Providing Hope: Transgender Youth in an Age of Uncertainty

The following article is offered by Green Comma as a discussion resource primarily for secondary school educators as well as for student use in grades 9–12 classrooms and in freshmen college classrooms.

The principal writer is Michele Dow, a transgender woman and doctoral student in Educational Leadership at Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. Michele’s dissertation is the first academic study of transgender educators in the United States. She recently presented her findings at the Translating Identity Conference in Burlington, VT.

Green Comma’s managing director, Amit Shah, wrote the introduction.

All opinions are the writers’ own.

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INTRODUCTION

Last year, Green Comma published “Is It Only About Bathrooms”, that cited a 2017 statistic about the number of transgender youth in public schools — Education Week says 150,000. The number of adults is estimated at 1.4 million.

The number of transgender youth being harassed and discriminated against in schools is a much more difficult measure since statistics are usually bundled with LGBT youth as a group. They are startling enough as this report that sampled over 290 trans youth in middle and high school shows.

There are a number of laws on the books that can safeguard the rights of transgender individuals in schools. Below is a list taken from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) website.

“What Are My Rights at School?”

“Title IX is a federal law that makes sex discrimination illegal in most schools. Most courts who have looked at the issue have said that this includes discrimination against someone because they are transgender or because they don’t meet gender-related stereotypes or expectations. Several other federal and state laws also protect transgender students. Here are some of the rights you have under these laws:

· You have the right to be treated according to your gender identity. That’s true even if you haven’t done things like changing your ID or getting medical treatment, and your school cannot require you to show proof of these things in order to have your gender respected.

· You have the right to be called by the name and pronouns that match your gender identity. Sometimes people make an honest mistake, but teachers and school staff aren’t allowed to call you by the wrong name or pronouns on purpose even after you tell them how you want to be called.

· You have the right not to be bullied or harassed because you are transgender or gender non-conforming. If school administrators know that you’re being bullied or harassed, they have to take action to end it.

· You have the right to use restrooms and locker rooms that match your gender identity, and you can’t be forced to use separate facilities. If you feel safer or more comfortable using a private space, or if you’d like to use a separate space for a short period of time, you can request that — but your school can’t force you or pressure you into using a separate restroom or locker room if you don’t want to.

· You have the right to get the same opportunities to learn and participate in school life as anyone else, no matter your gender, including your gender identity or expression, or your race, nationality, or disability. This includes not being punished because you are transgender or gender non-conforming and being allowed to participate in school activities and events.

· You have the right to dress and present yourself according to your gender identity. This includes how you dress at school every day as well as for dances, graduation, and other school events. You need to follow general dress code rules that apply to all students, but your school has to let you follow those rules in a way that matches your gender identity.

· You have the right to protect your privacy and choose who you tell or don’t tell about being transgender. If you want to keep that information private, your school must make sure that things like your transgender status, your former name, or your medical history are kept as confidential as possible.

· You have the right to join or start an LGBT student club like a GSA or Pride Alliance. Your school isn’t allowed to ban LGBT student groups or treat those groups differently than other student groups.”

So, what’s needed more than ever before is advocacy. Adults in society who will ensure that those rights and laws are enforced without discrimination and with empathy.

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TRANSGENDER: An adjective, often abbreviated as “trans”, describing a person whose gender identity is different from that traditionally associated with the gender they were thought to be when they were born. A transgender girl is a girl who was thought to be male when she was born. A transgender boy is a boy who was thought to be female when he was born. Some transgender people have a gender that is neither male nor female and may use terms like non-binary or gender non-conforming to describe their gender.

School Climate for Transgender Youth

For transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) youth, the world is becoming more and more a very hostile place. While dealing with the normal angst of youth, transgender and GNC youth have the additional burden of society’s disapproval at a time when they most need reassurance and support.

These are the statistics according to the 2017 GLSEN National School Climate Survey:

It’s important to remember that the data gathered from the 2017 School Climate Survey of LGBTQ youth represent the climate in 2016, which was appreciably better than it is now. Still, 8 in 10 LGBTQ youth reported being bullied or harassed at school because of their gender identity or expression. Almost half of transgender and gender non-conforming youth were forbidden from using the bathroom or locker room conforming to their gender identity.

The latest tactic of the Trump administration is to propose redefining gender as conforming with one’s “genitalia at birth.” In effect, this definition would erase the experiences of today’s transgender and gender non-conforming youth in the eyes of the current administration.

Transgender Students of Color

For transgender students of color, the environment is even more hostile. At a conference held on November 8, 2018 at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C., national education leaders met to discuss the additional burdens of LGBTQ students of color. One transgender student of color said,

“Although I identify as a trans, gender-nonconforming boy, my identity is rooted in a racist and binary system that is not made for me. To truly feel liberated, I cannot be confined by the gender binary, which means I’m constantly pushing back against white gender norms. To support me in school, educators and my fellow students must fight all ways white supremacy shows up in our lives. Because only through dismantling white supremacy can we destroy systems like the gender binary.”

In listening to the stories of transgender students of color, we begin to grasp the notion of intersectionality, the idea that one’s transgender identity is deeply intertwined with who we are in terms of race, gender identity, gender expression, socioeconomic class, the geographic region where we live, and many other characteristics, some spoken, some not.

White transgender people are constantly pushing back against the default assumption of heterosexual norms, but transgender and gender non-conforming people of color also face default assumptions on many other levels.

GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey showed that while roughly half of LGBTQ youth felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation (60%) or gender expression (45%), the majority of LGBTQ youth of color also reported feeling unsafe because of their race or ethnicity, compared with less than 1% of white LGBTQ students. Furthermore, the NSCS also found that Black/African American LGBTQ students were more likely than their peers to experience out-of-school suspension or expulsion.

Political Activism

However, even with the latest bad news from the federal government, today’s youth are not giving up. Nearly 4 in 5 trans/GNC students are politically active.

And strong state laws and policies continue to be the vanguard for transgender youth and transgender adults. Recently, Massachusetts became the first state to have as a ballot question whether to continue to have public accommodations provisions permitting transgender people to use places such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms according to their gender identity, and the citizens voted overwhelmingly (68% Yes) to keep those provisions of the state’s existing anti-discrimination law in place and protect their transgender neighbors and friends. This crucial vote came after two years of attacks on transgender rights and makes history as the first-ever statewide popular vote in support of transgender people.

GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey revealed the extent to which LGBTQ students are leaders in social and political organizing, including leading gay-straight alliance (GSA) clubs in thousands of schools across the country. GLSEN’s research showed that 80% of LGBTQ students advocated for social or political change during the past year, such as by participating in GLSEN’s Day of Silence, Ally Week or No Name-Calling Week, expressing political or social views on social media, or directly participating in a political event or contacting their elected official.

Transgender Role Models

Compared with gay youth, transgender youth even less frequently see themselves represented in the curriculum or in media. That is slowly changing, at least in terms of TV shows about trans youth, although such shows are still quite rare. For example, Nicole Maines, a transgender woman from Portland, Maine, was recently given the role of Nia Nal on the CW series “Supergirl,” making her the first transgender female superhero. Jazz Jennings, a transgender woman from Florida, stars in the TLC reality series “I am Jazz.” Jazz is also a transgender-rights activist. And, finally, the FX network series “Pose” portrays the transgender ballroom scene in New York City in the 1980s and is the first series to have transgender actors portraying transgender roles. “Pose” is directed by a transgender woman, Janet Mock. These portrayals of transgender characters have all occurred within the last ten years.

How School Leaders Can Address Transgender Student Issues

Emphasize shared values. Instead of jumping directly to restroom use, our starting point should be the core values that we share when it comes to education, schools and students. First, we remind people that this is about what every student deserves — the opportunity to learn, succeed, and prepare for their future.

Every student deserves a fair chance to succeed in school and prepare for their future — including students who are transgender. Every student should be treated fairly and equally under the law, and protecting transgender students helps ensure that they have the same opportunity as their classmates to fully participate in school.

Second, we emphasize that every student deserves to be safe at school and to learn in an environment free from bullying and harassment, and that it is the responsibility of schools to provide that safe environment where students can learn and thrive. Our schools should strive to protect all students from bullying, discrimination and mistreatment, including those who are transgender.

Once this framework has been established, we can then focus more specifically on transgender students.

A Note on Language

Part of understanding transgender youth is recognizing the importance of gender pronouns. Learn more by exploring GLSEN’s pronoun resource, and offer pronoun buttons to make your school more trans-inclusive. You can also download and print pronoun stickers (he, she, they, blank) on Avery 5390 labels. Transgender and gender nonconforming youth may use different words to describe their lives and experiences of gender. Terminology and language can differ based on region, language, race or ethnicity, age, culture, and many other factors. Some examples of terms used by some youth include trans, trans girl, trans boy, non-binary, genderqueer, gender fluid, and Two Spirit. These terms often mean different things or refer to different experiences of gender. School staff members and educators should use the terms that students use to describe themselves and avoid terms that make these students uncomfortable.

Model District Policy

The GLSEN website (glsen.org) has a Model District Policy on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students, which outlines best practices for schools to ensure that all students are safe, included and respected in school, regardless of their gender identity or expression — including transgender and gender nonconforming students. The model presents some policy objectives, key points and alternatives to consider. It is meant to be adaptable to the specific needs of your school district, while keeping the original intent of the policy intact. Go to GLSEN.org to download the Model District Policy.

Transgender students in schools with supportive transgender policies were less likely to report being prevented from using restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identity, using and being addressed by their correct names and preferred pronouns, and wearing clothing appropriate to their gender identity. They were also less likely to experience other forms of discrimination.

Call to Action

According to Eliza Byard, GLSEN Executive Director,

“The time for action is now. Years of progress for LGBTQ students is in jeopardy, and the compounded systemic barriers facing LGBTQ students of color continue to deny them access to the education and opportunities they deserve. Amidst our current challenges, however, there is good news. Research and experience clearly indicate the school-based interventions that make a difference for LGBTQ students of color. And LGBTQ students of color themselves are ready to forge ahead, if we can eliminate the barriers, listen as they lead, and share the support and resources necessary to do the work. The question is not whether we can make things better, but whether administrators, educators, policy-makers, and school communities themselves will come together to get the job done.”

References

Movement Advancement Project, GLSEN, and National Center for Transgender Equality. September 2018. “Transgender Youth in Schools.” http://www.lgbtmap.org/file/Infographic-Trans-Youth-FINAL.pdf.

Movement Advancement Project. January 2017. “Talking About Transgender Students & School Access.” Talking About Messaging Series. http://www.lgbtmap.org/talking-about-transgender-students-school-facilities-access.
 
 Movement Advancement Project. “Equality Maps: Safe Schools. “ http://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/safe_school_laws.