Equity and inclusion are crucial for all people, especially for vulnerable, marginalized populations. As a counselor and consultant in Boise, I work primarily with transgender children, youth and families. “Transgender” is used to describe individuals whose sex at birth does not align, according to societal expectations, with their gender identity (woman or man, girl or boy). The transgender children I am privileged to work with often share experiences of discrimination and oppression in the school setting. Their stories are filled with bullying, shame, guilt, embarrassment, self-hate, harassment and even violence. Similarly, research illustrates the high rates of harassment, discrimination and even violence transgender students experience in K-12 schools.
On May 13, the Obama administration set forth guidelines clarifying Title IX policies. The guidelines specifically state, “Schools have a responsibility to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students, including transgender students.” The guidelines clarify schools’ responsibilities to support transgender students to access facilities consistent with their gender identity.
Many of my clients have experienced opposition in their schools to be able to use the restroom aligning with their gender identity. This has led to urinary tract infections, decrease in grades, refusal to attend school, low self-esteem and high self-hate, increase in depression and anxiety, and suicidality. Further, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 78 percent of trans students in grades K-12 reported some form of harassment related to their gender identity and expression, 35 percent reported incidences of physical violence and 12 percent reported sexual violence. The harassment trans students experience is so severe that one of six students drops out of school in grades K-12.
Despite the horrendous experiences transgender students face, there is still debate about whether the safety and well-being of transgender students is worth equal protection. Instead, concerns about the safety of other students has been brought to the forefront. In other states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont, laws exist protecting transgender individuals’ access to restroom facilities. There have been no reported issues of a transgender person harming another individual in public school bathrooms.
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Occasionally, a school will ask a transgender student I work with to use the nurse’s facility or another single-stall restroom, hoping this will provide a safe space for the student. This often ostracizes the student by forcing them to use a facility that their peers do not use. Transgender students often feel different from their peers already. Using a separate but not equal restroom highlights indignity and discrimination.
When schools follow the guidelines provided by Title IX and the Obama administration, the transgender clients I work with have increased rates of self-esteem, higher grades and a decreased rate of suicidality. Support our transgender students by demonstrating inclusion and equity for all.
Jennifer Gess, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, is a consultant and counselor in private practice in Boise, specializing with transgender children.