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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

7 Words to Know When Helping Transgender Students

By Peter DeWitt — July 22, 2015 4 min read

A few years ago I did my doctoral work in how well school leaders safeguard LGBTQ students. From the guidance of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) I learned that students were coming out at a younger age, which meant issues would arise during the school day. When students come out, which means disclosing their sexual orientation, there are many things that can happen. The first, is a natural conversation among friends about when the student first knew they were gay.

After that, the natural progression usually goes to whether the parents know, and then the unfortunate side of the discussion which is when bullying occurs. Middle school and part of high school is filled with storm and stress, and unlike adults, our students only experience is within their K-12 education. High school is like a tunnel to walk through before going to more open territory where they have more control over their lives.

One of the issues that always comes up when talking about LGBTQ students is that many teachers and leaders do not know how to address when it all happens. What do they say? Is it a case of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Where students can be gay but school officials prefer that students do not talk about it. One of the easiest ways to begin the process of acceptance is through the common language that staff and leaders use in school.

Fast forward five years and now the conversations begin to turn toward transgender students. A recent Human Rights Campaign (HRC) study showed,

The data, collected for HRC by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, shows that 22 percent of likely voters surveyed reported that they personally know or work with a transgender person, up from 17 percent who said they did in a similar poll last year. And knowing a transgender person translates powerfully into positive impressions: 66 percent of those who said they know a transgender person expressed favorable feelings toward them, compared with 13 percent who did not -- a net favorability of 53 percentage points.

Whether we are talking about LGBTQ or just the T, it goes back to the common language used in schools, and the New York State Education Department (NYSED) wants to help guide schools through what can be a difficult transition. NYSED put out guidance for schools around the topic of transgender students, which is covered under the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA).

Transgender Students

The Guidance by the New York State Education Department opens with,

New York State Education Law § 3201-a prohibits discrimination based on sex with respect to admission into or inclusion in courses of instruction and athletic teams in public schools. Furthermore, DASA specifically provides that "no student shall be subjected to harassment or bullying by employees or students on school property or at a school function; nor shall any student be subjected to discrimination based on a person's actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender (including gender identity or expression), or sex by school employees or students on school property or at a school function." DASA includes gender as a protected category and defines gender as "a person's actual or perceived sex and includes a person's gender identity or expression."

The guidance, which you can read in its entirety here, goes on the say,

Additionally, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice have stated that under Title IX, "discrimination based on a person's gender identity, a person's transgender status, or a person's nonconformity to sex stereotypes constitutes discrimination based on sex" and asserted a significant interest in ensuring that all students, including transgender students, have the opportunity to learn in an environment free of sex discrimination in public schools.

Teachers and leaders often look for better ways to engage with marginalized populations, and don’t always know where to start. Common language is often the best place to begin when working with students in any marginalized group. If teachers and leaders know the terms, it can help build a bridge for better communication.

A few years ago when I was doing my doctoral research on the topic of how well school leaders safeguard LGBTQ students (2010), I found that very few school leaders used the word “Transgender.” The Transgender community is more prevalent in society due to increasing numbers of people going through transition, the mainstream media and increased awareness through popular reality and dramatic television shows. School leaders may want to educate themselves on the common language that surrounds the transgender community. The NY State Education Department’s guidance provides definitions for the common language that is used by the community. That common language is,


  • Cisgender: an adjective describing a person whose gender identity corresponds to their assigned sex at birth.
  • Gender expression: the manner in which a person represents or expresses gender to others, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, activities, voice, or mannerisms.
  • Gender identity: a person’s gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth. Everyone has a gender identity.
  • Gender nonconforming (GNC): a term used to describe people whose gender expression differs from stereotypic expectations. The terms “gender variant” or “gender atypical” are also used. Gender nonconforming individuals may identify as male, female, some combination of both, or neither.
  • Sexual Orientation: a person’s emotional and sexual attraction to other people based on the gender of the other person. Sexual orientation is not the same as gender identity. Not all transgender youth identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and not all gay, lesbian and bisexual youth display gender-nonconforming characteristics.
  • Transgender: an adjective describing a person whose gender identity does not correspond to their assigned sex at birth.
  • Transition: the process by which a person socially and/or physically aligns their gender expression more closely to their actual gender identity and away from that associated with their assigned sex at birth.

In the End

Regardless of how people feel about the LGBTQ community or the transgender community, the reality is that students are transitioning during high school. We still have many schools where the LGBTQ community is not fully engaged and often abused, so with young people transitioning there is now more pressure on schools to, at least, educate themselves on why it happens. If a student transitions during their school career other students and parents will take notice. For a leader not to prepare to have some sort of dialogue is sort of like putting their heads in the sand and hoping for it all to go away.

The recent guidance from the NY State Education Department seems helpful, and it certainly applies some pressure to schools across the state that are already still grappling with DASA in the first place. It will be interesting to see how school leaders move forward.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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