When a student identifies themselves as a gender that is different from their gender assigned at birth, it can be a challenge not only for them, but for their support system as well. In as much as we’re all unique and individual in our own right, each instance presents its own unique challenge for the school to set up the student for success as well.
Not only is the student trying to establish their new identity, but they also have to learn how to navigate through a new set of social issues as well as satisfy academic requirements. We’re going to look at the student’s perspectives as well as those within a support capacity.
The Transgender Student’s Perspective
A student’s recognition that they identify as another gender or gender binary is an intense, private journey in self-discovery that can be empowering and heartbreaking at the same time. The gender transition can be smooth or rocky, depending on their support system, including home, school, and the community. The student is under enormous pressure to establish a new identity both internally and externally, which includes peer pressure.
Keep in mind that gender identity and sexual preferences are two separate and distinct things. Gender identity connotes a feeling of being a member of a particular gender. Sexual orientation deals with one’s romantic or sexual attraction.
When we talk about transitioning, we’re talking about social transitions, including changing names, pronouns, hairstyling and clothing, as well as medical transitions such as hormone therapy, and surgeries that are congruent with the student’s new identity.
Students may or may not have the support at home regarding their transitioning. The primary role for school personnel is to create a safe, supportive environment in which the student can flourish and meet their academic potential without fear of harassment or recrimination for as long as the student is in our care.
That being said, a student’s transitioning can be a source of contention at home, and can cause irreparable damage to the student’s mental health and well-being. Unfortunately, many families are unsupportive of the student’s change, which can lead to depression, drug abuse, and risk of suicide, as well as risky sexual behavior which brings its own set of detrimental and sometimes fatal consequences. Students may also choose to run away from home because of the disapproval, which can bring its own set of significant dangers.
Peer pressure can be enormous. Transgender students may be overwhelmed by pressure to conform to cultural norms within the school so as to avoid being ridiculed or ostracized. They may feel pressured not to use the restrooms or athletic locker rooms that they are allowed to use under Title IX. They may also feel like they cannot participate in school activities such as team sports that have an inherent gender bias.
The School Perspective
It is our job as administrators and educators to provide a safe space for all students to excel and flourish in an academic environment. We must be culturally sensitive to anything that may create the perception that we are anything less than supportive.
From a school administration standpoint, we must keep Title IX in the forefront of our discussion.
Simply put, Title IX bans sex discrimination in schools, including transgender and gender non-conforming students, and confers the following rights:
- The right to be treated in a manner that is consistent with your gender identity.
- The right to be called by the name and pronouns consistent with your gender identity.
- The right not to be bullied or harassed
- The right to equal educational opportunities regardless of your gender, and not be punished because of it.
- The right to dress and present yourself in a way that is consistent with your gender identity in accordance with school dress codes.
- The right to use restrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities consistent with your gender identity.
- The right to privacy concerning your transgender status and gender transition. Any records containing this information cannot be shared without your permission unless the school has a legitimate reason that it not based on gender bias.
- The right to join or start a gay, gay-straight, LGBT or similar student group and for the group to be treated equally as every other group.
Students who transition can be subject to ridicule depending on the acceptance and conduct of their peers. Any harassment and intimidation by peers should never be tolerated and should be stopped immediately.
If the student’s academic performance is suffering because of the lack of support from home, then it’s appropriate, just as it would in any other case of academic underperformance, to meet with the parents and explain the detrimental effect that their non-acceptance is having on the student.
What Can We Do for the Transgender Student?
We want every student to excel, including transgender students. If we are not setting them up to win through our inaction or our lack of sensitivity to their issues, then we have failed to meet our obligations to the student.
Lead by Example
Transgender students will be more apt to work within the constructs of the school if we show them that we are dedicated to providing a supportive environment for all, which includes being sensitive toward the labels we use in describing students or to seemingly show favoritism toward a particular gender or sexual orientation. Our discussions should always be culturally sensitive and gender neutral… even when we think that the students aren’t listening.
Honor Their Privacy
Just as much as we value our privacy, we must also assure that the transgender student’s right to privacy is valued by not making their gender identity public. It is the student’s right to decide whether or not to disclose their gender identity.
Help Them Succeed
If the student’s academic performance level drops, it may be appropriate for administrators to come up with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The student may be reluctant to take part in the IEP due to the stigma they might attach to it and may feel even more isolated than before, however IEPs are not designed to set students apart, but to help them succeed along with the rest of their peers.
Partner with Families
It’s vitally important to partner with and engage the families as much as possible to the extent they will allow; remember that transitioning may be bringing stress to the family as well as the student as the family learns to accept (or not accept) the student’s transition. It’s also important to remember that we are not there to lecture parents or family members, but to keep the eye on the prize: the student’s health and well-being, along with their academic success.
Create and Celebrate Diversity and Inclusion
Look for opportunities to celebrate inclusion, acceptance, and equality regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic background. All students deserve to succeed at school and express themselves, and in so doing, provides a healthier transition into the world.
 “Some Gender Basics” from Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools. Page 6