Schools work to help transgender students fit in
SAN FRANCISCO – Isaac Barnett took a bold step last year: He told teachers and classmates at his U.S. school that the student they had known as a girl now wanted to be accepted as a boy.
His close childhood friend, who also identified as transgender, was ready to reveal his secret, too.
With the administration’s blessing, a segment featuring the two friends talking about their transitions aired in the school’s classrooms, alongside a basketball team promotion and a feature on the importance of the arts.
“I didn’t get any questions or hate or put-downs or anything like that,” said Barnett, now 18, adding that classmates called him Isaac immediately — a drama-free coming-out that would have been extraordinary in schools a decade ago.
With children rejecting the birth gender at younger ages and the transgender rights movement gaining momentum, U.S. schools in districts large and small, conservative and liberal, are working to help transitioning youth fit in without a fuss.
California this year became the first state with a law spelling out the transgender student rights in public schools, including the ability to use restrooms and to play on sports teams that match their expressed genders.
Another 13 states prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in schools. Dozens of districts, from Salt Lake City and Kansas City to Knoxville, Tennessee, and Decatur, Georgia, have adopted similar protections.
Parents are increasingly seeking a comfortable learning environment for their transgender children, according to Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund Executive Director Michael Silverman.
There’s “a new generation of parents who grew up in the age of the gay rights movement and are saying, ‘We want to do what is best for our children,'” he said.
The trend is likely to accelerate with help from the federal government.
Last month, the U.S. Education Department alerted districts in a memo on sexual violence that it would welcome civil rights complaints from transgender students under Title IX, the 1972 law that bans gender discrimination at schools.
The guidance gives families new leverage to negotiate access to locker rooms, sports teams and other kinds of accommodations covered under California’s law, said Mark Blom, a National School Boards Association attorney.
He said the memo surprised him because courts have said Title IX doesn’t provide protections for sexual orientation or gender identity.
School officials in states without anti-discrimination provisions for transgender residents already have been wrestling with how to serve students whose needs conflict with traditional views about when and why boys and girls are separated.
The ACLU of Mississippi got involved last year when a student who was born male but identified as a girl wanted to dress accordingly. The principal balked, saying the dress code required clothing to conform to gender.
The school board relented and stood by its decision, even after some parents and students complained, said Bear Atwood, then the state ACLU’s executive director.
“There is this sense of, ‘We have to start figuring out how to deal with this,'” Atwood said.
Last week, a Christian legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom, asked the Louisville, Kentucky, school board to overrule a school principal who allowed a transgender student to start using the girl’s bathrooms.
The principal has since limited the student to one girl’s restroom but said treating her like other female students adhered to the recent Title IX guidance.
“When the issue of gender identity was brought to my attention, I had to educate myself on the issue and what this means in terms of fair and just treatment of transgender people,” Atherton High School Principal Thomas Aberli said.
Kim Pearson, training director of Trans Youth Family Allies, estimates that for every case that makes headlines there are dozens that are resolved quietly and easily.
Since she co-founded the support and advocacy group in 2007, Pearson has worked with parents and educators in half of the states. “If a school wants to get it, they will,” Pearson said.
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