As the parent of a transgender child, I’m really not surprised by the Department of Health and Human Services’ recently leaked memo. This attempt to define sex in a way that excludes transgender students and would deny them civil rights protections under Title IX merely continues in the same direction as other actions already taken by the Trump administration.
Just one month into Trump’s presidency, the administration rescinded Obama-era Education Department guidance recommending that schools let students use facilities consistent with their gender identity and be referred to by their chosen names and pronouns.
This latest affront against trans people came just a few weeks before Transgender Awareness Week, a time when many trans people and allies like me share resources and our personal stories. We do so in an effort to change the hearts and minds of those who don’t think they’ve ever met a trans person, or who haven’t given much thought about how challenging it can be to live as a trans person in our society.
For years, this week was about being more visible to gain new allies. Now, it feels like we need to beat the drums even louder to let this administration know that the trans community #WontBeErased.
But this week, I also want to offer educators information to increase your awareness of the trans students in your care. You—teachers, principals, paraprofessionals, other school staff—can make or break their educational experience. And yes, it’s up to you.
Did you know that a 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that nearly 3 percent of ninth- and 11th-grade students identify as transgender or gender non-conforming? Statistically speaking, that means you have have trans students in your schools. And no matter what the Trump administration does, time after time courts have affirmed the rights of transgender people to be free from discrimination in health care, housing and schools.
Educator Support for Trans Students Matters
We know that even with case law in place, too many schools and school systems resist creating safe space for trans and gender-nonconforming students. The recent headlines from Achille, Oklahoma, where a transgender girl and her family were forced to move after she received threats over social media, is just one high-profile instance of a case where schools responded too little, too late.
But when educators do step up, students tell us that your support makes a real difference. In GLSEN’s recently released 2017 National School Climate survey, LGBTQ students who knew they had supportive staff in their schools reported feeling more safe, were less likely to miss school because they felt unsafe, had higher GPAs, were more likely to graduate high school and pursue higher education and had a sense of belonging that their peers in schools without supportive staff didn’t.
As little support as some trans students find in their schools, for far too many others, the school environment is the only place they feel they could be open about their identity. One student who participated in Human Rights Campaign’s 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report said, “Being in the closet as trans/non-binary, I’m always scared of my parents finding out or others not accepting me or maybe even not using my preferred pronouns.”
By creating safe spaces for students like Gay-Straight Alliance clubs or just having LGBTQ Safe Space stickers on classroom doors, you can send a message to trans students that they have an ally they can trust, who could possibly even help them have tough conversations with their families.
When Parents Speak and Educators Listen, Trans Students Win
A few students are fortunate to find that awareness and education from their parents will actually make things better at school. When a parent is willing to advocate for their child, to speak at school board meetings in favor of trans-inclusive school policies and to humanize the topic by sharing their personal story of supporting their child, positive change can happen.
On Election Night 2018, that very thing occurred at a school board meeting in Florida. Vanessa Nichols is a mom who spoke about what an inclusive policy would mean for her son. After the meeting, she reported this:
Tonight I saw the worst of humanity, I believe, speaking at the school board meeting. I was accused of child abuse, told that my child is a pedophile, told that he would shoot up the school, amongst a million other things.
The superintendent told me after that because I spoke at September’s meeting and because we had such a positive outcome with how the school handled my son’s coming out process, we were his deciding factor for doing the right thing and implementing these guidelines after a year of sitting on them.
This is why Transgender Awareness Week is so important. Because no matter the political climate, personal stories and relationships matter. We can create change one district, one school, at a time by people who recognize that they don’t need a law to know what is the right thing to do.