Transgender. The sight of the word can make school leaders, teachers, and parents alike very nervous. The fact remains, however, that there are transgender students on campuses nationwide, which can cause school personnel grave concern. Some estimates reveal that as many as 150,000 gender nonconforming students between the ages of 13- and 17- years-old live in all parts of the country. Quite often, with their limited understanding of what being transgender means, school leadership teams remain uncertain on how to guide teachers, what to tell parents, how to protect their transgender students’ wellbeing, and so forth.
But as society becomes more accepting of the LGBT community and as such persons become more open and visible in our communities, school personnel will undoubtedly encounter youth who embrace being gender nonconforming, which is good reason to understand their unique experiences and needs. In fact, some clinics who specialize in transgender youth are witnessing a growing number who seek medical care.
What is Transgender?
While most school personnel assume that all students come to school with an identity that aligns with their natal sex (i.e., the biological aspects that constitutes being male or female at birth), not all students do. In fact, school personnel can expect that a few students will be transgender; that is, students whose gender identity (i.e., the way persons feel or think about themselves as male or female) does not correspond with the sex noted on their birth certificate. A biological boy may feel he is girl and self-identify as one, for instance, prefer to be called “she,” and adopt a feminine name (e.g., Mary Jane). Similarly, a biological girl may perceive herself to be boy, wants to be referred to as “he,” and ask to be called by a traditionally masculine name, such as Mike. Transgender youth often believe they are trapped in the wrong body, and they behave in gender nonconforming ways (e.g., they may dress in fashions typical of their gender identity).
Keep in mind that because students have unique personalities, transgender students will vary in how they present themselves at school. Some students may demonstrate gender nonconforming behaviors and express themselves accordingly. Others may be less absolute and hide their gender identity because they fear harassment or the repercussions from parents, family, and friends who may not be so understanding. Some students may aspire to transition at school (i.e., present themselves as their gender identity through nonmedical interventions). Others may choose to transition in private settings through the support of loving family members, or simply wait to transition until adulthood. Some students demonstrate gender nonconforming behaviors throughout their lives, while others outgrow it. Some students may report they felt “different” from their natal sex as young as toddlerhood, while others may convey they felt different around puberty.
Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to a spectrum of persons. To keep the term relevant to schools, however, let us consider the transgender population as the students who self-identify and perceive themselves to be a gender that does not align with their natal sex. As such, they behave in ways that do not correspond to the traditional masculine and feminine roles typically associated with their natal sex. They do not have mental abnormalities and they are not confused about their gender identity. They are simply dissatisfied with and distressed over their natal sex.
Until 2010, transgender youth were referred to as having a Gender Identity Disorder according the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But the idea of classifying one’s gender identity as a disorder was interpreted by many to be stigmatizing and demoralizing to transgender persons. Now, the DSM-5 uses “gender dysphoria” to identify persons whose gender identity differs from their biological sex. The American Psychiatric Association explains:
"Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender. People with gender dysphoria may often experience significant distress and/or problems functioning associated with this conflict between the way they feel and think of themselves (referred to as experienced or expressed gender) and their physical or assigned gender. The gender conflict affects people in different ways."
Frequent Victims of Harassment
The reality for transgender students can be a challenging one filled with bouts of adversity and maltreatment. Transgender students are often targets of verbal and physical harassment and assaults. In fact, transgender youth are two to four times more likely to be harassed than their counterparts. As many as 80 percent of the transgender student population in one study was verbally harassed, which was largely attributed to their gender nonconforming behavior and expressions. Almost one out of five encountered such brutal harassment they withdrew from school altogether. And, a smaller percentage (12 percent) of transgender students has been sexually assaulted.
Unsurprisingly, a variety of studies report that transgender students do not feel safe at school. Expectedly, more than half of transgender youth avoid restrooms and locker rooms altogether because they fear for their safety. And in one study, only a quarter of secondary school principals reported they believed that their transgender students would feel safe on their respective campuses.
In May 2016, the Obama administration through the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice released “significant guidance” through a Dear Colleague Letter to address the needs and rights of transgender students. (As a side note, “significant guidance” documents are designed to help school district officials understand how to interpret and follow federal laws. They are the Department of Education’s “current thinking on a topic. They do not create or confer any rights for or on any person and do not impose any requirements beyond those required under applicable law and regulations”).
This federal letter to schools nationwide addressed relevant terminology, compliance with Title IX, privacy and education records, and recommendations, which were largely based on court rulings and best practices for meeting student needs. Essentially, the “significant guidance” to school officials was they should treat transgender students according to their gender identity. When the Trump administration took office, however, the “significant guidance” on transgender students was withdrawn altogether.
Consequently, a transgender student no longer has the advocacy of the U.S. Department of Education or the U.S. Department of Justice through the “significance guidance” document.
Despite the Trump administration roll back, a range of laws and policies exist that legally protect a transgender student and his/her parents, such as the U.S. Constitution, Title IX, and state laws and policies that explicitly protect them. For this reason, transgender students should still be treated according to their gender identity, even when it comes to accessing the restroom of their gender identity. In fact, parents can still hire private attorneys to defend their rights using these laws.
