Dec 31 5:45 PM

How are schools supporting the needs of transgender students?

A Gay-Straight Alliance school bus at the 2008 Seattle Pride Parade.
Jon Gilbert Leavitt

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By definition, transgender means someone who identifies as the opposite sex. We often associate the term with adults, but a growing number of children are also coming out.

This poses a challenge for schools, which have traditionally assigned bathrooms, sports teams and locker rooms based on gender. 

In Seattle, the public school system is one of a growing number of districts that have set forth guidelines to accommodate transgender students. 

Zoe, an 11-year-old Seattle native, is one of those students.

“Zoe is a pretty strong kid,” mother Carolyn MacGregor said. “She presents that ‘I can take care of myself.’”

But about five years ago, Zoe revealed something she could no longer handle alone. She was born a boy – but felt like a girl. 

MacGregor immediately stepped in, researching the best ways to handle the revelation. She worked with Zoe’s public elementary school staff, and together they formulated a plan to help Zoe feel comfortable during school hours.

They began with MacGregor sending home a letter explaining Zoe’s changes to the parents of her classmates. The school also provided a nurse’s bathroom specifically for Zoe. By the end of that school year, Zoe had changed her name from Ian.

“I don’t think my friends were surprised at all and that makes sense because I’ve always liked girl’s stuff,” joked Zoe. “My class was really understanding.”

Creating an inclusive society

The positive reaction from Zoe’s friends, classmates and teachers is a changing of the tide, said gender specialist Aidan Key.

“This is a new step for our society,” said Key, who trains teachers and parents on how to address the needs of transgender students. He was once a she – 20 years ago Key transitioned from female to male.

“They’re starting at a significantly younger age and they’re not going to travel nearly the same path as me,” said Key, who came into his gender identity in adulthood. “That’s my work to keep up with them.”

Aside from the basics like which bathroom a trans child uses, Key wants to change the way we think about gender roles: “How do we reframe gender? How do we create a gender-inclusive environment that works for all kids when none of us grew up experiencing that?”

It’s tough to say how many children are coming out as transgender or how many schools are taking steps to be more supportive. Kylar Broadus of The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said there has been no extensive study to quantify that, but an increasing number of schools are implementing guidelines.

Two years ago, Seattle Pubic Schools approved a set of guidelines on how to meet the needs of transgender students.

Around the same time, the city’s Garfield High School experienced an influx of teens identifying as transgender: Five in one year. The school now allows students to use the gender pronoun of their choice. Also, counselors have an open-door policy, encouraging transgender students to talk about their experiences.

“Our students and this generation is open to this and pushing forward and saying this is what we need in our schools and our society,” Garfield High academic counselor Ken Courtney said.

Now, the school now has the largest support group in the state for students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and those questioning their sexuality – with nearly 40 members.

“They aren’t going to be able to learn or have barriers to learning if they aren’t accepted for who they are,” Garfield High mental health counselor Rosie Moore said.

Curriculum changes ahead?

Advocates say the Seattle schools’ guidelines are a step in the right direction, but nationwide, transgender students are still feeling marginalized. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 78 percent of 1,846 transgender K-12 students in a 2011 survey reported being harassed on a regular basis. One-third of respondents reported physical violence and 12 percent reported sexual violence.

Six percent said they had been expelled for expressing their gender or identity.

Teen therapist Megan Kennedy is pushing for schools across the nation to integrate gender identity issues into the curriculum.

“I think that it’s incredible that more families are asking for support and schools are asking for support, but it doesn’t negate that fact that youth are still struggling,” Kennedy said.

Zoe’s mom feels good about the way things are now, but she’s bracing herself for struggles ahead. “The teen years, puberty, hormones and Zoe not feeling in step with her peers…that’s going to be the biggest challenge,” MacGregor said.

The two haven’t decided how they will deal with it all, but for now, MacGregor said she’s incredibility proud.

“I feel like I have learned so much from (Zoe),” she said. “(She’s) so self confident and knows herself in a way that others struggle with.”

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