The first transgender person to be featured on the cover of Time magazine was actress Laverne Cox in 2014. This is often referred to as the “transgender tipping point” in America, when society really started paying attention to conversations around gender identity. While transgender and nonbinary people have existed throughout history, we have reached a point where addressing gender identity in schools is essential. Visibility brings celebration and recognition, though it has also brought targeted violence and discrimination. I was so excited when this issue hit the newsstands, I remember thinking, “Wow, we really made it. Are they ready?”
A few months after Cox was featured on the cover of Time magazine, Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl from Ohio, killed herself. I remember the cold shock when I learned this tragic news. I ran a gender identity support group at the time for transgender and nonbinary youth at the local LGBTQ youth drop-in center, where I heard similar stories of pain and anguish in the group spaces.
In early 2015, Blake Brockington, a black transgender youth, killed himself in North Carolina. Brockington was strong in his faith and advocated for transgender rights and racial justice. He did not ignore the other aspects of his identity that systemic oppression impacted. Brockington’s last words online were, “I am so exhausted.”
Up to that point, nothing had prepared me for what was to come. Month after month from 2014 through 2016, I learned of more transgender youth dying by suicide. Six young people in my county died in that time frame—three of whom I worked with. Was I ready?
Today’s young people are growing and learning through digital resources at their fingertips—which is both awesome and terrifying. I realized quickly that they moved at a pace I was not keeping up with. My strategies were built around finding out what resources they did not have access to and helping them advocate for the tools they need to survive. Transgender and nonbinary youth are brilliant in advocacy work—they know what their needs are, and when they find the power of their voice, it is the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed. They are ready.
How Schools Can Help
Schools must be ready, and luckily there are many organizations and people committed to this work to help facilitate, implement, and build with school administrators. I am proud to work with GLSEN (formerly the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting inclusivity for all LGBTQ people in K–12 schools. GLSEN has been collecting data from student reporting since 1999, giving them a 20-year span of LGBTQ student experiences in schools. This research shows that inclusive schools provide opportunities for all students, including transgender and nonbinary students, to excel in safety and support. GLSEN’s “2017 National School Climate Survey” reports that transgender and nonbinary students experience more hostile school climates than their cisgender LGBQ peers and are more likely to drop out and not attend class because of feeling unsafe at school. Further, though we’d previously seen gradual improvement in school climate for LGBTQ youth in the last 20 years, in 2017 we saw this progress leveling off. More concerning, we saw things get worse regarding issues of gender and gender expression. Specifically, negative remarks about transgender people, gender expression-based verbal harassment, and school staff making negative remarks about gender expression all increased in 2017. The following recommendations and tools can help you make sure your school is inclusive of transgender and nonbinary students:
- Understand the terminology. Review the Trans Language Primer at www.translanguageprimer.org to familiarize yourself with definitions and concepts. GLSEN’s Gender Triangle is another resource that can help with gender identity and navigating inclusion.
- Review local and federal policy. Policies that affirm transgender students and promote educational attainment, health, and well-being are urgently needed. Familiarize yourself with policies at the federal, state, and local levels, and advocate for laws and policies that will protect the rights of LGBTQ students to attend a safe and affirming school. GLSEN advocates for states to adopt LGBTQ-enumerated antibullying and antiharassment laws and nondiscrimination laws that protect LGBTQ students, and for state athletic associations to adopt transgender-inclusive athletic policies. Visit www.glsen.org/policy for informational tools such as maps, policy guidance, and best practices to help educators and administrators implement inclusive policies and practices.
- Navigate coming out and transitioning at school. GLSEN’s Back-to-School Guide for Educators provides a resource for students with valuable information and insight into what students are preparing for when they come back to school from break. Whenever a student shares their identity with me, I always thank them for trusting me to share something important about themselves and ask if there are other people who know about their identity. Student support should not be the responsibility of one person—all students deserve collective care from classroom teachers, school staff, parents and guardians, and peers. Identifying staff, family members, and peers who are supportive will delegate the support the student may need throughout the day.
For restroom and locker room facilities, an alarming number of transgender and nonbinary students feel unsafe—46.5 percent reported being forced to use the incorrect restroom, according to the “2017 National School Climate Survey.” To help students acclimate to the restroom space, I go with the school official to make sure the rooms are cleared out and give the student the chance to tour the facility alone so they can become familiar with the space. Identify someone in the student’s physical education class who uses the same locker room to pair the student with, i.e., a buddy, and make sure that staff do a walk-through or make an announcement about the space being safe for all students, and emphasize that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated.
- Change name and gender markers. Allowing students to change their name or gender in the school system is important to transgender and nonbinary students because it honors their identity and protects them from possible disclosure if a student is not out. If a student is transitioning at the school they started at prior to transition, continuing to call them by a name they no longer use has been shown to have significant impact on their ability to learn and engage in the classroom, not to mention their mental health. If your school system is currently not equipped to handle changes, you can make sure educators write the correct name on their rosters and address the student by their chosen name. Set up a meeting with your IT staff to assess your student record system and the time frame for when the option will be available to students. Some school districts have another section that allows the student to use their chosen name at school, while all contact to the student’s family is in their legal name to protect their privacy and safety.
- Respect pronouns. Pronouns honor how a person would like to be referred to when not using their name. We are most exposed to the gender binary of “he” and “she” pronouns. Transgender students who identify as a boy or girl might change their pronouns to reflect their gender. Nonbinary students might use the pronoun “they” in singular form. Besides being the 2019 Word of the Year by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “they” pronouns have been used to neutralize the gender binary. We use singular “they” pronouns often without realizing it, such as situations where we don’t know a person’s gender. For example: “Someone is blocking my car, can you find out who it is and ask them to move it?” Using the singular “they” can take some practice, but an example in a sentence can look like: “I heard Bart Simpson is in your class this year. They are a handful, but I am sure you can teach them a thing or two!” Take proactive steps to make sure you use the correct pronouns for people at your school. Introduce yourself first, and ask what pronouns you can use for someone. For example, “Hi, I am Principal Skinner, I use he/him/his pronouns here at Springfield High School. What is your name, and what pronouns can I use for you here?”
- Protect confidentiality. It is important to remember that not all transgender and nonbinary students are “out” to their families at home. I worked with a large number of transgender youth in the foster care systems and being “out” in their group home was a matter of navigating physical safety. Not all families are supportive, and 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ, according to the Williams Institute. Despite bullying and harassment, school is often the safest place for a student to be their whole self. Educators should not disclose a transgender or nonbinary student’s identity without their consent.
- Let students lead. High school is an opportunity for students to learn how to organize, work with people, and create change. Engaging in advocacy at school is an impactful way for students to participate in creating inclusive schools for everyone. GLSEN supports students organizing Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) with best practices around respect, networking, collaborating, and building support systems. GLSEN also provides resources and materials for day-of-action campaigns such as the Day of Silence, when students take a vow of silence to raise awareness about bullying and harassment LGBTQ students experience at school. By registering their GSAs with GLSEN, schools can receive materials and support in building their campaigns for a safe and inclusive environment.
We Are Ready
Students, educators, families, and community-based organizations are collaborating for inclusive schools. That work should not be done alone. All students deserve to learn in an environment that allows them the opportunity to be creative, innovative, and safe.
a.t. furuya is a nonbinary transgender person of color who has been working with youth for 20 years. They have been featured in The New York Times, ThinkProgress, Mashable, Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, and more for their advocacy work on transgender rights and LGBTQ youth.