Schools fall behind in their treatment of transgender students
Being in high school is hard. Being transgender is also hard. Being both at once is, oftentimes, extremely difficult on an individual. According to NBC News, around two percent of high schoolers are transgender. Of this population, 27% of them feel unsafe at school, and 35% of them attempt suicide. These problems seem to start with high schools themselves.
Many high schools don’t do enough, if anything at all, to help support their transgender students. To gain more understanding of this situation, I sat down with a transgender college student who would like to be identified as “Oliver” for reasons of privacy. Oliver told me that, while he was lucky to have a helpful guidance counselor and very supportive friends and classmates, he still ran into problems. For example, his name could not be officially changed on the school’s roster, and his deadname (the name he was assigned at birth, as opposed to his chosen name) appeared with his picture in his school’s yearbook. However, this was not his main problem at his high school.
“The worst part was having to still use the girls’ bathrooms….that was awful….I just didn’t go to the bathroom in school,” he explained.
Another trans student I spoke with, who would like to be referred to as “Abe” for privacy reasons, ran into similar problems. “Gym class was really hard because of the changing rooms,” he told me. Bathrooms were also an issue for him. Like Oliver’s school, Abe’s school had no gender neutral bathrooms, forcing him to choose “one or the other.” This situation caused him additional worry because, as he told me, “if you go into the bathroom and somebody sees you….if they end up reporting you to administration, you would probably get in trouble for it.”
Bathrooms and changing rooms were not the only issue of gender separation that Abe ran into. “My high school was pretty gender-segregated for a lot of activities,” he told me. “Even some things like presentations were segregated by gender, and it wasn’t really necessary.”
Oliver and Abe are not the only one who dealt with issues like this in high school. According to a study done by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), “nearly two thirds of transgender students avoid school bathrooms because of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable.” Some schools attempt to force students to use the bathroom that aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth, which can make trans students uncomfortable and dysphoric. In 2015, transgender high school student Lila Perry encountered protests and extreme backlash after using the girls’ bathroom at her high school. Her life and gender were politicized and put under heavy scrutiny for something as simple as going to the bathroom. Even though some schools allow transgender students to use staff bathrooms to avoid these situations, it is incredibly alienating to have to use a different bathroom than all of your peers. “With using the staff bathroom, I felt like I was being segregated off,” Perry told Fox 2 News. “I didn’t like that…I wanted to blend in with all the other girls… I’m not a pervert; I’m a transgender woman. I’m a girl.” No matter which bathroom they enter, trans students without access to gender neutral bathrooms often face harassment, disciplinary action for using the “wrong” bathroom, and even violence in school bathrooms.
In addition to problems with school policies, many trans students also have problems with transphobic classmates. A lot of students have both conscious and unconscious biases against transgender people, perpetuated by transphobia seen at home and on TV. Friends is a prime example of a popular show that is filled with transphobia and transmisogyny, a specific type of transphobia targeted towards trans women and transfeminine people. One of the most transphobic storylines on Friends—in which Chandler’s father is revealed to be a transgender women and subsequently misgendered and ridiculed—was even denounced for its transphobia by Kathleen Turner, the actress who played her, in an interview with the Gay Times. Other transphobic storylines and comments, such as when Chandler is mocked for kissing a transgender woman who is then repeatedly misgendered by other characters, continue to add to the show’s harm to the trans community. Instances like these occur far too often in pop culture and portray transphobia and cissexism in such a way that makes it seem normal, accepted, and even funny. As Abe told me, “Younger teenagers are very impressionable and the things they see on TV… leave an impact and… a lasting impression. It definitely changes their opinions.” When students take these biases out on their transgender peers, it can be very damaging, especially when the school faculty does nothing to help. Oliver said that while he was lucky enough to not run into issues with transphobia from his peers, his schools’ administration probably would not have done anything about if it had been a problem. “They don’t… typically deal with bullying, ever,” he told me.
The internal issues that accompany being trans in high school are also significant. Puberty is hard for everyone, but it’s a lot harder when you’re going through the wrong puberty. “Being trans in high school just sucks,” Oliver told me. “You have a lot to figure out, and then you always have to worry about other people because that’s what people do in high school, you care about what other people think… being trans in high school is a lot. Being trans in general is a lot, and then you have to deal with other high school things on top of it.”
The issues that many transgender students face in high school can leave a major impact on their lives that lasts long after the school day ends. According to a 2015 study published by the Journal of Adolscolent Health, transgender youth are four times more likely to experience depression than their cisgender peers, and one third of trans youth have seriously considered suicide. Trans high schoolers are suffering, and something needs to be done.
Oliver said it best: “Being trans in high school is just a bitch.” Schools need to do better. As Abe mentioned,”High school is a time of progression and finding yourself. People should be able to experiment and figure out what fits them and if that includes not conforming to the gender binary or even realizing, ‘Hey, I am trans, and my happiness would be so much better if I did come out,’ I think that the school administration and student body should make an atmosphere where that is possible.” To start creating a more trans-friendly atmosphere, they should change policies to be more accessible to trans people — for example, stopping the binaristic tradition of separating graduation cap and gown colors by gender, and allowing students to designate their pronouns on school rosters. Oliver suggested that schools should have a section in their rosters for students to designate a preferred name and have more gender neutral bathrooms where students can also change for gym class. Abe had similar suggestions and added that schools should “Make an understanding of ‘transgender’ clear to the student body either in sex ed or in health class, because that’s never talked about, ever.”
Because media is so influential to the minds of teenagers and so much of it is filled with transphobic stigmas and stereotypes, it’s important to counteract this with accurate and factual information regarding trans people. Talks, presentations, and collaboration between school administration and transgender adults and advocacy groups could be a great start. Many of these suggestions mirror policies that some colleges are already starting to put into place, so clearly things do not have to be this hard for trans high schoolers. Things have gotten so much better for trans college students. High school can and should be next.
Lucas Griffin is a sophomore Communications Management and Design major who wants high schools to do better. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to GLSEN at https://www.glsen.org/support/giving.