Gender Creative & Transgender Kids in Schools: What's the Big Deal?

What can families do when schools are harming their kids?

Posted Oct 07, 2011

Please don't confuse me
Hello dear readers. I apologize for my prolonged silence but I have been in the middle of a big international, trans-continental move. I'm getting settled into my new institutional home at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and so my blogging was on hiatus during the transition. One of the other exciting things I got to do this summer was participat in a conference hosted by Gender Spectrum in Berkeley, California. This conference is designed to provide support for families and youth whose gender identity and expression is viewed as either gender non-conforming, transgender, gendervariant, genderqueer, or my new favorite term "gender creative" (Thank you to Diane Ehrensaft!). It was quite an enlightening experience getting to meet and work with these families because I got to see the incredible challenges these families face in trying to support their children the best way they know how.

Also, the media coverage surrounding Chaz Bono's transition has brought more public attention to the issues of gender and how it impacts different lives differently. Unfortunately, this increased public awareness doesn't seem to be translating to increased sensitivity or understanding for these children and their families. For example, just last week an ad ran in the National Post - a large Canadian national paper -  that had the image of a young girl and the headline, "Please don't confuse me!" Fortunately, the post did issue an apology, however it did illustrate many conservative families' and schools' perspectives on this issue.

More recently, ABC Primetime aired a show in the end of August that showcased various families who are trying to best support the diverse gender expressions of their kids. One of the families showcased is the family who authored the new children's book, "My Princess Boy" -- a huge hit among families with gender creative kids. Sadly, these children often face extreme amounts of bullying, harassment, and

My princess boy book
exclusion at school and schools often fall short of their duty to create a safe and supportive learning environment for all students. One of the key pieces of information I shared with families in my workshop at Gender Spectrum was the existing case law that provides the foundation to prohibit discrimination based on gender expression and "sex stereotyping" in schools:
  • Montgomery v. ISD no. 709 (2000) -  Title IX damages could be awarded on the basis of sexual orientation harassment becuase it is often based on "failure to meet expected gender stereotypes". The school settled for an undisclosed amount
  • Theno v. Tonganoxie (2005) - Found that gender stereotyping and related anti-gay harassment is actionable under Title IX. The court found that "the plaintiff was harassed because the primary objective of the harassers appears to have been to disparage his perceived lack of masculinity." District settled for $400,000.

In a related case, a district was sued but was not found responsible becuase it took a multi-tiered approach to responding to the harassment.

  • Doe v. Bellefonte Area School District (2004) - John Doe filed suit against his school for being "deliberately indifferent" to three hears of sexual harassment due to his "effeminate characteristics". The school responded in a variety of ways:
  1. Addressed each reported incident
  2. Students were suspended and given warnings
  3. District sent memos to faculty and staff informing them of the situation and requesting assistance in addressing the harassment
  4. Doe was offered a "special means" of reporting to the school psychologist
  5. School held assemblies and enacted policies re: peer to peer harassment

This whole-school response was not wholly effective in eliminating the harassment, but it was sufficient to demonstrate that the school was doing everything reasonable to ensure it was meeting its obligations to try and create a discrimination-free learning environment. This basic legal literacy can help parents advocate for their children and encourage their schools to take appropriate steps to address any problems in the school.

In addition to this case law, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) sent out a "Dear Colleague" letter to all U.S. public school districts in October 2010 providing clear guidance on how to interpret and apply Title IX. This letter included the following statement:

"Title IX prohibits harassment of both male and female students regardless of the sex of the harasser-i.e., even if the harasser and target are members of the same sex. It also prohibits gender-based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex-stereotyping. Thus, it can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment and gender-based harassment of all students, regardless of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the harasser or target."

The letter goes on to specifically emphasize the duty schools have to address such forms of harassment:

"When the behavior implicates the civil rights laws, school administrators should look beyond simply disciplining the perpetrators. While disciplining the perpetrators is likely a necessary step, it often is insufficient. A school's responsibility is to eliminate the hostile environment created by the harassment, address its effects, and take steps to ensure that harassment does not recur. Put differently, the unique effects of discriminatory harassment may demand a different response than would other types of bullying." (pg 3-4)

Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools - book cover
Sadly, many school superintendents, teachers, administrators and other professional educators have a lot of fear and misinformation surrounding issues of gender diversity. As a result many children and families experience a lot of resistance, hostility, and exclusion. There are many things schools can do to be more supportive and inclusive. I offered the families at my session some specific strategies to think through as they engaged in conversation with their schools around the kinds of accomodations they wanted for their children. Some specific things schools can do to be more supportive include:
  • Stop the bullying & harassment
  • Offer extra protection before & after school (collaborate with local police and school security)
  • Provide in-school counseling and/or a safe space for the student
  • Offer professional development for the entire school staff (including support personnel & aides)
  • improve library holdings on gender diversity issues
  • revise school policies to reflect Title IX mandates
  • make dress code exceptions (see previous blog posts here and here)
  • offer education to the whole school community (students & parents)
  • make accomodations for PE class and bathroom use
  • use child's preferred name
  • support social transition (from one gender to another) with an integrated action plan

Gender born, gender made book cover
This is only a partial list and each child and each family will have different needs and these needs will evolve over time. My book, Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools was written to help educators and youth workers better understand these issues so educational institutions can more appropriately support and meet the needs of all children -- including those who are gender creative, transgender, or may identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer at some point in their lifetime. Diane Ehrensaft's book, Gender Born, Gender Made is another incredibly valuable resource for families who are working to better understand and support their gender creative child. Now that I am getting settled in, I hope to return to blogging more frequently, and look forward to your thoughts and comments on this issue.