I'm an eighth-grade teacher at a public school in the South and I will have a trans student in class next year. I know this because I purposely requested him, knowing that his school year would be much worse with some of my colleagues. Last year there was a big issue with the student about being called his preferred name—because his parents refuse to recognize his gender identity and make him go by his birth (female) name. The other students were told that they had to call him by his given name as well, but they pretty much refused and use his preferred name constantly. The school's policy is to only use nicknames that are approved or acceptable to parents, but that's exactly the problem in this case. It's not exactly feasible to avoid using a name or pronoun for a whole school year, but I don't want to be yet another adult making this young man feel less than or unwelcome in a classroom. So, uh, any help?
Public School Teacher
First things first, PST: I want to thank you—thank you thank you thank you—for making sure this boy would be in your classroom next year and not in the classroom of a transphobic colleague. The transgender suicide attempt rate is staggeringly high—over 40 percent (nine times the national average)—and hostile family members are a huge contributing factor to suicide attempts by trans youth and other queer kids. But the moral support of even just one understanding, empathetic adult can make all the difference for a trans, lesbian, bi, or gay kid who isn't getting any support at home. So thank you. (I wish I could personally thank all the students who ignored the shitty, bigoted, possibly illegal, and potentially traumatizing order to continue calling this boy by his birth name instead of his preferred/actual name. They're also making a difference for the boy.)
I passed your letter along to Chris Hampton, youth and program strategist for the ACLU LGBT and HIV Project, and she had a lot of great information and resources to share. I'm going to get out of the way now and let Chris do the big download...
Students at public schools are protected by the First Amendment. The school can’t restrict how they refer to each other during non-instructional time. As for the rule about only using nicknames that are approved by parents, that sounds like something the school couldn’t possibly be enforcing evenly. Do they call parents to ask trifling stuff like, “Hey, Thomas wants to go by Tom, is that okay with you? Can you fill out a written permission form saying so?” If they’re really requiring parental approval for all nicknames, that would be a huge inconvenience. So if the teacher can get a sympathetic ear with the administration, maybe they could be persuaded to relax that rule.
The rest of it is pretty complicated and involves too many variables for us to be able to answer easily. We encourage folks to get in touch with us if they want to work through the details of any situations like this—they can request our help at this section of our website.
If the teacher feels he can do so without putting himself at risk in his job, maybe he could at least at some point tell this student, “I want you to know I support you and I’m going to do my best to avoid pronouns and using your given name as much as I possibly can.” And find out if the kid has any positive support in his life. If the student is able to access the web at home without his parents seeing his browsing history, or if he can get some web time at the school or public library, he might want to check out these sites:
• TrevorSpace: A social networking/support site run by the Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth ages 13 through 24.
• WeHappyTrans: A website that provides a platform for trans people to share positive stories about their lives. They also have a blog that covers media, news, support, and legal issues.
• GoodReads Booklist for Trans Teens: Maybe, maybe, maaaaybe some of these books are available at the school library. Maybe.
• The It Gets Better Project—of course!
A few sites the teacher or other adults who are interested in supporting trans youth in their lives might check out:
• Gender Spectrum: An organization that provides education, resources, and training to help schools, health-care providers, and family service agencies create a more gender-sensitive and supportive environment for all children including gender variant and transgender youth.
• Gender Diversity: This organization provides family support, works with schools, and provides community-building services to improve the well-being for people of all gender identities and expressions.
• Transgender Child: A website that provides extensive information, resources, and support for the parents of transgender and gender-nonconforming children.
Finally, there’s a really detailed national guide on supporting trans students in K-12 schools coming out very soon that will include some suggestions for educators working with trans students whose parents aren’t supportive. It’s being written by folks from the ACLU, Gender Spectrum, NCLR, and HRC, and the goal is to have it out by the beginning of the school year.
Dan here: The ACLU and GLSEN brought out a terrific informational brochure for trans and gender-nonconforming students a few years ago: Know Your Rights. I would urge you to pass the link to the PDF on to your new student along with the other links and resources Chris Hampton cites.
And finally, PST, I'm going to take the liberty of translating something Hampton said out of her gentle, professional legalese and into shit-talking, ass-kicking savagese: When Hampton says, "We encourage folks to get in touch with us if they want to work through the details of any situations like this," what she means is, "If you think the motherfuckers running your school are violating your civil rights, kiddo, you let us know—and if they are violating your civil rights, we will sue these motherfuckers faster than you can share your pronoun preferences."
UPDATE: When's the last time you made a donation to the ACLU? Go here and make one.