OPINION: Don’t bully trans kids at school. Support them

by Harper Keenan | University of British Columbia
Tuesday, 13 April 2021 08:38 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Empty school playing fields are seen, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., April 7, 2021. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A wave of U.S. state bills is targeting trans youth, banning gender transition-related healthcare or trans participation in school sports

Harper B. Keenan is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and a former New York City teacher

In the past three months, Republican lawmakers have introduced a record 127 bills this year on transgender-related issues in 22 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT+ organization. Most target trans youth, banning gender transition-related healthcare or trans participation in school sports.

Some, such as Alabama’s SB10, effectively mandate that teachers report any students who identify as trans or gender non-conforming to their parents.

As a scholar of gender in education and as a former New York City public school teacher, I find these bills profoundly concerning. Children all over the globe have just been through a traumatic year. The pandemic has turned many families’ worlds upside down, taking the lives of more than half-million Americans and causing widespread economic hardship.

Our focus should be on caring for children as they navigate the transition back to in-person schooling, not on making targets of already-marginalized youth.

Right now, schools are not meeting the needs of trans young people. Nearly 80% of trans youth experience mistreatment based on gender at school. One in four is physically attacked, and more than one in 10 is sexually assaulted on school grounds.

Given these statistics, it is perhaps unsurprising that 17% of trans youth ultimately leave school. Put simply, those seeking to ban trans youth’s participation in school activities are targeting an already-marginalized population. To support such legislation is to go against the fundamental responsibilities of an educator – to build classroom communities where all students feel welcome and respected so that they can learn. 

There is an urgent need for schools that care for trans and gender non-conforming young people. There is also widespread support for trans youth among educators.

A letter to the Biden administration that I co-authored in late March with Z Nicolazzo and Kevin Kumashiro was signed by more than 17,300 educators across the country in just five days.

On April 6, the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education addressed educational stakeholders, explaining that sexual orientation and gender identity are covered by Title IX. This is an important step to ensuring educational equity for trans youth in schools, but the Biden administration and other educational stakeholders must take further action.

First, rather than taking away children’s access to healthcare, we should be expanding access to support services in schools. We need well-designed, trans-competent violence prevention programs, as well as health and sex education.

Given the traumatic events of the past year, policymakers should increase funding for school-based counseling, with careful attention to ensuring that it is responsive to historically marginalized groups, including LGBT+ students, students with disabilities and students of color.

Second, trans and gender non-conforming youth must be granted equal access to all school facilities and activities, including sports. Nineteen states already have policies in place to allow trans youth to participate in K-12 school sports, and the NCAA has research-based guidelines for trans inclusion in college sports. Rather than subjecting children’s chromosomal makeup to scrutiny, we should be finding ways for them to play.

Third, we need more flexible systems of school records and identification. School records should be designed to support children, not to control who they are or who they can be. Educational leaders should review when and why they collect data on children’s gender, and in situations where such data is deemed absolutely necessary, they should allow for children to self-select or opt out of identifying their gender.  

As we emerge from this devastating pandemic, adults should not be finding ways to bully children. Instead, we should be finding ways to care for them, no matter who they are. 


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