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March 25, 2021

Shifting the Climate for Transgender and Non-Binary Students

An affirming school is one of the most important protective factors for transgender and non-binary students.
Equity
School Culture
Having affirming schools—where students spend most of their time—is one of the most important protective factors for transgender and non-binary students. A welcoming place to learn is second only to an affirming family—and when transgender and non-binary students do not feel supported within their home life, access to an affirming school becomes an even more crucial bridge to their survival and long-term resilience. Through our work at The Transgender Training Institute, we work with schools across the United States to provide safer, more supportive school environments for transgender and non-binary students.
Unfortunately, in far too many schools, transgender and non-binary students are fighting for basic rights, such as the right to safe access of bathrooms or locker rooms, the right to learn in bully-free classrooms, and the right to engage socially with peers without fear for their physical or emotional well-being. In schools that do not provide harassment-free bathroom and locker room access, transgender and non-binary students face significantly higher rates of sexual assault (Murchinson, et al 2019). Nearly 45 percent of transgender and non-binary students have actively considered suicide in the last year (compared to 16 percent of cisgender students) and 27 percent feared for their personal safety at school (Johns et al., 2019). As noted in GLSEN's Harsh Realities report, this lack of safety leads to almost half of all transgender and non-binary students skipping school at least once a month.


Even as protections and rights for transgender and non-binary people advance, we are increasingly targeted by those who do not want us to exist. As of March 2021, out of the 108 newly introduced bills targeting LGBTQ people, 71 specifically target transgender and non-binary people, 62 of which are students. We have to assume that young people are seeing and internalizing the negative messages from these targeted attacks, which puts their identities and lives are on the line.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the risks for the transgender and non-binary students who are already in vulnerable and tenuous positions with non-affirming families. The move to virtual schooling has decreased students' access to their affirming peers and supportive adults, and the limited physical separation from families does not allow as much space for these youth to be or express their authentic selves. In instances where young people's online access is closely monitored or they don't have access at all, they are being cut off from very necessary social supports.

Create a School Climate for All

It's essential to make sure all staff have what they need to offer transgender and nonbinary students a solid foundation of unequivocal support. The Williams Institute estimates that about 1 in 137 young people identifies as transgender or non-binary (2017). In a school of 562 students, there will be about four students who are transgender or non-binary surrounded by 558 cisgender students. That means cisgender students (as well as the cisgender faculty and staff) hold a tremendous amount of power. Unless all members of a school community have the information, awareness, and skills to affirm their peers, transgender and non-binary students will feel the brunt of that ignorance. In particular, transgender and non-binary students who hold multiple marginalized identities—especially those who are BIPOC—will face the greatest challenges in equitable education access.
As the world becomes more affirming, today's students will be expected to engage respectfully with transgender and non-binary people in social settings and workplaces. Thankfully, schools are well prepared to be part of the solution help the community learn.
Here are some opportunities to consider:
  • Start with names and pronouns. A welcoming educational space includes using students' affirming name and pronouns consistently and respectfully in all school settings, modeling and normalizing pronouns use in online handles, usernames, and chats, having necessary policies in place for current students and alumni to request name and gender marker changes in school databases and systems, and respecting students' right to privacy about their gender identity and journey.
  • Provide professional development training around for all faculty and staff. Training should better prepare staff to identify and intervene in instances of targeted bullying and proactively anticipate the needs of these students, such as support for negotiating swim class, giving students access to safe, and if requested, private bathrooms and locker rooms, creating trans-inclusive sex ed, or having counselors who can help to identify trans-affirming colleges. A school is only as affirming as its least affirming person.
  • Include trans topics and history across the curriculum. All students should have the opportunity learn about the lives and contributions of transgender and non-binary people. For example, teach about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson in history, Leslie Feinberg's organizing work in social studies, indigenous two-spirit singer Shawnee Kish in music class, Janet Mock in film, or Paul Gauguin's representation of the mahu in art history.
  • Intentionally hire transgender and non-binary faculty and staff members (and make sure that they are visibly respected and affirmed by fellow faculty and staff.) One of the things that makes me most nervous for transgender and non-binary students today is their isolation from transgender and non-binary adults who are living our lives and thriving. Much of the media coverage about transgender and non-binary people centers on political battles and the severity of discrimination and abuse. Without access to what actress Laverne Cox refers to as 'possibility models', transgender and non-binary students are left to their own devices to imagine their futures. Young people need to see and engage with transgender and non-binary adults in day-to-day life to be able to envision positive outcomes for their own lives.
  • Invite transgender and non-binary guest speakers into the classroom. For events like Career Day, extend invitations to transgender and non-binary people in the community to come and talk about their careers. Including guests who can speak about their experiences in the workplace as transgender and non-binary people within the context of their career paths and successes will help better prepare all students to engage in affirming workplaces. These experiences can be helpful for the learning of all students, particularly to raise compassion for others whose lives are different than their own.

Shifting from Surviving to Thriving

Young people are terrified about their ability to survive in this world, and rightly so. I have stopped counting the number of young people I have had tell me that I am the first transgender adult that they have seen who is happy. This statement breaks my heart every time. We have to provide opportunities for hopeful visions for the future. We can, and must, do better. By intentionally building school cultures that are affirming for transgender and non-binary students, we invest in an educational experience that benefits students of all genders, and better prepares them for the world beyond K–12 classrooms.
References

Herman, J.L., Flores, A.R., Brown, T.N.T., Wilson, B.D.M., & Conron, K.J. (2017). Age of individuals who identify as transgender in the United States. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.

Johns, M.M., Lowry, R., Andrzejewski, J., et al. (2019). Transgender identity and experiences of violence victimization, substance use, suicide risk, and sexual risk behaviors among high school students — 19 states and large urban school districts, 2017. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly, 68, 67–71. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6803a3

Murchison, G.R., Agénor, M., Reisner, S.L., and Watson, R.J. (June 2019). School restroom and locker room restrictions and sexual assault risk among transgender youth. Pediatrics, 143(6), 1–10. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-2902

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