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Discussing Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Identity and Issues

Why Should We Teach Children About Transgender People and Issues?

In order to provide a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students, it is important to discuss transgender and gender non-conforming identity and issues in schools and classrooms.

Bullying is an important issue in our nation’s schools. Bullying and harassment of all kinds disproportionately impact LGBT students and in particular, gender non-conforming students in the younger grades and transgender students in the older grades.

Effects of Bullying and Harassment of Elementary Students

In the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) survey, Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States, they report that elementary students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are more likely than others to say they are:

  • 56% vs. 33% called names, made fun of or bullied in school.
  • 42% vs. 61% less likely to feel very safe at school.
  • 35% vs. 15% likely to report that they sometimes do not want to go to school because they feel unsafe or afraid there.

Effects of Bullying and Harassment of Older Students

For older students who are transgender, GLSEN’s Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation's Schools reports:

  • 90% of transgender students heard derogatory remarks (homophobic language and negative remarks about gender expression) sometimes, often or frequently in school
  • 90% of transgender students heard negative remarks about someone’s gender; expression sometimes, often, or frequently in school;
  • 89% of transgender students are verbally harassed (called names or threatened) in school;
  • 55% of transgender students have been physically harassed (pushed or shoved) in school; and
  • almost half of all transgender students have skipped a class or a day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.

The Need for Discussion in Schools

The more opportunities transgender students have to discuss LGBT issues in school, the more likely they are to feel part of their school community, and transgender students who are “out” to most or all students and staff report a greater sense of belonging. It is interesting to note that most transgender students have talked with a teacher or a school-based mental health professional in the past year about LGBT-related issues.

This makes a strong case for the importance of discussing these issues in the classroom as well as preparing yourself for having one-on-one conversations with students. It is important on two levels: to build understanding and empathy among all the students about transgender identity and issues and to help transgender and gender non-conforming students feel more comfortable in school and develop positive self-esteem. Helping all students to be more knowledgeable, understanding and empathic serves all of us in creating safe, welcoming and more humane schools and communities.

Familiarizing yourself with and teaching about transgender issues may be initially difficult or uncomfortable. Therefore, we are providing the following resources, guidelines and ideas to help you navigate this process.

Prepare for the Discussions

If you are going to discuss LGBT issues—and specifically transgender identity—in your classroom, it is important you prepare yourself, your classroom, and the school administration and adult family members for those conversations.

Prepare Yourself

Prepare yourself by learning about transgender identity and issues. Become familiar with the terminology and read background information about transgender people. Useful information is provided herein and in the “Resources on Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming related Issues” section.

Prepare Your Classroom

Given the absence of this topic in the curriculum and the disproportionate rates of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment, it is important to educate students about transgender people and issues. When discussing any new or sensitive topic, however, there is the potential for some students to react in stereotypical or disrespectful ways. It is therefore critical that educators carefully review the lesson or topic at hand, assess students’ maturity and readiness to engage in the lesson prior to teaching and establish clear parameters with students that will ensure safe and constructive dialogue. (See “Establishing a Safe Learning Environment” and “Creating an Anti-Bias Learning Environment” for guidelines on building safe forums for discussing sensitive issues.)

Prepare Your School Administration and Adult Family Members

Communicate with your school administration (dean, principal, assistant principal) and make sure they know in advance what you will be talking about and the materials you are using. Most states (although not all) allow teachers to discuss LGBT people and issues in their classes. However, a teacher who feels comfortable talking about gay or lesbian identity may not feel as comfortable discussing transgender identity. This is due, in part, to a lack of knowledge and experience. For the reasons discussed earlier, it is important not to leave out transgender people in our LGBT conversations.

Legislation and School Guidelines

Increasingly, schools are working to protect transgender students from harassment and discrimination. In Know Your Rights: Transgender People and the Law, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia have state laws and/or policies specifically protecting transgender students in public schools from harassment and/or discrimination. In 2013, California enacted the first comprehensive statewide law (Assembly Bill 1266) to protect transgender students’ right “to participate in sex-segregated programs, activities and facilities” based on their self-perception, regardless of their birth gender. In 2014, the New York City Public Schools instituted a set of comprehensive Transgender Student Guidelines.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights states that transgender students are protected from discrimination on the basis of Title IX, confirming that transgender students are, indeed, protected by the federal legislation’s prohibition discrimination on the basis of sex. They said, “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity and OCR accepts such complaints for investigation.” For further clarification see The Advocate article “U.S. Department of Education Extends Protections to Trans Students.”

The best and most comprehensive laws, policies and guidelines focus on three areas: (1) harassment and bullying of transgender and gender non-conforming students, (2) dealing with gender-segregated spaces in school such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and line formations, and (3) dealing with records and rules such as names/pronouns, official records, identification, privacy and dress codes.

Find out if your school, district or state has such a policy and if not, work to institute one. GLSEN and NCTE have published a Model District Policy on Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students that is useful to read.

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