Transgender and gender-nonconforming youths have become the focus of conversations across the country. Despite the media attention, most schools have no formal rules around gender inclusion and do not address gender identity in curricula. Because of this, many K-12 educators have difficulty knowing how to begin talking with students about gender identity.
According to a 2016 report by the international organization Human Rights Watch, eight states have laws at the state and local levels that prohibit or limit teachers from discussing LGBT issues in public schools. In other states, parents or administrators who fear repercussions from the community may informally pressure teachers to avoid talking about LGBT issues, and some educators are themselves uncomfortable with the topic. Educators who are able to discuss gender may rely on myths or outdated information to make decisions about their approach.
Such complications arise because teachers and school administrators receive broader mixed messages about how to handle gender-related issues in schools. In 2016, the Obama administration issued guidance requiring schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities. However, when President Donald Trump took office, he quickly reversed the guidelines. LGBT advocates pinned their hopes on the potential U.S. Supreme Court case of Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old transgender boy from Virginia who last year sued his district’s school board over his right to use the boys’ bathroom. But in March, the case was sent back to the lower courts after the court declined to hear it.
These political fights have occurred in the context of overwhelming evidence that LGBT youths are victimized every day in America’s schools. In a 2015 survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 75.8 percent of transgender students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender identity. Transgender students were also more likely than cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual students to be targeted for bullying (“cisgender” means a person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth). Sixty-nine percent of transgender students avoided school bathrooms; 64 percent were verbally harassed; 24.9 percent physically harassed; and 12 percent physically assaulted because of their gender in the 2014-15 school year. Silence on the part of teachers and administrators about LGBT identities can lead to even more stigmatization.
As a psychiatrist working with LGBT teens and adults, this discrimination is especially concerning. I have daily conversations about gender identity and sexuality with students, many of whom say they feel misunderstood. So many myths about LGBT people permeate our culture that students find themselves either constantly trying to educate others or turning inward and disengaging. Luckily, the first step toward ending discrimination is education. Active work by school staff to educate themselves and their students can decrease reliance on misinformation, leading to a more welcoming school culture.
Educators can play a significant role in shaping students’ understandings of themselves, their world, and their place in society."
To improve how they discuss gender with students, it’s important for educators to be aware of five common myths about transgender and gender-nonconforming people:
1. All transgender students want to look like Barbie or Ken. Some media outlets would have us believe that all transgender people want to transition from one end of the gender spectrum to the other. However, young people increasingly describe themselves as “genderqueer” or “gender fluid,” terms used by those who feel they are both genders, neither, or somewhere in between. Though some transgender people are interested in taking hormones and having surgeries, others are not.
2. It’s rude to ask how you should address someone. It’s commonly thought that asking people questions about their gender is inadvertently going to offend them. When these questions are asked sincerely and politely, most transgender people are glad to be asked what pronouns they use—such as she, he, or they—rather than having someone assume and get it wrong.
3. Transgender students are trying to trick others. Transgender students who do not disclose their histories are not attempting to “deceive” others. In reality, most transgender people are simply trying to live healthy and safe lives. Coming out can be a difficult process and involves decisions about how and when it is safe to do so, since those who do are often targets of harassment.
4. Transgender students are mentally ill, and therapy can change them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that LGBT youths have higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse than cisgender youths. However, this is not because they are LGBT, but because they live in a society in which they are discriminated against. The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association have both come out in support of affirmative psychological, medical, and surgical treatment of transgender people. At least nine states now ban “reparative” or “conversion” therapy for minors, because it can be psychologically damaging and has been rejected by medical experts as an ineffective treatment.
5. Laws support transgender students. Although transgender identities are becoming a more visible and accepted part of American life, laws are not keeping pace. There are no federal laws protecting transgender people from discrimination in employment, education, or health care. Since taking office, Trump reversed Obama’s executive order outlawing employment discrimination by federal contractors and signed a new executive order broadening “religious freedom,” which will likely lead to more discrimination. Some gains have been made at municipal and state levels, but we still have far to go.
Though emphasis is often placed on the formal curriculum, much of the impact educators have on students can take place in more casual ways. When talking about history or current events, for instance, a teacher may mention a well-known transgender person or reference a cisgender person who defies gender stereotypes. Discussions like this can place discrimination and activism in a larger context, allowing students to see beyond their classrooms. Similarly, comments by students that demonstrate stereotyping are opportunities for interventions that help the class to explore the weight of gender bias in our society.
In the hallways, the cafeteria, and on sports fields, educators who address homophobia and transphobia can play a significant role in shaping students’ understandings of themselves and their world. Teachers who approach gender-related topics consciously and seek to create safe environments can help with the development of healthy gender identities for all youth.