This week, #45 rolled back federal protections that allowed transgender students to use school facilities in accordance with their gender identity. Now, 45 had said during his campaign that he was not interested in repealing Obama’s executive order on this issue, but it appears that he was quite easily swayed by his cabinet. And even though this rule had only applied to public schools, it was not Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who wanted to roll back protections for transgender students.
It was Jeff Sessions. It has been reported that Sessions teamed up with Trump to bully DeVos into going along with this repeal, and I am apt to believe it. Sessions has a long record of transmisogyny: he voted NO on the Violence Against Women Act because it extended protections to women in same-sex relationships, immigrants, and Native Americans; voted NO on adding LGBTQ status to the definition of hate crimes; has voted multiple times to limit the rights of LGBTQ couples; and co-sponsored a bill allowing business owners to discriminate (as long as they claim that God told them to).
“If this isn’t a new law, and most kids aren’t trans… then what’s the big deal?”
Firstly, this was not really about bathrooms. The policies Obama had laid out weren’t just about bathroom and locker room use. It also provided guidelines that strengthened protections against all forms of sexual harassment and discrimination, discouraged deadnaming and other forms of erasure, and protected transgender students from being “outed” against their will by school officials.
We cis folks often focus on the bathroom thing because we’re still conditioned to equate gender with genitalia, but that’s not what transgender students care about most. What mattered was that by publicly stating “You can use your real name and the facilities that match your gender identity,” President Obama had told millions of children and teens, “your gender is valid. We believe you. We trust you to make this choice for yourself.”
Now we have a president, the Attorney General, and a Secretary of Education all saying “we don’t even trust you to take a shit in the right place.” How can we possibly hope to convey caring for students when we rob them of the most basic bodily autonomy? How can we possibly convince a trans child that we will believe them when they tell us they’re afraid, or that we will protect them from harm? School administrators and teachers aren’t supposed to pick and choose which students we will take care of. If we are going to claim to care about our students, then we have to care about all students.
Secondly, the fact that Sessions was able to get DeVos to withdraw her disagreements so quickly shows that she will not be any kind of advocate for our students. A change in federal education policy cannot happen without the approval of the Secretary of Education. This one order is enough to show me that those of us who are invested in education must remain vigilant and prepared to disobey new policies that will hurt our kids.
Finally, this policy change has menacing implications: any enforcement of the laws that protect kids with disabilities or other special needs, students of color, religious minorities, or immigrant students, falls entirely on the Department of Justice. Sessions does not believe in Inclusion. He believes students with disabilities are too distracting to belong in the regular classroom. He is a well-documented bigot (he is, in fact, so racist that Reagan-era Alabamians would not appoint him a judgeship), and I sincerely believe that he will use his position to demoralize, criminalize, and lock up as many of our students as he can. Sessions is starting with protections for transgender students because it’s easy (it was an EO, not a law), and because he thinks most of us aren’t going to fight back.
So what do we do?
STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!
If you are a teacher (including retired teachers) or a parent of a student, you have power to improve the school community for gender minority students, as well as LGB students and girls. There are wonderful resources out there for teachers, principals, and parents that provide guidelines for talking about transgender issues with students and concerned adults, curricula on gender norms and gender inclusion, and model school policies that protect and empower trans kids. I’ll list them at the end of this post so you can get a comprehensive look, but for now, here are my highlights.
In The Classroom:
- Put a Safe Space sticker on your door, make a sign with a message of solidarity for a number of marginalized groups, and/or hang trans and queer pride flags along with flags for your state, country, and the countries of origin represented in your class
- Post a list of resources for students who feel unsafe, are struggling with their identity, or are in crisis. Some national resources include:
- Trans Lifeline, (877) 565-8860
- The Trevor Project, 1-866-488-7386 (you can even request a poster for your classroom)
- HopeLine, 1-800-442-HOPE
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- The Trans in the South toolkit
- RAINN (The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network)
- National Runaway Safeline
- Planned Parenthood
- Provide information about scholarships and mentoring opportunities for LGBTQ youth
- Include trans people in narratives about historical and current events. If you’re doing a unit on diseases in science class, teach them about Dr. Alan Hart. Learning about the civil war? Include Albert Cashier in a discussion of soldiers’ experiences. Include books by trans authors in your curriculum and/or class library. Talk about news stories involving transgender rights in your current events lessons.
