Educators: We Must Be Champions for Our Trans Students

Educators: We Must Be Champions for Our Trans Students

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a bully. Unfortunately for trans kids in my state and many others, their bully is loud, obsessed and powerful. Who are they being bullied by? State officials.

In my state of Texas, elected officials seem to have a vendetta against trans youth. During the 2021 legislative session, there were over 50 bills introduced targeting transgender youth participation in sports as well as bans on gender-affirming healthcare. Following the legislative session, Governor Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who provide gender-affirming healthcare to their children for child abuse. Many families with transgender children, especially those who frequently came to the Capitol to testify against these bills, are now political refugees seeking sanctuary in states less hostile to transgender youth.

When Texas’ House Bill (HB) 25 went into effect earlier this year, banning transgender students from participating in K-12 sports, I invited teachers at my middle school to stop by my classroom to help with a project to reaffirm our school’s support for trans students. I gave each teacher a poster with the blue, white and pink colors of the transgender flag, and asked them to finish the sentence: “Trans kids deserve …” (teachers love a good sentence starter).

After making their poster, I asked teachers to hold up their declaration and I took their picture. By displaying the posters and photos of the teachers holding them up along the main hallway, my hope was that our trans students knew that despite what was happening in the state government, our staff and school would affirm and celebrate them.

To be clear, the project was not an opportunity to comment on policy, but instead was designed as a way to send a strong, clear message to our students: We support all of you. While the majority of staff members enthusiastically engaged in the project, some went to great lengths to avoid participating. I watched as a handful of teachers took a longer route back to their classroom or ran past my room. One teacher even said “absolutely not.”

This comment, and the reluctance of some of my colleagues was surprising to me because our principal had gone to great lengths over many years to create inclusive policies and support for LGBTQIA+ students and staff, and our district designated “championing equity” a primary job responsibility of all employees. Despite our school’s commitment to social justice and our district’s prioritization of equity, there were still staff members who were unwilling to voice public support for all students.

A few days later, I was asked to cover for a colleague who needed to step away from the classroom. This teacher is a vehement supporter of her LGBTQIA+ students and has created a classroom environment where students are encouraged and empowered to express their identity. Within five minutes of entering the room, a student waved me over and told me that they were trans. They informed me of the pronouns I should use, and let me know that their name on the attendance sheet didn’t match the name they use with their teachers and friends. As I began to thank them for sharing with me, a boy sitting nearby interrupted and said, “Yeah, and if you make a mistake we’re going to correct you, because there is no room for hate in this classroom.”

I wish all teachers were like this student—using their voice to demand inclusion—because trans kids are under attack.

A Landscape of Discriminatory Policies and Hostile Environments

According to the Human Rights Campaign, this has been the “worst year in recent history for LGBTQ state legislative attacks,” with nearly 40 states introducing 238 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in just the first three months of 2022. To put this into context, that number was just 41 bills in the whole of 2018. The vast majority of these bills target transgender students, and regardless of whether these bills are simply proposed or passed into law, they take a massive toll on all LGBTQIA+ students.

In May 2021, at the peak of the debate over Texas’s HB 25, calls from the state to the national Transgender Lifeline Crisis Center increased 71.6 percent. Data from the Trevor Project revealed that the organization’s suicide prevention hotline experienced similar increases during the 2021 legislative session, with nearly 4,000 transgender and nonbinary youth crisis interactions—a 150 percent increase over the same period in 2020.

During these calls to the Trevor Project, the data also showed transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas repeatedly stated that debates about these laws caused them to feel stress, pursue self-harm and consider suicide. During the floor debate on HB 25, author Representative Valoree Swanson said, “we don’t want to cause harm to anyone.” Despite her rhetoric, Representative Swanson, along with a majority of her colleagues, blocked an amendment to provide funding for mental health support to transgender students impacted by the bill—ignoring quantitative evidence indicating the need for such resources.

It’s not just our state governments that put our transgender and gender-expansive students at risk—school communities are frequently hostile environments for LGBTQIA+ students. A 2019 report administered by GLSEN, an organization working to end discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people in schools, found that 40 percent of Texas LGBTQIA+ students regularly hear teachers make negative comments about gender expression.

Hostility towards transgender and gender-expansive students is a common experience in public schools and according to the GLSEN report, LGBTQIA+ students experience higher rates of verbal and physical harassment in schools, as well as discriminatory school policies. Some of these policies include being prohibited from using a bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, consequences for clothing and accessory choices that defy antiquated gender norms, double standards on public displays of affection that their cisgender and heterosexual peers are not subjected to, as well as disproportionately higher rates of school discipline, which impacts LGBTQIA+ students of color and trans students in particular.

The abhorrent conditions for transgender students in our country require urgent action, and teachers must be at the forefront of that work.

