Posted on Jul 7, 2016 | 2 comments
I’m in Washington, D. C. today after having delivered the keynote address at the NEA GLBT Caucus dinner, an impressively large event that takes place during the NEA’s national conference each year. It began with 10 teachers a couple of decades ago, and last night more than 940 education professional attended!
Several people introduced themselves to me last night by saying, “I’ve never taken notes during a speech at a dinner before until tonight.” Other’s said they couldn’t write things down quickly enough and asked if I could put the speech online for easy reference. I’m glad it had such a profound impact on the audience.
I did improvise and threw in a few lines that weren’t pre-written and have done my best to add those in here.
Thank you for inviting me to speak with you tonight. When I was first contacted about receiving this honor, I have to admit that I was shocked. First, because as an intense introvert, I always hope that people won’t even notice that I exist and ask me to be on a stage. Second, because we homeschool our kids.
I will honestly tell you, though, that homeschooling was not our first choice. It was more of a necessity. We live in Kansas City, Missouri, where the school district has struggled for decades, eventually losing its accreditation just as our kids were ready to enter kindergarten. Because of the long-standing issue with the schools, a lot of people in the area send their kids to private schools…private Catholic schools.
That was our plan, too. Almost every child who attended the preschool where we sent our kids funneled into one school just a few blocks from our home. Even though we aren’t Catholic, we thought it would be nice for our kids to keep going to school with the friends they had had their entire lives.
But all of that changed when our child, Avery, who was assigned male at birth, was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria during her pre-K year when she was 4-years-old. With that diagnosis and some additional counseling, we decided that it would be best for her to socially transition. Unfortunately, that didn’t go over very well with the parents of her friends who would have also been her future Catholic-school classmates. I’m from the South, and have been a conservative Republican and Southern Baptist my entire life, groups not generally known for being socially progressive. The other parents were proud of me and thought that we were really cool and understanding for allowing our “boy” to break some gender rules, wear pink shoes and pretend to be a princess, but their acceptance stopped when we announced that she would begin living as a girl. With just a couple of months to go until her pre-K graduation, we had to leave the preschool altogether.
At first, we didn’t give up on the idea of her attending school in the fall. We were hoping that time would allow the parents to get used to the idea, and we approached the school about enrolling. The school counselor happened to be a young woman who had worked in the infant room of the preschool a few years earlier. She had been Avery’s teacher. She had changed Avery’s diaper. She knew with certainty what parts Avery had.
She told us that she loved Avery and was thrilled to see how happy she was living as a girl. But she also said that there was no way the administration would ever allow her into the school as a girl, to wear a girl’s uniform, or to use the girl’s bathroom. Long before Republican lawmakers decided to make bathrooms a battleground, we had entered the bathroom wars. As much as this young counselor wanted to help us enroll Avery as a girl, she knew that it could cost her her job.
That’s the day we decided that, even though I knew nothing about how to teach kids, how to choose curriculum, or even what the laws were in our state, we were going to homeschool.
You see, by the time a parent goes into a school looking for support for their transgender child, they’ve been through a lot. They are likely worn out. They have been scared, confused, stressed, overwhelmed, and they just want help. Help for their own peace of mind. Help and reassurance that their child will be welcomed, honored, and protected.
We didn’t get that, and we were running out of fight. We were a year into discovering Avery’s gender identity issues; a year into losing friends and family; a year into being judged by complete strangers; a year into learning the terrifying statistics about discrimination, self-harm and suicide ideation among trans folks; a year in which Avery tried to kill herself by unbuckling her seatbelt and pulling on the car door handle while we were on the highway. We didn’t have the energy to fight a school on her behalf. Our energy was going into keeping her alive.
I could keep going with our story here and tell you more about the struggles we’ve faced in our community. But I’d rather focus instead on telling you what I have learned in the last two years as I’ve worked with schools, and how you can help families like ours in your own school systems and even help students who don’t have supportive families.
First, a few statistics that help set the stage:
You may have heard the oft-cited number 41%. That refers to the percentage of the overall trans population who have attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts. But in trans youth — those who are 20 years old and younger — the suicide ideation rate is closer to 80%. Trans youth in a non-supportive environment, where their gender identity is not respected at home and school, report a suicide attempt rate of 57%.
When asked about their school experience, 90% of trans students had heard negative remarks about gender expressions such as someone not acting feminine or masculine enough. One third of transgender students heard negative remarks specifically about trans people including being called “tranny”, “he/she” and “it”. Over 50% of trans youth report having been physically harassed in school (such as being bumped, pushed, or tripped), with 1 out of 4 reporting being physically attacked including being punched, kicked, or choked.
39% of transgender students reported hearing school staff make negative comments about someone’s gender expression. Two-thirds of the trans youth who had been physically attacked in school also reported that the school administration did not respond effectively or respectfully. More commonly, trans students who were harassed or assaulted didn’t even report it to school personnel because they doubted the situation would be addressed or that it would make the situation worse.
