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Protecting Trans Students Is a Matter of Life or Death

The challenges of trans youth put them at increased risk for suicide.

Key points

  • Approximately 150,000 U.S. youth between the ages of 13 to 17 self-identify as transgender.
  • Throughout developmental stages, trans and other LGBTQ+ individuals are at an increased risk for poor mental health outcomes.
  • Trans youth are more likely to experience social isolation when coming out to their peers, as well as an increased risk of victimization.
  • Schools and teachers have an obligation to bolster students' well-being. This includes trans students, who are especially vulnerable.
Source: Fotografierende/Pexels

By Erica D. Marshall Lee, Ph.D., on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates

In November of 2019, TIME published an article titled “'This Isn’t Just About a Pronoun.' Teachers and Trans Students Are Clashing Over Whose Rights Come First” that addressed the continuing debate over LBGTQ+ rights vs. religious freedom rights. The article focused on the challenges schools face with respecting the rights of transgender students while also recognizing teachers’ personal religious beliefs.

This conflict has resulted in the firing of or encouraged the resignation of teachers who refused to follow school policy and directives. The article highlighted that to date, at least three federal lawsuits have been filed against public schools in the states of Indiana, Virginia, and Ohio.

The question is: Whose rights take precedence in these cases? The answer boils down to the issue of life or death.

The Mental Health Challenges Faced by LGBTQ+ Students

As a minority group, LGBTQ+ individuals face ongoing daily challenges that are often misunderstood or discounted by the public at large or not fully understood by well-meaning allies. Transgender individuals are people whose assigned sex at birth differs from their internal sense of gender. A 2018 FBI report on hate crimes indicated a 6 percent increase in violence towards LGBTQ+ individuals; the Human Rights Campaign reported that trans women of color are the most at risk for violence.

Children, already a vulnerable group, are especially vulnerable if they are trans. The adolescent developmental stage, in general, is characterized by a need for affiliation and acceptance as well as a time when homophobic and prejudicial attitudes are commonly displayed among peers (Mulvey & Killen, 2015; Pasco, 2011; Poteat & Anderson, 2012). With repeated bullying, cyberbullying, verbal and physical harassment, and even physical assault being their daily reality, the overall mental health of trans youth has been shown to be in jeopardy.

Research has shown that throughout developmental stages, LGBTQ+ individuals are at an increased risk for poor mental health outcomes. Data from UCLA’s Williams Institute indicates that approximately 150,000 U.S. youth between the ages of 13 to 17 self-identify as trans. Trans youth are more likely to experience social isolation and loss of friends when coming out to their peers, as well as an increased risk of victimization by their peers and others (D’Augelli et al., 2002; Pilkington & D’Augelli, 1995).

In a 2015 survey conducted by GLSEN, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights in school, data indicated that 75 percent of trans students feel unsafe at school. Twenty-five percent of trans students experienced physical harassment, 65 percent noted verbal harassment, and 12 percent had been physically assaulted.

These harmful events, experienced at a particularly sensitive developmental stage, can result in negative psychosocial outcomes such as substance use and truancy. Teens, in general, are at heightened risk of suicide; according to CDC data from 2012, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 14 and the second leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24. But adverse mental health events such as suicide, self-harm, anxiety, and depression disproportionately impact trans youth.

What Can Be Done to Protect Trans Students?

Given this vulnerability and the magnitude of this issue, it is of paramount importance that attention be paid to protecting trans students at all educational levels in all aspects and by whatever means possible. Schools possess the capacity to ameliorate negative outcomes for trans students by creating positive learning environments and reducing bullying and transphobic teasing (Birkett et al., 2009). Teachers are instrumental in instituting a positive school climate for trans students (Russell et al., 2001). In fact, evidence supports the benefits of explicit inclusivity of trans students resulting from teacher training and in-classroom curricula (Snapp et al., 2015).

While students are able to participate in learning online or homeschooling if they choose, they should not feel forced to do so in order to avoid being mistreated by peers or teachers in traditional learning environments. As adults, teachers have more agency in their life decisions. If they disagree with an employer, they can resign, complain, or even sue. In short, they have more options available to them and far more power than trans students in these situations, which affords them a privilege and an edge that trans students do not have.

Trans students should not have to battle in school settings as a result of who they are with teachers insulted as a result of what they believe. When teachers’ values differ from their school’s obligations, they have the option to seek out employment in schools whose values align with their own.

As a person whose spirituality is my primary core value, I personally respect and acknowledge the significance of religion as a guide in everything that one does. However, when those values conflict with the life of a child or human being, I have to consider ways in which I can stay true to my beliefs while also having compassion and empathy for my fellow human beings, and treating them with respect. In some cases, the teachers noted in the TIME article did attempt to compromise and change their approach by using the students' last names and utilizing verbal gesturing to communicate with students; however, this sometimes garnered negative attention to the trans students and angered other students.

The "new normal" of mass shootings means that many children worry about being killed while attending school. In these instances, policies are put in place to protect them as much as possible. Let’s do the same for trans students, whose negative experiences can be, in many cases, just as deadly.


Birkett, M., Espelage, D. L., & Koenig, B. (2009). LGB and Questioning Students in Schools: The Moderating Effects of Homophobic Bullying and School Climate on Negative Outcomes. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(7), 989–1000.

D’Augelli, A., Pilkington, N., & Hershberger, S. (2002). Incidence and Mental Health Impact of Sexual Orientation Victimization of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youths in High School. School Psychology Quarterly, 17, 148–167.

Mulvey, K. L., & Killen, M. (2015). Challenging Gender Stereotypes: Resistance and Exclusion. Child Development, 86(3), 681–694.

Pascoe, C. J. (2011). Dude, you’re a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. University of California Press.

Pilkington, N. W., & D’Augelli, A. R. (1995). Victimization of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth in community settings. Journal of Community Psychology, 23(1), 34–56.<34::AID-JCOP2290230105>3…

Poteat, V. P., & Anderson, C. J. (2012). Developmental changes in sexual prejudice from early to late adolescence: The effects of gender, race, and ideology on different patterns of change. Developmental Psychology, 48(5), 1403–1415.

Russell, S. T., Seif, H., & Truong, N. L. (2001). School outcomes of sexual minority youth in the United States: Evidence from a national study. Journal of Adolescence, 24(1), 111–127.

Snapp, S. D., Burdge, H., Licona, A. C., Moody, R. L., & Russell, S. T. (2015). Students’ Perspectives on LGBTQ-Inclusive Curriculum. Equity & Excellence in Education, 48(2), 249–265.

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