A Playbook for Change

Parents and caregivers entrust us with protecting the health and safety of their children. This responsibility is sacred, transcending the expectations of a traditional occupation. It is my fervent belief that educators have a duty to advocate for the rights and dignity of all students, and that includes trans kids.

So how can we improve conditions for our students?

  • Reform practices and policies in classrooms, schools and districts. This might look like starting the year off with a survey to offer students an opportunity to share about their identity and how they would like to be referred to, rewriting your school’s dress code to be gender-inclusive or joining your district’s equity task force to ensure that all buildings and campuses have a designated gender-neutral bathroom accessible to students.
  • Testify before your local school board, your state’s board of education and your state legislatures. Advocacy and LGBTQIA+ rights organizations are desperate for teachers to share classroom experiences that might inform policymakers’ decisions. While there are many barriers that prevent educators from engaging in public advocacy, elected officials—many of whom do not have classroom teaching experience—are compelled by powerful stories. Educators have a unique capacity and platform for sharing how proposed legislation will impact students. Even if it seems like a foregone conclusion that a discriminatory policy will be enacted, speaking out in favor of inclusivity builds momentum and sends an important message to your community and your students.
  • Educate colleagues and cisgender students—or even yourself—about the transgender experience. Many cisgender people struggle with affirming trans folks, often because they don’t have close friends who are transgender, and queerness challenges traditional notions of gender and sexuality. Use staff gatherings and hallway conversations with your colleagues to get a pulse check on how your school can improve the way trans students are affirmed and supported. Speak up when you hear a transphobic comment like a concern about “biological advantage” in sports, and use it as a teachable moment to build awareness of the alarming rates of bullying transgender students experience at school. Consider watching a documentary that shares perspectives and experiences from trans people and their families, such as this report from Vice News about how families with trans kids are fleeing Texas.

Taking a Stand, Despite Personal or Religious Conflicts

While I believe that educators have a professional and moral responsibility to affirm and protect trans students, the reality is that not all educators are ready to do so. But across the country, we’re seeing some public figures step up despite perceived conflicts between personal or religious views and supporting the LGBTQIA+ community. These leaders provide a vision for how all educators can support all students.

At a news conference following the shooting at Colorado Springs’ Club Q, Chief of Police Adrian Vasquez began by saying, “We respect all of our community members, including our LGBTQ community. Therefore, we will be identifying the victims by how they identified themselves and how their families have loved and identified them.” He then read the chosen names of each victim, and referred to them by the pronouns they used in their day-to-day life without deadnaming or misgendering them.

Instead of following the pattern of so many other law enforcement officials, who often refer to victims by the name that appears on their legal documents, Chief Vasquez chose to respect the victims and their community, referring to each person in the same way he might have done so for a friend who goes by “Bobby” instead of “Robert,” or correctly pronouncing a colleague’s name with a Spanish or Vietnamese origin. Using someone’s name and pronouns correctly does so much more than show respect; it has a profound impact on the livelihood and well-being of trans people. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that trans youth who are referred to by their chosen name and pronouns experience 71 percent fewer symptoms of severe depression, and a 65 percent decrease in suicide attempts.

Utah’s Republican Governor Spencer Cox, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, provides us with another example of how every individual can support trans youth, even if they hold religious or personal convictions that conflict with LGBTQIA+ identities. Though Mormon church policies “generally characterize same-sex sexual behavior as a transgression punishable by excommunication,” and such guidelines have been interpreted to apply to transgender people, Governor Cox vetoed Utah’s version of a ban on trans kids participating in K-12 sports. In a statement explaining why he vetoed Utah’s version of a ban on trans kids participating in K-12 sports, he explained: “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly.” He knew that this policy would measurably harm trans children, so he put their safety ahead of politics.

In the face of overwhelming violence and vitriol, these leaders serve as a reminder to conflicted educators: Prioritizing the safety of trans kids doesn’t require sacrificing your personal beliefs, but remaining silent will certainly cause harm.

What Trans Kids Deserve

While education is still not a “fundamental right” under the Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment requires that when a state establishes a public school system, all children in that state have the right to equal educational opportunity. Unfortunately, this right is not adequately afforded to our transgender students.

At school, trans kids experience physical and verbal harassment from peers, and regularly hear transphobic comments from teachers. In sports, they are often denied the right to participate. In libraries, books that simply acknowledge that trans people exist are pulled off the shelves. In classrooms, politically-motivated policies from legislatures and state boards of education erase trans people from the curriculum. In states like Texas, many families with transgender children are fleeing their homes to find refuge in states that will protect them.

For the teachers who boldly hang pride flags in your classroom; who speak up during staff meetings; who wear a t-shirt to school that says, “Protect Trans Kids;” who have a “Safe Space” sticker on your door; who include LGBTQIA+ people in your lessons; who continually disrupt the status quo to create more inclusive and affirming spaces for transgender students, know this: You are saving lives.

For everyone else, I ask you this: How would you finish the sentence “Trans kids deserve …”? What would your poster say?

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