Do Schools Really Need to be Safe Spaces for Queer Kids?

What’s really happening in those school buildings, anyway?

Danni Michaeli, MD
Prism & Pen
5 min readJan 27, 2023

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Photo by Marek Pospíšil on Unsplash

Years ago, I studied with a group developing protocols for helping transgender individuals pursuing gender affirming treatment, mostly adults. I never felt comfortable with that role. I never understood why a transgender person needed 6 months of therapy or more before starting treatment while a woman wanting any sized breast enlargement or a man wanting pectoral, bicep and butt implants could work privately with a surgeon of their choice.

It was the trans thing.

The trans thing was still newish, and was making its way through the medical and mental health establishment and society at large, people trying to make sense of these powerful cross-gender impulses. The trans thing followed years of the gay thing, but essentially, they’re the same thing. Boys acting like girls, girls acting like boys. Meanwhile, men taking steroids and women undergoing cosmetic surgery was all cool as long as everyone stayed in their gender lanes.

We’ve made so much progress in this area over the years, but we’re still relating to the trans thing as a separate category of self-expression, now creating earthquakes in our schools.

This past weekend, a friend sent me an article from The New York Times about middle and high school trans kids who, unbeknownst to their angry and frustrated parents, socially transition in schools where they’re accepted and validated. My friend’s comment: “Wow, I’m really torn on this.” Like me, my friend is a gay parent of young children, and although he believes in supporting queer kids and having them be accepted, he felt uncomfortable that this might go on behind his back with his own kids someday. In the words of one parent from The Times article:

“It should have been a decision we made as a family.”

If a Jewish boy decides one day to stop wearing his yarmulka at school, should the school inform the parents? What about a muslim girl who removes her hijab? If a boy begins holding hands with another boy between classes, is this a statement of life altering proportions? It was for me.

When I came out to my parents, they also wanted to make it a family decision. It wasn’t. Had I been in high school, would it have been appropriate for my teacher to call my parents about it before I came out to them myself. Of course not, regardless of whether that upset them or not.

Schools aren’t just safe spaces for kids, they’re places for them to take risks as well. The narrative around this process where kids come out at school before they do at home is being told through the lens of safety, but really it should be through the lens of appropriate risk. When teenagers leave for school each day, they’re starting their journey of individuation. They have to take risks in order to become independent, unique adults. That process will often be messy and sometimes ugly and painful. It sort of sucks, but it’s also OK. All the kids at school are going through a version of the same thing, and in some way, they all understand each other using a secret language we adults have long forgotten.

Sometimes schools will actually be less safe for kids than their homes, less accepting, which makes it even more confusing for supportive parents who are invited late for the party. Parents feel marginalized because their kids are actually marginalizing them. That’s a normal and ultimately necessary part of adolescent development. The media conversation, promoted by a polarizing political movement, seems to have distorted this dynamic to be about schools vs parents. Don’t be fooled by that.

As a shrink, I’ve counseled lots of families over the years, but personally, I’ve also welcomed several foster and foreign exchange kids into my home. I learned a lot from those years.

We think we can promote good, open communication about many complicated topics with our kids, but there’s a lot of normal stuff that young people get into that will just be too scary for us. It’s normal for them, it’s scary for us. That disparity leads to a lot of messed up communication between parents and kids, regardless of how understanding we think we are.

I was a pretty easy kid growing up: good student, nice guy, lots of friends, minimal substance use, all good stuff. My parents and I fought all the time anyway. They wanted me to act safer and more responsibly. I wanted to try new, unpredictable things and act more selfishly. They couldn’t understand that. They truly valued independence for me, but wanted control as well.

My parents didn’t really get me and didn’t like a lot of things they did get. Again, normal stuff for the time, but different from their generation. My clothes, my music, my friends. Talking, if you could even call it that, led to a lot of judgment and criticism. The fighting and resentment actually magnified the disparities between us. I mostly wanted to avoid it all. And all this happened years before I came out. This is typical stuff happening in kitchens and living rooms everywhere.

While the hierarchy separating parents and kids has shrunk over the generations, each is still coming from a different vantage point. Kids have to take risks, parents have to protect them (or think they do). Everyone is anxious and confused, so the talking gets messed up.

Parents understand the past, they don’t really get the future. New trends, new possibilities, new technologies, they don’t mean anything to us, and we don’t need them. We’ve already got our lives. The future is weird for us grown ups.

Something I never appreciated before becoming a parent is that having kids means being afraid all the time. In one way or another, we’re always worried about our kids’ well-being. Parents have to accept that; we won’t be prepared for each new iteration of worry. The trans thing has now entered the mix. Schools can’t protect parents from whatever anxiety that inspires in us any more than they can protect kids from feeling insecure about expressing their unique identity, whatever that uniqueness looks like.

Young people trying new, unfamiliar things, that’s a driver of change in the universe. Each generation lives better because of it. My life has improved tremendously because of those changes. So as hard and scary as it may be some days, we need to embrace that process, not fight against it.

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Danni Michaeli, MD
Prism & Pen

A psychiatrist and a dreamer, I'm always listening for the magic and wondering what we're all doing here.....