On the flip side, transgender students who felt supported in their schools, who knew that the non-discrimination policies in place included gender identity and expression, who felt safe being open about their gender identity, also reported a great sense of belonging and community. Trans youth who felt supported at home and at school report a suicide ideation rate of 4%. Remember, that 4% is compared to the unsupported group with an ideation rate of around 80% and an attempt rate of 57%. We are called abusive parents by people all the time because we support Avery and affirm her gender identity. But I don’t know how anyone can think that lowering a child’s suicide chances from 57% to 4% is abusive.
If you had any doubt before tonight about the importance of having transgender-inclusive policies in your school, if you thought that it was a lot of hoopla over pronouns and bathrooms, I hope these statistics have shown you that they can actually make a difference between life and death.
So what is a truly trans-inclusive school and how do you support a student and (hopefully) the student’s family?
Well, inclusivity means that you get your anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies to include gender identity and expression. It means that you have policies in place to affirm a child’s gender identity, make sure everyone understands the importance of using correct pronouns, that you use preferred names no matter what the legal name is — and that you figure out how to put that name in your computer system so that substitutes don’t end up calling out the wrong one during role call. Unprepared substitutes are often the reason trans students are “outed” in the classroom. We have to change that.
It means that you challenge gender stereotypes among your students, in literature, in history lessons, and that you speak up if you hear students perpetuating stereotypes. It means you re-examine your dress code so that it provides rules for kids to be properly covered without limiting expression by putting gender labels on clothing. Leaving room for gender expression helps students exploring their identity and those who are genderqueer and gender fluid, in particular.
It means that you talk about LGBT historical figures, you allow GSAs to meet after school, and that you use sex education curriculum that talks about functions of anatomical body parts without assigning them a gender or forcing trans girls to attend segregated sex ed classes with boys and vice versa.
It means starting in the earliest grades, encouraging all kids to discover their interests and passions without labeling things as “for boys” or “for girls”. It means not lining up kids to walk to the cafeteria separated into lines of boys and girls, and certainly not laughing at a child who goes to the “wrong line” as if they are confused. They may be telling you exactly who they are.
And yes…It means letting kids use the bathroom and locker room that matches their gender identity, or the one that feels safest to them…by their choice and not by being forced into one. Trans youth are already afraid of bathrooms. 63% report avoiding bathrooms and 52% report avoiding gym class and locker rooms…because they are afraid for their own safety. Make those spaces safe and private for every student in your school.
Be sure that you have teachers, the nursing staff, and counselors prepared to offer a safe space to any transgender student who needs to talk. Promote that with door stickers or signs so there is no doubt who to go to when a student has a need. Please, please learn about intersectionality issues. What is hard for a family like mine is even more difficult for families of color, from different socio-economic groups, and with special needs issues.
If you have a student who needs to transition during the school year, work with the family and student to create a transition plan. Determine who will be informed with the child’s consent. Determine a timeline for speaking to classmates and other teachers. Have a date when the bathroom and locker room switch will take place. Plans like this allow time for adjustment and reassure any unsupportive people that wily hormonal teens won’t try to “pretend to be trans for the day” to get peeks at others in private spaces.
Speaking of unsupportive people, remember that privacy matters. The student’s safety matters. Stand up against adult bullying in your local community in the same way you would stand up against students bullying each other. Talking about a trans student with other students, parents, or even other teachers in the teachers’ lounge is a breach of privacy and can put that student at risk. Have standardized statements at the ready to use if anyone inquires about transgender students in your schools so that you do not “out” someone. If you need to be convinced of the importance of this, I’d be happy to share with you some of the death threats my family and others have received because we support our children.
Sadly, we know all too well from stories like that of Leelah Alcorn that not all families will support their trans child. This can be particularly challenging if the student asks to have their gender identity affirmed at school. But if you can eliminate some of the “gender noise” that a child hears all day by being misgendered, called the wrong name and pronoun, forced into bathrooms that feel unsafe or uncomfortable to them, remember that you are doing that child a service. You are giving that child a safe place to feel respected, to grow, and to learn while improving their mental health and emotional well-being. You could be saving a life.
That may sound like a lot, but I’ve really only touched the surface. There are many other things you can and should do to improve the school environment for any transgender student you currently have or for those who are watching, waiting, and wanting to come out or to transition, but who are afraid. The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. The Department of Education recently issued some guidelines and listed examples of best practices used in schools across the country. And across the country, many of us have been training schools and helping schools implement trans-inclusive policies for quite a while.
I’ve worked with both public and private schools, supporting transitioning students from kindergarten to college age, leading community-wide parents meetings, and updating school policies. Gender therapists and counselors often work directly with schools when a child in their care is transitioning. Large organizations including GLSEN, Gender Spectrum, PFLAG, and HRC also offer training and guidance materials. Reach out for help from those who have already been on the front lines.
Some of you may be thinking, “that’s may be fine for some schools but I’m from a conservative and resistant part of the country.” I understand completely, so if you need a sure fire way to quiet any critics, you can always tell them that you learned all about loving, accepting, and supporting transgender students from a conservative Republican, Southern Baptist from Alabama. If I can do this, anyone can.
Visit GenderInc.com to see the full list of topics covered in the Educator Training Series.