Gender identity has increasingly entered the national conversation. After centuries of oppression, trans and gender non-conforming individuals continue to fight for visibility and civil rights. As activists work to open minds and change cultural perceptions toward gender-expansive individuals, it is vital that schools start these conversations during early education.
According to GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, almost 90 percent of trans students face verbal harassment in school environments. Bullying can interfere with the ability of gender-expansive students to attend, learn and perform well in school and can have drastic consequences for their mental, emotional and physical health. Creating school spaces where gender-expansive students can have safe access to education and where all students develop empathy, understanding, and acceptance for people of all gender identities is an integral step toward equality.
Despite this reality, many in the United States still push back against this type of inclusive education. Here are three vital reasons schools must address gender identity.
Help children lacking home support
As new initiatives to address gender have begun to proliferate in schools, there has been some pushback from parents and community members claiming such education is a parental responsibility. However, leaving such vital education in the hands of parents is a mistake.
First, gender-expansive children may find themselves with unsupportive parents and therefore lack the resources or understanding they need to fully express themselves. In the worst cases, they may face bullying or rejection from their parents, which can be hugely detrimental, especially without information in school to put parents’ discriminatory views in context.
Second, parents of cisgender children may not think to address the topic at home, leaving students ill-prepared to interact empathetically and respectfully with trans or gender-expansive classmates.
In the United States, parental tactics cannot typically be enforced by law. School environments are where legal protections for children can take place. Therefore, education that seeks to protect and create inclusive, empathetic spaces for children can act as a bulwark against outdated or prejudiced parental beliefs.
Letter of law
At times, the law can be another vital reason that schools must address gender identity. As mentioned, familial values are for the most part unregulated. But there are some protections that require schools create safe, harassment-free learning environments for all students. In those cases, regardless of their personal views, teachers and administrators have a legal responsibility to address school cultures that discriminate against gender-expansive students. Included in those laws previously, was Title IX. This federal law, as a part of the Education Amendment Acts of 1972, strictly prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal money. The Education Department made clear in 2014 that this also applies to issues of gender identity.
However, in 2017, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education rescinded guidance on the rights of transgender students, claiming that these issues are best solved on the state and local level. This reversal also lifted requirements that schools allow students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia have state laws that specifically protect transgender students in public schools from harassment and/or discrimination. Some of these states have additional guidance that gets more specific on matters of gender discrimination and bullying in regards to private schools and religious institutions.
Schools that do not take active measures to create gender-inclusive cultures create environments rife for bullying. Fostering inclusive environments is required by law to stop the prevention of trans students from receiving their legally protected right to unobstructed education.
Cultivate empathy, critical thinking
Introducing students to the concept of gender fluidity from an early age helps cultivate critical thinking and empathy skills that can make them more humane citizens. Fluency in gender politics teaches students that societal divisions, labels, and categories are constructs that impede many from access to basic human rights. An ability to critically think about arbitrary societal categories can also contribute to a greater understanding of other social injustices and oppression connected to race, class, and country of origin.
American schools are an avenue for socialization. Behavior and points of view modeled and overtly expressed as acceptable to children beginning in elementary school help shape overall cultural values as they grow into informed citizens.
If you are an educator, there are a variety of tactics and interventions you can spearhead to make your school environment inclusive of gender-expansive students. USC Rossier’s online ME in School Counseling program has developed a toolkit for schools to improve gender practices. Tactics include giving students the opportunity to anonymously submit feedback about their experiences, creating safety plans for gender-expansive students that may include alternate bathroom accommodations or adjusting names and genders in school rosters, and addressing large-scale practices that contribute to narrow understandings of gender such as exercises that divide students into boy and girl groups, or athletic school spirit events that pit girls against boys. Teachers should also work to address their own biases that can impede their ability to create a safe environment for all students.
Expanding sex education programs to address the complexities of gender identity is vital both to equip students with the ability to understand, label and contextualize their own experiences and to cultivate empathy for those with different experiences and identities.
Alexis Anderson is a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U, Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs.