Creating Safe Schools for Trans and other Gender Nonconforming Students

Hello there!  If you’re reading this, then you’you've probably learned that you have a transgender (trans) or otherwise gender nonconforming student at your school. Or maybe you’re reading up in hopes of proactively making your school a safer space. Either way, we’re glad to have you here.

Why create a safe school?

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted in the United States, 78 percent of respondents had been harassed while in K-12 schools and 35 percent had been physically assaulted.

Over half of those who had been harassed or assaulted reported attempting suicide as a result.  Because so much of adolescent life is concentrated around school, a supportive and safe school environment can be crucial to a trans student’s well-being. For instance, high rates of harassment are correlated to a higher likelihood of dropping out, which decreases their chances of positive life outcomes.

You undoubtedly have transgender and otherwise gender nonconforming individuals in your school right now, but they may be closeted and afraid to come out due to a hostile educational environment or uncertainty about how they will be treated. A proactive trans-inclusive program will help your students feel safer in school, and that means they’re much more likely to reach educational goals, perform their best, and contribute to the school community, in addition to being healthier, happier people.

Let’s begin by defining some terms that will help you better understand the information in this article.

Sex: The sex assigned to people at birth on the basis of their visible reproductive organs (while sex is often classified as “male” or “female,” sex is actually quite diverse, and can include a range of disorders of sexual development (DSD) that may be apparent at birth or only later in life).

Gender: Social, cultural, and personal constructs that influence the way people identify and present their gender. Gender can be determined and influenced by a wide range of factors.

Transgender: People for whom the gender people keep insisting on saddling them with is incorrect, like a woman who was mistakenly assigned male at birth. They may be binary (men or women), nonbinary (all kinds of things, like genderqueer, genderfluid, genderflux, demi, neutrois, enby, and much, much more), agender, or something else entirely.

Gender Nonconforming: People who do not identify with their sex assigned at birth or cultural expectations of their gender, but who also do not view themselves as transgender. Gender nonconforming people may use a variety of terms to describe themselves.

Cisgender (cis): People who have a gender identity that matches the sex they were assigned at birth, as for example a man who was assigned male at birth.

    Common Questions and Their Answers

There are some common questions that many cis people have about trans people. It’s understandable to have some questions, especially if you’re encountering the trans community for the first time. We’We've assembled some common questions and answers for you as a starting point — for more information, you can check out resources at your library or online, including our Trans Summer School series.

1)How is being trans different from being gay?

  • This question comes from people conflating gender and sexual orientation. Gender refers to how people interact with the social constructs surrounding gender, and how they define themselves in reference to those constructs, while sexual orientation has to do with who people are attracted to, which may or may not be based on gender. An individual’s gender does not dictate their sexual orientation and vice versa. Therefore, trans individuals may identify as gay, straight, bisexual, etc.

2) How does someone know they are trans?

  • The short answer to this question is simple: They just know. Think of it like this: If you're cisgender how do you know? Did you give the response I just gave? Being cis is seen as “normal,” so we don't question people who are that way. Because being trans is not considered the norm, there is an assumption that trans people must have a very specific, empirically provable reason why they identify that way. Gender feels and seems obvious to people, but can sometimes be difficult to articulate. So if someone tells you they’re trans, the best thing you can do is take them at their word.

3) What is transition? Do all trans people go through the same transition process?

  • Transition refers to personal, social, medical, and surgical steps that people may take to affirm their gender. For example, a transgender woman might opt to start dressing and presenting herself socially as a woman. She could also decide to take hormones that would change the shape of her body, soften her skin, and encourage breast growth. She could pursue surgical transition, a family of medical procedures that help align her body with her personal experience of gender, as well. There is no one, true way to be trans, and not everyone goes through transition, or chooses to pursue all possible avenues when it comes to transition. Some trans people may want surgery and hormones while others may not. One trans student may feel safe changing in the locker room, another may not. It’s up to the individual person to decide what process and pieces of transition are right for them. Trans youth, like your students, will likely be most interested in social transition at this time, which can include presenting with their given gender, taking a new name and pronouns, and being treated like other members of their gender — e.g.., a trans guy should have access to the men’s room like all the other boys at the school. Others may work with their parents and medical providers to explore medical or even surgical transition options, in which case they will need accommodations to take time off from school for medical appointments and procedures, and they should be treated like any other student who requests medical leave.

