How Do We Support and Protect Transgender Youth?

February 27, 2017


Last week, the Trump administration rescinded guidance from a “Dear Colleague” letter that the Obama administration sent to school districts in 2016. The letter, from the Justice and Education Departments, made it clear that they were interpreting Title IX nondiscrimination laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, to include transgender students. The letter stated that every K-12 school district, state education association and high school athletic association in the U.S. “must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity.”

The letter guided schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, in addition to several other practices. The Trump administration’s rescinding of that guidance doesn’t change the law but it unwisely suggests that states and districts may interpret Title IX with more flexibility in how they accommodate transgender students.

In response to this latest action, LGBT, transgender and civil rights organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, harshly criticized the move by the Trump administration.

Many states and local school districts have reaffirmed their commitment to allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice as well as more expansive policies to support them. However, this latest action sends a deeply disturbing message that the federal government is stepping away from its responsibility to transgender students’ health and well-being.

Schools can be a hostile environment for transgender students. Those students report high rates of homophobic remarks, negative comments about gender expression and verbal and physical harassment. They also report little intervention on the part of school personnel when it comes to that treatment. What schools need is more clear and expansive, not more confusing and restrictive, safeguards and supports for transgender students. It is unacceptable that students’ most basic needs to use the bathroom during school may be uncomfortable, unsafe or impossible.

We believe that every school should protect transgender students. Further, schools should be educating the entire student population about transgender people, identity and issues.  Here are ways that schools and educators can fully protect, respect and support all students.

  • Teach. From an early age, introduce all students to the concept of what it means to be transgender through reading some of the wonderful children’s and young adult books available on the topic, by using current events to highlight people and topics relevant to the transgender community and using examples of transgender people in your everyday study of our society and world.
  • Promote Safety. Promote a safe learning environment for all by establishing classroom guidelines at the beginning of the school year and have a periodic check on those. These can include items like students speaking from their own experience, maintaining confidentiality, respecting others, sharing airtime, no name-calling, etc. If you want to have specific discussions around transgender identity and issues, assess the extent to which your students have the maturity and readiness to engage in talking about the topic, re-visit the ground rules and be mindful of and sensitive to the fact that there may be students in your class who are transgender, whether you know it or not.
  • Be an Ally. Be an ally by educating yourself with background information and accurate language about being transgender or gender non-conforming. When interacting with students, don’t make assumptions about them, use correct pronouns and names, and listen without judgment. Be aware that if a young person is out to you, that doesn’t mean they are out to others, including their parents. Therefore, maintain confidentiality and discretion.
  • Intervene. Challenge offensive and derogatory language whenever you hear it. This conveys an important message to all students that it will not be tolerated and it is not okay. This includes off-hand remarks, jokes and transphobic language. Intervene and address it immediately and publicly. If you hear other students standing up to biased language, acknowledge and support them.
  • Create School Policies. Advocate for and help to shape school policies. The most comprehensive laws, policies and guidelines focus on three areas: (1) harassment and bullying of transgender and gender non-conforming students, (2) addressing 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. Use GLSEN’s Model District Policy on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students as a sample framework to consider your own school or district policy.  A listing of all state bullying prevention statutes can be found here.

In these challenging times—especially for transgender youth—educators are on the front lines and can make a positive difference in the lives of one or many young people.