence summary of the chapter. Groups will rotate, repeat listing and summarizing activities for the next chapter (on the same sheet of paper—bottom half). Groups will rotate once more to read and evaluate peers’ work. Students will then unfold paper and compare the summaries, asking: Is there anything important that one group/both groups left out? Is there anything unimportant that one group/both groups could leave out? Do you understand what the chapter was about? After students have considered these questions, each group will share their findings with the whole class. The teacher will create a list of common strengths of the summaries and areas for improvement that can be posted in the room.

“A Possibility Model”

Laverne Cox draws attention to the statistics of discrimination and violence against the transgender community and promotes open conversations and encourages love and empathy through her “possibility model.” Possibilities grow out of accurate definitions. Have students participate in a team project where team members research a specific aspect of the sexual spectrum, gather reliable information and resources, and present research findings to the rest of the class. Using the data gathered, teams will prepare and come to the next class ready to set up graphic organizers illustrating their understanding at the beginning of the class. Create a gallery walk of organizers and have students prepare an evaluation sheet of the effectiveness of team creations. Several graphic representations of the sexual spectrum appear on the Internet. A reliable source for LGBT Terms and Definitions is found at this link:

Examining Prejudice

caitlyn jennerConduct a Socratic seminar, using the following questions to guide discussion:

  • What is prejudice? What are some reasons why we say people are prejudiced?
  • What do you know about transgender persons? Where did you get your information?
  • What sacrifices did these celebrities make in order to reveal their identities?
  • Do celebrities have a greater obligation to the public in educating us about their transitions? Why or why not?
  • What are our responsibilities in addressing discrimination against transgender individuals?

Developing an Action Plan

The Anti-Defamation League website provides a lesson plan involving videos of transgender teens in the news. After viewing and discussing, have students brainstorm an action plan using the grid provided on the site. Draft a proposal for developing a plan to build a safe and secure environment for all students and begin to implement the plan in your classroom and eventually in the school. This site also provides guidelines for teachers who want to teach sensitive topics but need reassurance and support.

Resources and Additional Recent Children’s/YA Texts With Similar Themes

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. Susan Kuklin. 2015. Candlewick.

Gracefully Grayson. Ami Polonsky. 2014. Disney-Hyperion.

I Am Jazz. Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings. 2014. Dial.

lana wachowskiJacob's New Dress. Sarah Hoffman and Ian Hoffman. 2014. Albert Whitman & Company.

Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition. Katie Rain Hill. 2014. Simon & Schuster Books for Young People.

Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen. Arin Andrews. 2014. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

The Teaching Transgender Toolkit: A Facilitator’s Guide to Increasing Knowledge, Decreasing Prejudice & Building Skills. Eli R. Green and Luca Maurer. 2015. Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes: Out for Health.

Judith A. Hayn is professor of Secondary Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She is a member and past chair of SIGNAL, the Special Interest Group Network on Adolescent Literature of ILA, which focuses on using young adult literature in the classroom. Jay Cobernis an English Education graduate student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Laura Langley is a teacher at Mills High School outside of Little Rock.


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