by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill,” requires public schools and public agencies to ensure that “every multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facility be designated for and only used by persons based on their biological sex.” According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI), local school boards ultimately determine the parameters of bathroom access for transgender students and appear to do so without incident.
Of course, access to bathrooms and locker rooms is only one aspect of the challenges that educators encounter when trying to meet the needs of transgender students.
Fortunately, NC DPI staff offered guidance to school-based personnel who must accommodate students who identify as transgender. During NC DPI’s 2015 Collaborative Conference for Student Achievement, former NC Department of Public Instruction HIV Consultant Sherry Lehman conducted a breakout session titled, “Meeting the Needs of Transgender Students.” It appears to be a follow-up to her presentation, “How to be an Ally for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, 2-Spirited Youth,” delivered at the 2013 conference.
According to Lehman, her most recent session was designed to provide “the latest research and best practices for appropriately addressing the needs of these students.” Doing so is straightforward, so long as educators adopt alternative ideas about gender, incorporate new ways of talking about gender inside the classroom, and provide additional support for transgender students outside of the classroom.
Gender is one of those things everyone thinks they understand, but most people don’t. Like Inception. Gender isn’t binary. It’s not either/or. In many cases, it’s both/and. A bit of this, a dash of that.
According to itspronouncedmetrosexual.com, there are an infinite number of gender identities, ranging from the conventional “man” and “woman” to “genderqueer,” “genderless,” etc. Similarly, there are an infinite number of gender expressions and even biological sexes that depend largely on the degree to which the individual maintains a unique combination of feminine and masculine characteristics.
Obviously, the use of binary pronouns “he” and “she” is inappropriate in such a system, given that gender includes a “bit of this, a dash of that.” As such, Lehman outlined the use of gender-neutral pronouns. For example, they advised educators to replace “he” or “she” with “ze” (pronounced “zee”) and “hir” (pronounced “here”). Interestingly, there are lexicons of gender-neutral pronouns that may be used in lieu of conventional gender-specific pronouns. Needless to say, these alternatives have not been widely adopted, even by the progressive among us.
Lehman also urged educators to evaluate and attend to the physical and emotional safety of schools for transgender youth. According to data cited by Lehman, four out of every ten transgender students “have been prevented from using their preferred name.” Around 60 percent were required to “use a bathroom or locker room of their legal sex.” Nearly one-third of transgender students “had been prevented from wearing clothes considered inappropriate based on their legal sex.” The presenter suggested that these prohibitions on gender expression, coupled with harassment by peers, may contribute to increased absenteeism, academic difficulties, low self-esteem, and higher levels of depression among the transgender student population.
To address some of these problems, Lehman recommended making “trans-positive” changes in areas such as student recordkeeping, bathroom accessibility, and physical education and sports. She also promoted the GSA Network’s Advisor Handbook to guide the creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar LGBT support club.
Teachers may find it difficult, however, to redefine conventional understanding of gender and sex for themselves and their students, modify language to correspond to their new (non-binary) understanding of these concepts, implement transgender-friendly policies from home to hallway, and tap the resources of national groups to establish support groups for transgender youth in public schools. Fortunately for NC Healthy Schools staff at DPI, the debate surrounding House Bill 2 has renewed awareness of transgender issues and various recommendations on how to address them. The approach favored by NC DPI is one way. School choice may provide another.