Maine schools must provide a safe environment for all students, including transgender students. Those who have a gender identity different from the sex they were assigned at birth are not being given enough protection, let alone the type of welcoming atmosphere that encourages learning.
Some schools have shown leadership by working closely with transgender students and their parents to ensure their needs are met. They have encouraged the creation of student groups to celebrate diversity and made clear that derogatory language is unacceptable. But too many schools have not taken steps to end verbal and physical harassment.
A continuing legal battle over an Orono school prohibiting a transgender child from using the girls bathroom has drawn attention to the experiences of transgender students in Maine. The case has highlighted how little public understanding there is of the best ways to support transgender students’ education.
Nearly nine out of 10 transgender students experience verbal harassment at school because of their gender expression, according to a 2009 study released by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. More than half experience physical harassment, and more than a quarter experience physical assault. The attacks often result in transgender students missing more school and receiving lower grades.
More enlightened policies and protection — similar to those that help to improve school climates for gay students — will require schools to be proactive. Leaders should not wait until an act of discrimination occurs to change the rules. The Maine Human Rights Commission’s draft guidance on sexual orientation policies is a good place to start.
Ensuring equal treatment means addressing certain issues. Here are some of many ways schools can make sure they treat transgender students with respect:
• Language. Students and teachers’ language sets a school’s tone. Adults should correct students who say “that’s so gay” or use other ostracizing phrases or words. Harassment — including cyberbullying — on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal. Sexual orientation is legally defined in Maine statute as a person’s “actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality or gender identity or expression.”
• Positive representation. Schools should not make the gay or transgender experience invisible. One way to do this is to establish gay/straight alliances or offer diversity programming. When students see administrators and facility supporting gay and transgender students — or even acknowledging their existence — they know bullying isn’t tolerated.
• Bathrooms. Transgender students should have access to bathrooms that respect their gender identity, though for some this could mean single-stall bathrooms. It is not OK to force transgender students to use rooms that correspond to their assigned sex at birth.
• Names. Forms should have a space for a “given name” and a “chosen name,” and school IDs should reflect the chosen name. (The policy also could be helpful for students with divorced parents, who go by a different last name than their legal one). Staff should refer to students by the names and pronouns they desire. If a student hasn’t authorized disclosure of information that reveals his or her transgender status, school staff must not disclose it.
• Housing. At residential high schools and on college campuses, having a floor or wing of a dorm that is designated as friendly to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people — and their allies — helps keep students safe.
It’s not known how many people are transgender, but the National Center for Transgender Equality estimates it’s between 0.25 percent and 1 percent of the population. Feelings about one’s gender are usually set early in life and do not change — though establishing a gender identity can be a dynamic process. Students cannot be asked for “proof” of being transgender, and no medical diagnosis, surgery or hormone replacement therapy is necessary to be transgender.
What is necessary is for educators, legislators and neighbors to be more understanding of transgender students, ensure they are treated with respect and create the type of environment most conducive to learning.