Working with Transgender Students
School leadership teams should consider bringing together school personnel who can work specifically with transgender students and their parents. They can determine the school counselors, social workers, and teachers who are best suited to fulfill a shared understanding of the best ways to support transgender students and affirm their gender identity. The student can also identify a teacher he or she trusts to serve on the team. The team can work through a confidential plan known as a Gender Support Plan to ensure the transgender student’s wellbeing and safety. It outlines critical areas for contemplation: degree of parent/guardian involvement; degree of privacy and disclosure; student safety measures; the specificities associated with adopted name and pronoun usage; use of facilities, participation in extracurricular activities, and other considerations.
The team can also be the first responders on campus who address parents’ concerns (e.g., parents who need help supporting their child transitioning/presenting at school; parents of other students who find the support of transgender students reprehensible; etc.), make recommendations to teachers and staff, and help transgender students work through dilemmas that emerge from their parents’ and peers’ lack of understanding.
The team should never assume that parents know about the child’s gender identity or gender expression, and work closely with the transgender student prior to working with his or her parents, teachers, and peers. Ultimately, the student decides how and when he or she will be recognized on the school campus. No confidential information about the student should be shared with others unless the team has the student’s written consent (see FERPA general guidelines for exceptions).
For transgender students who have the support of the team and decide to participate in school activities in accordance with their gender identity, school personnel should give careful attention to these five recommendations:
1. Treat transgender students according to their gender identity
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Title IX is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.” Consequently, not allowing transgender students to dress and behave according to their gender identity could be interpreted as discrimination based on sex. For this reason, school personnel should always treat transgender students according to their gender identity.
Because the First Amendment guarantees freedoms of religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition, transgender students have the right to dress and express themselves in ways (deemed appropriate) that align with their gender identity, and should be allowed to participate in school activities in accordance with their gender identity even when taking part in athletics, PE, sports, overnight activities, etc. Under no circumstances are the students (or their parents) required to show proof of a mental health diagnosis or medical evaluation to have their gender identity honored by school personnel (24).
2. Allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity
Make no mistake about it, this is a controversial issue. One CBS poll found that only 40 percent of Americans believe that transgender students should be allowed to use the school restrooms of their choice. The rest admit they should only use the restroom of their birth sex. However, for the transgender student, the restroom they use is a meaningful one, and how schools deal with the use of facilities can make a world of difference to the transgender student’s wellbeing.
Allowing them to use the restroom of their gender identity conveys that they are honored for who they are. Forcing them to use the restroom of their sex or to use a separate facility can leave them psychologically distressed and render them socially defamed. In such cases, all children learn that the students’ gender identity is not a legitimate one – not one to be taken seriously, which can leave the transgender student vulnerable to self-destructive behaviors.
For students who express they feel unsafe or uncomfortable using the same restroom that a transgender student uses, they should be reassured that transgender students do not pose a risk to their safety, and that school personnel deliberately monitor restrooms to prevent and address problem behaviors. A separate, private restroom (or dressing area) should be made available to any student who requests them.
3. Address transgender students with their preferred name and use pronouns that correspond with their gender identity
To treat transgender students with dignity, school personnel should ask them in private settings: What is your adopted name that you would like us to use? What pronouns – he or she – would you like us to use when we refer to you? Thereafter, refer to them accordingly even though the student may not have legally changed his or her name. No law requires a legal name change on official school records.
4. Protect transgender students from harassment
Of course, all students should be safeguarded from verbal and physical harassment. However, because transgender students are often targets of maltreatment at the hands of their peers, it is important to explicitly mention gender identity and expression in anti-bullying and harassment policies. Inclusiveness is critical.
All students should know that harassment toward a student based on his or her transgender status or gender nonconforming expressions and behavior will not be tolerated, including but not limited to harassment or assault of any kind; deliberately misusing the correct pronoun when referring to the student; ignoring the student’s request to be referred to his or her adopted name; and asking about the student’s transgender status in disparaging ways. Additionally, the procedures for dealing with harassment should convey that transgender students will be treated honorably.
5. Allow transgender students to start a support club
For secondary students, allow transgender students to create a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar support club if they so express interest. The Equal Access Act is a federal law that requires secondary schools to provide equal access to extracurricular clubs. In short, all student clubs should be treated equally. No club can be banned from meeting if other clubs exist on campus.
The population of transgender students is a vulnerable one that has many challenges and hardships. As transgender students become more visible on campuses nationwide, school personnel will have to become more responsive to their unique needs, work toward mitigating their psychological distresses that emerge from school experiences, and promote a safe school environment that deters hate-motivated behaviors. Indeed, concerted efforts should be made to support transgender students and affirm their gender identity.
A Gender Support Plan and the recommendations outlined above is one step forward to help prevent some social and academic problems from emerging at school, and to help transgender students feel accepted in their learning communities.
David Campos (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of education at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in special education, multicultural education, and instructional design and delivery. He has written books on LGBT youth, childhood health and wellness, and the schooling of Latinos.