Equity & Diversity Opinion

Understanding Transgender in Our Schools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 24, 2013 3 min read
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The Wall Street Journal hosted an opinion piece entitled “Make Way for Transgender High School.” The author, a lawyer, James P. Ehrard, begins by referencing a new law in Massachusetts entitled “An Act Relative to Gender Identity.” He explains that the state’s antidiscrimination statute now added “gender identity” to what he calls “far better known terms like “race,” religion,” “sex, and “national origin.” His tone is palpable as he continues, “Now the absurdity has come to the fore with the Massachusetts Department of Education’s directives for the treatment of transgendered public-school students under the law.” His tone continues, “Under the order of the guidelines, a 16-year-old high-school junior who believes he is a girl has the right to use the girls bathroom and locker room.”

In the midst of the response to this piece, was Peter DeWitt’s March 13 blog about transgender students. He quoted conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly who observed, “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.”

We’d like to thank O’Reilly for raising the complexity of a school leader’s role. He allows us to illustrate the levels of moral courage and insight of a Delphic oracle required to do this job. Certainly school leaders are a reflection of the entire population. Among us are those who are accepting and inclusive by nature and those who do not understand being gay or lesbian let alone transgender. But, all of them work in an environment where Bill O’Reilly and others who have the luxury of making pronouncements and judgments without responsibility for the child as an individual set the stage for our work.

Our best and worst held societal beliefs have played out in public schools. We are the mixing pot of the future. Unlike churches or clubs or political parties, it is in public schools where everyone comes as who they are and hopes to find a place at the table of our democracy. And how it happens lies in the hands of the teachers and the leaders who deal with students everyday. So, yes, Mr. O’Reilly there are often times of great confusion in the developmental lives of children and for transgender children it is so much more complicated.

Ehrard’s conclusion that transgender students will have more rights and privileges than their classmates is the most obvious demonstration of his misunderstanding of the issue - especially when it is an issue facing students in our schools. However, we must be prepared to face ignorance or insensitivity or differing religious beliefs as we make decisions that guide schools and impact children. The challenge for some, regarding gay and transgender people can spring from a lack of understanding or familiarity. It has not been without hard work, education, and legislation that we have moved as a nation from believing these are choices, or preferences to understanding these are much deeper issues of identity. As public school teachers and leaders we have made a commitment to teach every child who walks through our doors regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, talent or sexual orientation. Is the fear that if we continue to accept gay, lesbian, and transgender students, we are encouraging more?

In truth most of us may be uncertain the first day a boy comes to class dressed as a girl. We must be willing to work through our immediate responses with questions of our own. Then, we prepare the school environment with information. We ask, and demand, that every child’s right to love and dignity preside over all. Then, we go to the door and say, “Welcome.”

Over our shoulders that day will be those leaders who faced newness before us and fought the hard fights to make us, as members of this widely diverse nation, whole and equal. Yes, change plays out on the front page and in op ed pieces and on radio talk shows. We are at its center. These are not easy jobs. Let us hold true to making the tough choices, stop marginalizing those who may be different from us. Let us come together to make schools safe for girls, for boys, for those who are different by race or religion or ethnicity or sexual orientation. What we want for our own child, let us want for every child. That is how we lead.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.