June 17, 2015
The consensus among medical and mental health providers is that the strongest determinant of a young person’s gender is his/her/their lived experience of his/her/their gender – regardless of what medical steps that individual has taken.When I was in the second grade, I loved to sing. I would sing almost anywhere and anytime. But one day – in music class of all places – my teacher singled me out and told me not to sing for the rest of the class because my voice was out of tune and didn’t fit in with everyone else’s. The message was clear – I was wrong.
Now is the time to empower ourselves, our policymakers, and our educators to support our transgender, genderqueer, and gender fluid youth so that they can thrive and flourish in schools.Ever since that day, I’ve been self-conscious about singing publicly. First in school and now sometimes even in the car with my family or around a campfire, I seize up when there’s an opportunity to sing. All I can think about is the time a teacher told me my voice was wrong, that it wasn’t welcome. I was reminded of that time while attending the Stonewall Symposium last month in Fort Lauderdale. The Symposium is hosted by the Stonewall National Education Project, which brings together teachers, principals, guidance counselors, state department of education employees, and others to focus on making schools safer and more welcoming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. I was invited to present advocacy strategies for creating statewide education guidelines regarding how to ensure equal educational environments for transgender students. Before my remarks, I had the privilege of listening to a powerful transgender student activist, Zeam (Zeam uses “they” and “them” pronouns). In their speech, Zeam spoke of the challenges they had faced over the years in school. They spoke passionately and poignantly about teachers who refused to see them – to see their race, their masculine identity, their creativity and intelligence, among other pieces of their identity. And they told of the devastating toll this took on their psyche and ability to learn in school. Zeam recounted one science class where the teacher literally dragged their desk into the hall as they sat in it, a hostile act that could hardly have been clearer in conveying the message that Zeam could literally note be in that classroom. They described the pain of hearing their mostly white teachers repeatedly unable or unwilling to pronounce their friends’ names correctly, and the injustice of being disciplined when they responded in turn by calling their teachers by the wrong names. The audience sat spellbound while Zeam articulated their list of grievances and eloquently explained how not being allowed to bring one’s whole self to school results in serious alienation and undermines a student’s ability to learn. My singing experience was, of course, very different from Zeam’s experiences. But both of us took away a similar message – that school was not a place where we could freely learn and explore as our whole selves, but a place where we only invited to join or even to be if we could conform to the school’s narrow social norms. A message that said we weren’t good enough as we were to be welcomed, accepted and bein our schools. Zeam’s talk was the perfect lead up to my remarks, which I framed as a call to action to those assembled. The goal of my talk was to identify key strategies for getting states to adopt education guidelines that ensure safe and effective learning environments for LGBTQ youth – the kind of policies that GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project was instrumental in getting adopted in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The point at which you are finally advocating for adoption of a statewide or local policy is what I call the “no flinch” moment.Before discussing specific items to include in policy and guidance, I outlined five ideas that are essential to getting these policies adopted and successfully implemented by schools:
- First and foremost, we must fully accept and validate the legitimacy of all students’ gender and sexual identities, including the identities of transgender, genderqueer, and gender fluid students. In the wake of marriage equality successes, we are witnessing tremendous backlash to the advances of the LGBTQ movement, including Michigan billboards directly challenging the legitimacy, permanence, and seriousness of LGBTQ identities. We must beat back this “contestation” with the strength of all the social science data we have showing that gender identity is established at an early age and is impervious to change from external influences. And we must beat it back by loving and embracing the LGBTQ youth within our movement.
- We validate students’ gender identities by recognizing in our policies, practices, and advocacy that a transgender girl is fully and completely a girl and a transgender boy is fully and completely a boy. We must ensure that our policies do not undermine transgender students’ humanity and personhood. Furthermore, we must ensure that we do not invalidate their identities in any way in favor of compromises that capitulate to other people’s discomfort or in favor of taking “slow” and “incremental” steps. Any time we accept limits to the access that a transgender girl or a transgender boy has to spaces like communal use restrooms or locker rooms, we demean them and make them a target for harassment and violence.
- There is no “magic moment” for the so-called completion of gender transition in which a person “becomes” a certain gender, particularly for young people. The consensus among medical and mental health providers is that the strongest determinant of a young person’s gender is his/her/their lived experience of his/her/their gender – regardless of what medical steps that individual has taken. It is therefore essential to avoid language in policies and practice that, for example, refers to “completing” gender transition. It is likewise essential to remove any litmus tests (such as a length of time during which the student has been on hormones or a particular surgical procedure) that students must meet in order to be recognized as their lived gender, whether in sports, restrooms, locker rooms, overnights, or other policies.
- The success of policies designed to ensure a safe learning environment for LGBTQ students hinges on senior administrators, state agency decision makers, and other leaders in schools, districts, and states accepting these policies. Policies are only effective on a broad scale and over a prolonged period of time when they have support from those with authority to enforce them. As advocates, we must explain to decision makers in the field of education that the responsibility falls to them to ensure equality and inclusion for the most marginalized among us. If they act as leaders, all students will benefit. If they don’t, transgender students will remain targeted and vulnerable.
- The point at which you are finally advocating for adoption of a statewide or local policy is what I call the “no flinch” moment. The only way to achieve a safe and inclusive environment for transgender students is to give them full access to all sex-segregated spaces based on their stated gender identity. There is no doubt that some opponents to inclusion and equality will say they want to “compromise” or “meet you half-way.” Others will press on their “discomfort” with having a transgender girl whose body looks different than cisgender girls’ bodies in areas where nudity may be expected, such as changing areas and locker rooms. In order to be an effective advocate, you must yourself be fully ready to respond to these objections by highlighting how compromise will predictably undermine the goals of equality and inclusion.