- Teach the Gender Unicorn as part of your health curriculum (or just because kids asked) – it’s appropriate for kids of all ages!
- Teach “trans grammar” in Language Arts class – this includes the appropriate terminology (transgender instead of transgendered, gender affirmation surgery instead of sex change operation), how to write about a trans person, and advice on the singular they and other gender-neutral pronouns.
- Have a gender-neutral day
- Answer students’ questions about gender and sexual identity honestly. If you don’t know how to answer a question, say so: “That’s a really good question. I don’t know enough to give you a complete answer. Let’s see if we can find a good resource on that.”
- If a student is trans, out to their parents, and struggling to do well in school, talk with their family about the possibility of getting a 504 or IEP. Many students struggling with gender identity also struggle with emotional and mental health problems which negatively impact their academic performance. If a trans child’s mental health is causing a serious drop in grades over a long period of time, the student may qualify for special education services under an Emotional Behavioral Disability or Other Health Impairment designation. This is obviously only appropriate on a case-by-case basis as many individuals would find the assessment process or a special ed. label stigmatizing. That said, because an IEP is a legal document, you can use it to improve the school environment to meet the needs of your transgender student. An IEP can require that a student have access to gender neutral/gender affirming facilities, that their chosen name be the official name on their documentation, make accommodations for side effects of medications, and more.
- Trans students who do not qualify for special education can still benefit from a Gender Transition Plan
In Your School
- Offer to advise a Gay-Straight Alliance or other LGBTQ+Allies group at your school
- Offer to organize a Professional Development workshop on gender identity, barriers transgender students face, and queer-inclusive language for the teachers and staff at the school. Ensure that the person or organization who does the actual workshop uses research-based practices and is led by transgender folks.
- Have an assembly that talks about the mental and emotional health of students questioning their sexual or gender identity, signs that a child/teen is in crisis, and ways students can take care of each other. The Trevor Project has a video and materials you can use for this.
- Work with a group of stake-holders — teachers, support staff, kids, parents, volunteers — to petition for an anti-bullying policy that explicitly includes protections for trans students. (And in the meantime, check on how they protect kids with disabilities, students of color, girls, and religious minorities)
- As part of a group, ask your school’s principal to allow students to use the gendered facilities of their choice. Encourage the principal to set the policy now, without waiting for a student to demand it (this is safer for the student and probably lower risk for the principal)
- If and when your school creates a gender support policy, offer to help facilitate a discussion with parents about the new policy as part of the next Family Night, PTA/O meeting, or Open House
- Give students free access to gender-neutral bathrooms if they are available (these are also the most appropriate option for students with disabilities who need assistance)
- Are you on a teacher recruitment committee or otherwise involved in hiring new school staff? Make it a point to share job openings with transgender support organizations, as trans folks are far more likely to face workplace discrimination and live without permanent housing.
In Your Home and Neighborhood:
- Learn about the challenges and barriers transgender individuals face. Violence is a real threat that trans kids face every day – from romantic partners, police, and peers – not to mention homelessness and suicidal ideation. When we understand these risks, we understand why our trans students may be afraid, and we can be more sensitive and supportive in our allyship.
- Learn the warning signs of depression, suicidal feelings, eating disorders, and abuse – all of these are more common in trans youth
- Raise your kids to be inclusive and affirming of all people, regardless of their gender identity or expression. Last week’s blog discussed queer parenting at length, and there are some great books to help, too.
- Join a transgender rights advocacy group to learn more about the ways you can push for better policy at the city, state, regional, and national level
For more information on how to support our beloved transgender and gender non-conforming kids, check out the following resources:
- Gender Spectrum’s Schools In Transition
- Sample Policy from the California Safe Schools Coalition
- GLSEN’s Model School District Policy
- Trans Student Educational Resources
- Welcoming Schools, a Human Rights Campaign project