Why Schools Need Policies That Support Transgender Student Rights

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Every student has a right to learn in a safe and accepting environment. Transgender students do not forfeit their right to equal educational opportunity when they decide to live as their true selves. Policies that support transgender student rights help them reach their full learning potential.

Many transgender students still feel unsafe or unwelcome at school. Among LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning) students who participated in GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey, 77% of transgender students reported having experienced discrimination. Only 11% of students surveyed reported that their schools or districts had official policies or guidelines in place to support transgender students.

Challenges Facing Transgender Students

Among the factors inhibiting transgender equality in schools is a lack of protection for transgender student rights. Misunderstanding among students and educators about what it means to be transgender creates additional challenges to fostering a positive environment for transgender students.

Misconceptions About Gender and Gender Identity

Factors standing in the way of greater acceptance of transgender students include misconceptions about gender and how transgender people define their identity:

  • Gender is not the same as sex. Sex refers to anatomy and biological characteristics such as hormones and reproductive organs. Gender refers to expectations about societal roles, behaviors, and activities that men and women perform.

  • Gender is not the same as sexuality. Sexuality refers to romantic and sexual attractions. A person’s gender does not determine their sexual orientation. A transgender person can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or any other sexual identity.

  • Everyone has a gender identity. Many people don’t consider their gender identity — the sense one has about their own gender — if it matches their sex, but a person who is transgender has a gender identity or expression (public presentation of gender) different from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Harassment and Bullying

While many schools have anti-bullying policies, policies that specifically protect gender identity and expression remain rare, according to GLSEN. Transgender students commonly experience social exclusion, rumor-spreading, sexual harassment, cyberbullying, and property damage.

Transgender students have protections under federal laws, including Title IX and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). However, state-level anti-discrimination laws vary in the protection they provide to transgender students. Schools can play an important role in providing transgender students with greater protection by enacting policies and practices that support them.

Transitioning

Transitioning is a key milestone for transgender students that can be stressful and calls for understanding and support. It is the process of beginning to live daily life according to one’s gender identity rather than the gender associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Transitioning can take many forms. It might include a new name, the adoption of new pronouns, or a change in appearance or clothing. Some transgender people undergo hormone therapy or other medical procedures to change their physical characteristics to better match their gender identity, while others take no outward steps to transition.

Policies and Practices That Support Transgender Students

Transgender students in schools with official policies or guidelines that support them suffer less discrimination and enjoy a greater sense of belonging, according to GLSEN. Unfortunately, few students surveyed by GLSEN reported that their schools had official policies or guidelines designed to support transgender students. Anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies with specific protections for LGBTQ students were also rare.

Use Chosen Names and Pronouns

One of the most basic — and profoundly important — ways that teachers can support transgender students is by using their chosen names and pronouns. Doing so has two critical impacts:

  • It signals respect and affirmation of the student’s gender identity.
  • It models behavior that sets an expectation for other students.

A person’s name is an important part of their identity. Transgender people often choose a new name because their birth names (sometimes referred to as a dead name) don’t conform to their gender identity or represent their true selves.

Transgender people may choose to use pronouns associated with their gender identity, but others prefer gender-neutral pronouns. For example, rather than being referred to as “he” or “she,” an individual may prefer to be referred to as “they.” Others may wish to be referred to only by name. Pronouns that have been devised specifically to be gender-neutral can also replace gendered pronouns; for example, ze can be used instead of she/he/they, and hir can take the place of her/hers/him/his/they/theirs.

Protect Student Confidentiality and Privacy

Schools risk violating a transgender student’s privacy rights under FERPA and the Constitution if they share information such as their legal name and the sex they were assigned at birth. Such protections also cover a student’s gender transition.

Some students transition publicly, but many choose to keep the process private, and schools should have safeguards in place to protect information about the student that could result in inadvertent exposure.

Create Supportive Student Clubs

Participation in extracurricular activities is known to boost student engagement and promote better educational outcomes. One of the ways that schools can encourage extracurricular participation by transgender students is through organizations such as gay-straight alliances and gender and sexuality alliances. Such clubs provide an affirming environment and give transgender students and others in the LGBTQ community opportunities to enact positive change in their schools.

Make Accommodations for Sex-Separated Activities and Facilities

Honoring students’ gender identity extends to participation in sex-separated activities such as sports and overnight school trips, as well as school functions that involve gendered roles (prom or homecoming king and queen, for example). Schools should invite students to participate in these activities in the gender category that matches their gender identity.

Supporting transgender students also includes giving them access to sex-separated facilities—including bathrooms and locker rooms—based on their gender identity. Some schools also install single-stall facilities to meet the needs of transgender students; while some transgender students may prefer this option, schools should not force them to use separate facilities.

Advocating for Safer, More Inclusive Learning Environments

Educators at all levels can contribute to more supportive environments for all learners, including transgender students. Some spearhead efforts to develop programs and practices that support marginalized groups. Others work on a more personal level, serving as crucial allies to students who face unique challenges.

Some educators seek the knowledge and skills to enact institutional change. Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program teaches a leadership model that emphasizes inclusiveness, collaboration, and information sharing.

Grounded in knowledge of teaching and learning, the program’s graduates are prepared to confront ethical and social challenges in educational settings and implement structural improvements. Visit Mills’ online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program to learn more about opportunities to advance your career and create more equitable learning environments for all students.

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