School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center

Transgender Students Need Adult Support in School. Is It Slipping?

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 17, 2021 6 min read
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Acceptance and support from teachers and administrators can be crucial to transgender students’ mental health and engagement in school, but there are signs that a backlash against these students has deepened since the pandemic.

Transgender students, who make up nearly 1 in 50 U.S. high school students, have been among the most isolated groups during the pandemic, and they returned to campus this year amid a new wave of anti-transgender legislation. While before the pandemic, proposed and enacted legislative restrictions focused on students’ use of single-sex facilities like restrooms, more than 90 bills introduced in the last few years have focused on limiting their participation in single-sex sports and extracurricular activities.

A new, nationally representative survey suggests these ongoing debates may be eroding support for transgender students among the adults at their schools. In the survey conducted in October and November, less than 41 percent of educators and school and district administrators told the EdWeek Research Center that transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom or locker room that aligns with the gender with which they identify, as opposed to the sex assigned at birth. That’s down from 51 percent of these key school staff members who said they supported transgender students in an EdWeek Research Center survey in 2017, during the first wave of so-called “bathroom bills.”

More than 59 percent of school staff respondents in the October EdWeek Research Center survey said students should use restrooms and locker rooms aligned with the sex identified at birth. The Northeast was the only region where a majority of school staff supported transgender students using the school restrooms and locker rooms aligned to their current identified gender.

Nationwide, more than 70 percent of adults in schools located in rural areas and towns said transgender students should be required to use the school restrooms and locker rooms aligned with the sex identified at birth, compared to 40 percent of urban school staff.

Also, 52 percent of respondents nationwide told Education Week that they would support fellow educators who are “out” as gay, lesbian, or bisexual to their students and colleagues, down from 55 percent in 2017.

Even when district policies support transgender students, individual teachers vary considerably in how they behave toward them. Loudon County, Va., public schools, for example, settled a lawsuit this week to reinstate an elementary school gym teacher who was suspended for refusing to acknowledge a transgender student’s chosen pronouns. Teachers and librarians in Texas and other states have also ended up on both sides of conservative efforts to ban books that include references to LGBT children or issues.

“We are politically in a moment of time where trans and nonbinary people—particularly trans and nonbinary youth—are under attack,” said Caitlin Clark, a senior research associate for GLSEN, a national advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth. “A lot of the focus has understandably been on fighting really awful policies and legislation that harm trans youth. But I think it’s also important that we don’t forget that while, yes, we need to put this energy into fighting the bad stuff, we also need to put energy into identifying the positive things that can help improve schools and fight for them also: inclusive curriculum, comprehensive trans- and nonbinary-inclusive policies, and professional development to create more LGBTQ and specifically trans- and nonbinary-supportive educators.”

More than 1 in 3 educators told Education Week they thought that LGBTQ students felt “somewhat” to “extremely” uncomfortable in their schools in 2020—a higher percentage than for immigrant or racial minority students. The GLSEN analysis finds more than 77 percent of transgender students and more than 69 percent of nonbinary students reported facing discrimination at school, versus about 46 percent of their cisgender peers. And this year, the Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, also found a majority of LGBTQ students in middle and high school reported being bullied, whether in-person or online during remote schooling.

“The pandemic has created somewhat contradictory school experiences” for LGBTQ students, said Deborah Levine, the director of the LGBTYouthLink, which provides online support and education for students. “For some youth, not being in school was actually a relief because they were not having to encounter the bullying or harassment or discrimination that they had experienced [in person], and they had opportunities to access other youth online,” she said. “Others lost their opportunity to connect because school was the only place they felt supported. But many schools stopped or curtailed their [gay student association] activities along with other extracurriculars.”

Educator support boosts belonging

Educators’ and administrators’ attitudes make a big difference in transgender students’ mental health and feelings of safety and belonging at school, the GLSEN study found. While more than 53 percent of transgender students with supportive school staff reported feeling they belonged in school, that was the case for only 18 percent of those without staff support. That is to say that having staff support made a bigger difference than even having anti-bullying policies that addressed transgender students.

School leaders can do a lot to improve transgender students’ sense of belonging simply by including them more explicitly in school policies and discussions. For example:

  • While most transgender students feel they can find at least one supportive adult at their schools, only about 2 in 5 reported their administrators support them.
  • A majority of transgender and nonbinary students told GLSEN that their school had a general anti-bullying policy, but less than 15 percent said their school’s anti-bullying policy explicitly barred harassment based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
  • Only 12.5 percent of transgender students reported in the same study that their school has specific protections for them, such as allowing students to go by their chosen name and pronoun and use the facilities aligned with their gender identity.
  • About 17 percent of transgender students in the GLSEN study reported they had been taught anything positive about transgender students or other LGBTQ students during any of their classes. (Similarly, only a little more than a third of administrators in the EdWeek survey said their school covers gender and sexual identity issues in health or sex education, though it is one of the most common topics that students reported that they wished their schools covered.)

“The hundreds of thousands of transgender and non-binary youth living all over the country thrive when they are affirmed in who they are and welcomed as full members of their school communities,” said Jamie Bruesehoff, the education campaign director for the Chicago-based GenderCool Project, which advocates for transgender students’ engagement in school and sports. “This all has become even more important since the pandemic. Students need community. They need connection.”

The group has launched an initiative, Play It Out, to increase educators’ awareness of transgender students’ engagement in school sports and activities.

Alex Harwin, Research Analyst contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2021 edition of Education Week as Transgender Students Need Adult Support In School. Is It Slipping?

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