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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Transgender Students in Our Schools

By Peter DeWitt — March 07, 2013 5 min read
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Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.” President Barack Obama

It was considered a historic speech. Not because of the crowd or because of the dress that First Lady Michelle Obama wore on that cold winter day. It was considered historic because it was the first time a president used the word gay in an inaugural speech.

The LGBT community considered it to be a momentous occasion. Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty wrote, “President Obama on Monday became the first president to use the word “gay” as a reference to sexual orientation in an inaugural address, declaring the movement for equality to be part of the pantheon of America’s great civil rights struggles.”

It’s 2013 and it shouldn’t have taken this long.

To others in the LGBT community it was another example in how their needs have been forgotten. Drew Cordes, a member of the transgender community and a writer for The Bilerico Projectsaid, “President Obama made sure to phrase it “gay brothers and sisters” and NOT use the acronym LGBT. Trans-people left out once again.

You may not care. You may wonder why people always want to be acknowledged. If you feel that way, think to whenever someone may have acknowledged you. Perhaps you are an Italian-American and you feel a sense of pride when someone talks about your heritage. Everyone in the LGBT community wants that same type of recognition.

Many people felt it was a victory because it was a major goal to get a president to acknowledge the LGBT community. Cordes went on to say, “Let’s be sure not to lump us and our goals all together. The concerns of trans-people are not the same as the concerns of gay men and women. So when the president comes out in support of gay men and women (admirably, I might add), don’t identify it as an LGBT victory. It’s an LGB victory. I know a lot of trans people who were less than thrilled by his choice of wording.”

She’s right. Even within a marginalized group like the LGBT community there is marginalization.

In Transition
Recently, Bill O’Reilly made some derogatory remarksabout the transgender community in response to Massachusetts’ new Transgender Equality Laws for their public schools. O’Reilly said,

Here's how insane you are and this whole thing is, and this is truly madness, ladies and gentlemen. You're telling me that a kid can go to a public school in Massachusetts, immediately upon entering the school take off the kid's shirt and put on a dress, go to the girls' room when he's a boy, and then change his name from John to Tiffany. And then after school, put the shirt back on, go home, and he's still John."

People in the transgender community are not looking for everyone to understand their needs, and O’Reilly wouldn’t be the first in the line of understanding anyway, but they are looking for acceptance. It’s not easy to feel as though you were born into the wrong body. It’s not easy to go through years of therapy to make sure you are on the right track when you are thinking of surgery. It’s also not easy to explain to family members and friends that you feel that surgery is the only thing that will make you feel “normal.”

Many educators may ask why this is an issue for schools. Why does everyone in the LGBT community want to be acknowledged (The Modern Family)? Why does it matter? Why can’t everyone just not talk about it and move on?

If you look to our public school system in America, you will see how far yet the LGBT community still has to go, and the transgender community has an even further distance to travel. And there are students who feel as though they are in the wrong body at a young age.

Today's youths are expressing their sexual identity at younger ages, and this self-awareness is bumping up against the pressure among early adolescents to conform to gender and sexuality norms. Attitudes about same-sex sexuality remain less favorable among early adolescents, yet tend to become more favorable as youths mature" (Russell, 2011, p.25).

Acceptance stops at the front door and even tolerance takes a backseat to bullying. And let’s just be honest, these students are bullied and many adults do not care. As the LGBT community fights for gay marriage in society, some LGBT students fight to make it through the day in our nation’s schools.

The adults who work in schools are legally obligated to protect students and if they do not work on their own comfort level with this issue, it will only get worse. LGBT students are not going anywhere and they want acceptance. Many students no longer feel the need to conform, and they shouldn’t be beaten for it.

How do schools meet the needs of students going through transition or questioning their sexuality when many school personnel do not use the words gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender?

How do schools increase their comfort levels?

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not
Dr. Seuss. The Lorax

Many people ignore the T in LGBT. Their seems to be so many people who are uncomfortable with the gay community, that the transgender community is a group they do not understand at all.

At the recent CESCal Conferencein San Diego, there were many transgender students who expressed that they are not safe in their school. They get bullied and many of the adults, who are supposed to protect them, look away because they do not want to get involved. More and more teenagers are coming to grips with being transgender and they are entering schools around the country every day, and they are being abused.

Curran Streett, the Executive Director of the Pride Center in Albany, NY says, “Transgender students are often failed by our education system and are at the highest risk for negative outcomes like dropping out of school, running away and completing suicide. Trends indicate people are coming out as transgender younger and at higher rates than ever before.”

These students often bend gender roles. Some schools are trying to be proactive by implementing curriculum that focuses more on gender fluidity, which is the understanding that boys and girls do not have to abide by gender rules. This clearly requires a shift in thinking for schools.

The adults who work in schools have to separate from their strong beliefs that they have always grown up with, and need to gain an understanding that students do not have to follow the same paths that the adults who teach them had to follow when they were kids. The adults do not have to agree with the students but they do have to protect them. They could even take it a step further by offering a helping hand.

Streett goes on to give the following suggestions to schools. “Be proactive, don’t wait for a transgender student to determine what bathroom a person should use, allow teachers to call students by their preferred name and pronoun without parental consent, and facilitate supports for gender variant students in schools.”

Connect with Peter on Twitter

For more on diversity in the classroom listen to Peter’s interview on the BAM Radio Network.

For more on gender fluid schools listen to Peter’s interview on BAM Radio.

DeWitt, Peter (2012). Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, CA.

For more resources to help with transgender students, please visit the GLSEN website.

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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.