Equity & Diversity Opinion

Trans Youth Are Under Attack. Educators Must Step Up

Anti-trans legislation across the country has been targeting trans children this year
By Harper B. Keenan & Z Nicolazzo — April 08, 2021 4 min read
A butterfly lands on balanced stones in front of tranquil waters and a sunset

We are both trans scholars who have devoted our careers in the field of education to schools and universities. For us, schools have been invaluable sites of learning, community building, and imagining how we might cultivate a more just and equitable world. It is for that reason we are profoundly concerned by the recent increase of political attacks on trans children. Although trans people have become far more visible than ever before, hypervisibility without systems of support and protection has made us vulnerable.

Most trans people experience extreme hostility in public life. In a 2015 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 77 percent of trans people reported being harassed in K-12 schools. One in 4 trans people reported being physically attacked at school, and more than 1 in 10 reported being sexually assaulted.

These conditions have severe consequences: Seventeen percent of trans students reported leaving their school because of mistreatment. To us, and to most educators, it is clear that schools are not adequately meeting the needs of trans and gender-nonconforming youth. We can and must do better.

Yet just since January, more than 100 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country. Most of them target youth. The focus of these bills varies: Some ban or criminalize trans health care (in the midst of a pandemic, no less); some prohibit teaching in schools about trans people and related topics; some mandate educators to disclose a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents without the child’s consent. Half the bills forbid trans youth from participating in school sports based on their gender identity.

One bill in Minnesota goes so far as to make trans girls’ participation in girls’ sports a petty misdemeanor, a crime on the same level as fifth-degree assault. The rapid spread of this legislation is largely due to coordination by far-right political organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It’s crucial to note here that many of these bills particularly target trans girls. Although this coordinated attack creates dangerous conditions for all trans people, it does so largely by suggesting that trans girls are not who they say they are—that they are predators invading women’s spaces.

When adults frame a group of children as predators, it puts those children at risk. This is a violation of our most fundamental responsibilities as educators and as adults. The demonization of trans girls has serious consequences, especially when combined with racist attitudes. Trans women and girls face extreme and disproportionate levels of physical and sexual violence, especially trans women and girls of color, who made up an estimated 79 percent of the known trans murder victims in 2020. Overall, trans women and girls of color are among those most targeted for violence in the United States. Unless our society intervenes to better support trans girls—particularly trans girls of color—this pattern of violence and harm will be reflected in our nation’s schools.

These anti-trans bills do not represent the public schools we want for young people, whether they are trans or not.

These anti-trans bills do not represent the public schools we want for young people, whether they are trans or not. We want schools where all young people learn how to play together and share public space without antagonism from adults or their peers. We want schools that are less invested in policing children’s bodies and identities and more focused on listening carefully to children in order to respond to their basic learning needs and overall well-being. These are simple, attainable goals.

Together with our colleague Kevin Kumashiro (the former dean of the University of San Francisco School of Education), we wrote an open letter calling on the Biden administration to support trans youth and school employees in the face of these coordinated attacks. We shared it during the week of action to commemorate Trans Day of Visibility, March 31, and the letter was signed by more than 17,000 educators and educational scholars in just five days. We were heartened by this remarkable demonstration of support from our colleagues, which shows that there is widespread support for trans youth from educators across the United States. Still, there is more work to do to ensure that support translates into concrete action.

To paraphrase our colleague Jules Gill-Peterson, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, we want schools that embrace the possibility that a trans childhood can be a happy and beautiful one. In our letter, we suggest key ways that schools can begin to better support trans youth and school employees: expanding access to trans-inclusive school support services and employee health insurance, providing equal access to all school activities and facilities, and implementing trans-competent school records and information systems.

Although our open letter is addressed to the Biden administration, we hope that teachers, families, and school leaders will also advocate these changes within their local school districts. Together, we can create schools that care for trans youth rather than ones that treat their existence as a matter of political debate.


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