4) Wait, why isn't’t this trans masculine student acting super butch? How come this trans feminine student isn't’t wearing skirts all the time? Does that mean they’re not really trans?

  • No. Gender identity and gender expression are two separate things. Think of it this way: We have a cultural understanding that cis girls can be tomboys, girly-girls, goth butches, sporty femmes, etc. We acknowledge that there is not a universal way that women express their gender (although some expressions are more culturally rewarded than others). The same is true of trans women (and trans people in general). Just because a trans person does not present as the most extreme version of their gender does invalidate their identity.

5) So have they had “the surgery”?

  • This is an inappropriate question that doesn't’t have relevance in an educational setting or anywhere else. Your student’s genitals are pertinent only to them, select medical providers, and their sexual partners. If your students need time off or accommodation for medical procedures, including surgeries, information about the nature of those procedures isn't’t necessary, though you can ask how much time they need off, and whether they need accommodations at sports and other activities that require physical exertion, as they may have orders to rest for several weeks. If you are running a boarding school, your student should meet with the nurse to discuss any medical needs that might need to be met while at school, such as weekly hormone injections.

School-Wide Suggestions

  • Invite a trans outreach organization to come and present to your staff to educate them about the issues trans students face and how you can accommodate them.
  • Include gender identity in the categories protected by your school’s anti-harassment policies. Then make sure you enforce those policies when trans students report harassment. For more information on developing comprehensive harassment policies, check out Project Include — while their guide is focused on the tech industry, many of the key points it brings up for a successful anti-harassment policy are relevant anywhere. [http://projectinclude.org/implementing_culture#develop-effective-codes-of-conduct]
  • Provide a clear mechanism for all students to report harassment and assault, including anonymously, and maintain transparency so students and parents know what happens to these reports. Who collects them? How are they handled? Who can see them? Can students file a report without triggering an alert to their parents? Can students appoint a fellow student, staff member, teacher, or parent as advocate? How do you conduct investigations into allegations of misconduct? What are the penalties for violations of your school’s anti-harassment policy? What happens if a teacher or staff member is the culprit?
  • Have a protocol in place for students who wish to change the name and gender on their school information, and make it as simple as possible, without requiring students to obtain a court-ordered name and/or gender change. If students do change their names and pronouns and indicate that they would like all school personnel to refer to them with their new names and pronouns, inform staff in a school-wide memo and make it clear that “deadnaming” (use of the student’s prior name) and misgendering with the incorrect pronouns are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Change all of your school records to reflect your student’s identity and don’t release information about the student’s prior name unless it’s necessary and directly relevant (e.g.. if transcripts are requested under the wrong name).
  • If your school has uniforms, design the dress code so that students can select from a pre-set number of clothes that they can mix and match, rather than making the rule be “girls must wear skirts, boys must wear pants.” If students don’t wear uniforms, make your dress code gender neutral so that it encompasses all forms of gender expression, focusing on nongendered basic standards of behavior (e.g.. don’t show your genitals) rather than what people wear (skirts, dresses, etc.).
  • Allow/encourage students to form Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs) or Queer/Straight alliances (QSAs) to help bolster activism and awareness of LGBTQ issues on your campus. Students should also be supported in forming closed LGBQT student groups that aren't’t open to cis and/or straight people so they have a space to talk about issues among their peers. Consider providing funding so these groups can afford to bring speakers and mentors into their meetings or events they host for the school as a whole.

