Creating a School Community Where Transgender Students Can Thrive

A transgender college student looks back at their high school experience.

As transgender students become more visible and voice their needs, challenging our assumptions about gender and norms, there has been some significant community backlash.  More and more legislation aimed at codifying the discrimination of  transgender people has made its way through state legislatures across the United States.

Several years ago, during his sophomore year of high school, Gavin Grimm , now a college student studying to become a middle school English teacher (we need him!), filed a lawsuit against the Gloucester County School District (GCSD) in Virginia. “In high school, there were a couple of different factors that put me on the trans-activist route. One being that my high school did not allow me to use the boy’s bathroom. I brought a lawsuit against my school district with the ACLU.” The federal district court in Virginia ultimately sided with Gavin. In the process, the court clarified that Title IX does apply to transgender students. The decision mirrored those of several other courts across the United States.

While certainly one of the most trying times of his life, Gavin now recognizes the power of his activism. “I was inspired by so many trans-activists [who came] before me and attempted to use my platform to create change. What ultimately inspired me was obviously my own experience and also what I saw as the glaring lack of teacher education around topics of diversity and inclusion.”

I had the chance to ask Gavin what advice he would give school administrators who hope to create an inclusive school community for transgender students. He outlined five points that he hopes will help school administrators create a space where transgender students can thrive.

1. Take bullying seriously.

Being bullied throughout grade school inspired Gavin to become an educator. “Bullying,” he said, “should truly be considered a public health crisis that can literally kill kids.”

A GLSEN study found that 75 percent of transgender students feel unsafe at school. As administrators craft antibullying policy, they should explicitly address the treatment of transgender students. Communicating that bullying based on one’s gender identity will not be tolerated, giving transgender students a safe space to talk, and creating opportunities for all students to develop compassion and empathy are all ways administrators can ensure that school is a safe space for transgender students.

2. It’s about policy.

It bears repeating: Good policy is one of the clearest ways to show that a school takes bullying seriously. Gavin decries districts who have little to nothing explicitly stating their support of its transgender students,

Policies that affirm the rights of the transgender community have an important effect on the academic and mental health outcomes of transgender students. While these policies may cause backlash from other members of your school community, Gavin notes that school principals and administrators are leaders both inside and outside of the building. Administrators need to be willing to take the heat from angry parents in the pursuit of creating an environment where all can thrive.

3. Make sure your staff receives proper training and professional development.

In retrospect, Gavin wishes that his teachers were trained on how to interact with the LGBTQ+ community at his school. Gavin says that competent and trained teachers would have remarkably improved his high school experience. That training would include thinks like professional development on affirmative pronoun and inclusive language. College-level teacher-prep programs and individual professional development plans should address such topics. LGBTQ+–inclusive training and professional development have a significant impact on the lived experiences of your LGBTQ+ students. According to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey, over half of student respondents reported hearing harmful language from staff and teachers in the school building. This shows yet another reason why inclusive training and professional development opportunities are so important. 

4. Challenges by members of the community and some parents will come. Prepare yourself.

Outside community members and parents in the district were a tough challenge for Gavin. However, he never let their vitriol stop him from pursuing what he knew was right. In fact, Gavin has some advice for administrations navigating difficult situations. “This is what you signed up for as an administrator. It is your responsibility to craft inclusive policy and communicate that out to the school community. If you face backlash, you are the visible leader who has taken a pledge to communicate the values of the district out to the community. In doing so, you are helping to ensure that people like me never fall through the cracks of our broken systems.”

5. Expand your curriculum.

Gavin’s last piece of advice for school administrators is to include trans people in your curriculum. Seeing himself in the school curriculum, in library books, and celebrated throughout the school would have made a significant impact on Gavin’s high school experience. Consider all of the ways that transgender students may feel marginalized at your school. While you may not have intentionally excluded transgender students in your curriculum, the glaring lack of representation will impact them. But representation will also impact your transgender students—positively. Additionally, having a diverse and representative curriculum will impact your students who identity as members of majority populations.

Gavin admits that change cannot happen overnight. However, even small steps toward inclusion will begin to radically change your school community for the better. “If I could give one piece of advice to administrators, it would be to listen to your students. Above all else, your students know what is happening in the classroom, in the hallways, and in the bathrooms. Really listen to them and hear them. School principals have the power to create change in their campus community. And when kids feel heard, a school community that cares about one another will be developed.”

Join the great conversations going on about school leadership in our Facebook groups at Principal Life and High School Principal Life.

Posted by scottburden

Scott currently serves as the Associate Director of the Pride Center for Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity at Lehigh University, where he fulfills his passion for educating students, faculty, and staff about intersectional social justice and Queer politics.

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