Guest Opinions

It’s up to each school to support transgender students, who just seek safety

Demonstrators protesting passage of legislation limiting bathroom access for transgender people stand in front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center in Charlotte, N.C., March 31, 2016. The Transgender bathroom debate continues after President Donald Trump rescinds some protections provided by the Obama Administration. (AP)
Demonstrators protesting passage of legislation limiting bathroom access for transgender people stand in front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center in Charlotte, N.C., March 31, 2016. The Transgender bathroom debate continues after President Donald Trump rescinds some protections provided by the Obama Administration. (AP)

Transgender students have been protected under the Title IX guidance issued by the Obama administration in the “Dear Colleague” letter sent May 13, 2016. As a counselor, consultant and professor specializing with transgender children and adolescents, I have witnessed the empowerment of mental and emotional well-being experienced by my clients as a result of the Title IX guidance, which protects transgender students from bullying, discrimination and harassment in bathrooms and locker rooms.

The transgender students I work with immediately felt acknowledged, validated and normalized knowing the Obama administration supported their existence.

On Feb. 22, 2017, the Trump administration rescinded the Title IX guidance. Transgender students have lost federal protections supporting their equal rights. Instead, schools will be left to their own devices to decide how to work with transgender students. The latest “Dear Colleague” letter from the Trump administration offers no clarity for schools regarding transgender students, yet states that “schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment.”

While some schools will continue to be supportive and inclusive for transgender students, other schools will not. Many schools in Idaho have struggled with the Title IX guidance under the Obama administration based on pathologizing views of transgender individuals. Three common fears I regularly encounter are based on lack of education and myths founded in discrimination.

The fear of a sexual predator sneaking into a bathroom and preying on students is unfounded. Transgender students do not want to harm others in the bathroom. Instead, according to a study by the Williams Institute, 70 percent of transgender people report experiencing harassment in bathrooms (Herman, 2009). Many of the transgender clients I work with have experienced verbal and physical harassment in bathrooms based on their gender identity.

Another common fear is that transgender people are mentally ill and do not understand their gender identity. The latest Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (APA, 2013) identifies gender dysphoria as emotional distress related to gender identity and not as a mental disorder.

Finally, many schools fear upsetting parents and the community. In order for positive change to happen, resistance will occur. As parents and the community gain further understanding of what it means to be transgender, fear is reduced. Trainings on bullying and inclusivity can educate parents and the community on the risks unsupported transgender students experience, such as higher suicide rates, depression, anxiety and drop-out rates. In addition to trainings, another suggestion is for schools to invite transgender advocates to be on a panel at a school to share their stories and normalize the experience of transgender individuals.

Despite the Trump administration rescinding the Title IX guidance, schools must support transgender students. Transgender students deserve the right to use the bathroom aligning with their gender identity. All transgender people deserve equal rights, including access to safe and inclusive bathrooms.

Jennifer Gess, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, is a consultant and counselor in private practice in Boise, specializing with transgender children, youth and families.

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