In the Classroom

  • Each trans student is going to be at their own unique place in terms of coming out. Therefore, do not out them to someone (including their parent) unless they give you permission to do so and/or you’re certain the person in question already knows.
  • Address the student by their preferred name and pronouns, even if they do not match the information on the attendance sheets or other school documents. If the information on your paperwork is incorrect, ask the student if they’d like support with changing it.
  • If you are planning on having a substitute teacher and you have a trans student on your roster whose preferred name does not match the name on the records, make a note of it so the substitute does not call them by the incorrect name in front of the class.
  • Whenever possible, avoid organizing students by gender. A student who is transitioning may not wish to out themselves by lining up in the “wrong” line. Try using obviously visible characteristics such as hair color or height.
  • Experiment with or discuss gender neutral pronouns in your classroom. Forge Forward has an excellent guide to gender neutral language.
  • Include discussions of gender stereotypes in your curriculum. You can find age-appropriate materials for doing so in the “Resources” section of this paper.
  • Consider adding transgender fiction and media to your curriculum, when age-appropriate and relevant.
  • If you see a student being harassed for their gender identity by their peers or by adult staff, intervene.
  • Most importantly, create open lines of communication between yourself and your students.  Having an adult who they feel they can talk to and who will help them advocate for their rights if need arises is crucial to trans students remaining in school.

The Bathroom Issue

When creating widespread policies regarding trans individuals, a common point of contention is the bathroom. According to scholar Julie Cavanaugh, the reason for this is that bathrooms in the United States are spaces in which the gender binary, the idea that men and women are the only two gender expressions and that these expressions are inherently different, is strictly enforced. Men go in one space and women go in another, and the implication is that if someone is in the “wrong” bathroom they are there to cause harm. This way of thinking causes difficulties for trans individuals because they may not present the “correct” appearance for the bathroom they choose, or because transphobic individuals who discriminate against transgender people refuse to recognize their gender. This causes them to be read as intruders and therefore characterized as anything from odd to dangerous. This kind of behavior tends to target trans women more than people of other genders, due to transmisogyny — hatred of trans women — and the fact that some trans women struggle to “pass,” as they may have features or a gender presentation that aren't’t sufficiently feminine. American trans interviewees report a range of behaviors from people they encounter in the bathroom, including everything from stares, confrontations with other individuals and security guards, and physical assault.  All because they, like every other human on the planet, need to use the bathroom.

Lately there’s been an increase in schools implementing policies that say trans students must be allowed to use the bathroom that aligns with their identity. While this is an excellent trend, it’s also triggered some backlash. A standard reason seems to be that allowing trans students (and particularly trans girls and women) to use the correct bathroom will put cis women at a greater risk of assault. There have been zero documented instances of a trans person assaulting someone in a bathroom. What’s more, if someone wants to commit an assault, a sign on a bathroom door is not going to stop them. It’s foolish to make the lives of trans students difficult (or worse, stigmatize them) in the name of a hypothetical fear.

The average bathroom has stalls that allow people to conceal their bodies from one another. If someone starts fussing about how their child might see “inappropriate” genitals, kindly remind them of this fact. Single-stall restrooms should be gender neutral by default.

Suggestions for Safe Bathrooms and Changing Rooms

  • A policy that allows trans students to use the facilities in which they feel the most comfortable.
  • If a student is not comfortable changing for P.E. in either the male or female locker rooms, allow them use of a separate facility, such as the nurse’s office.
  • Convert one or more school bathrooms into gender neutral bathrooms.
  • Convert all single-stall restrooms to be gender neutral.
  • Make sure that disabled trans students have access to accessible bathrooms when considering any conversion or reclassification schemes.
  • Remember that not all trans students are out, and creating a neutral policy will allow those students to use the facilities safest for them without attracting undue attention.

What to do if Something Goes Wrong

  • If a trans student comes to you with reports of harassment or discrimination, listen to them and investigate according to school protocol.
  • Do not dismiss a trans student who complains as trying to “cause trouble.”
  • Do not assume (or tell the student) that they were “asking” to be harassed by being trans or otherwise gender nonconforming. School should be a place where a student can express their identity without fear of being attacked for it.
  • If you are a teacher and a student (or their friends) conveys to you that they have been or are being harassed but are afraid to report it due to fear of retaliation, speak with that student about their fears. You may be able to find a way for them to get the support they need with a minimal chance of it coming back to bite them.
  • Many administrators feel it is their duty to inform parents if their child has been the victim of harassment. In some cases, if the parent(s) are aware of their child’s identity and supportive of them, notification may be beneficial.  However, some students may not have revealed the fact that they are trans to their parents and do not wish to be outed. We recommended that schools adopt a policy of asking a student whether or not they wish for their parents to be notified of the incident.

Resources