A Big Step Forward for Transgender Students

The New York City Department of Education took a huge step forward this week by issuing a set of official guidelines to support transgender students in the public school system. With language coming down firmly on the side of the student, the guidelines are intended to “help schools ensure a safe learning environment free of harassment, and to promote the educational and social integration of transgender students.” Hopefully this will result in fewer instances of discrimination against transgender students.

The guidelines start by defining “gender identity,” “transgender,” and “gender expression” — all important terms to know. The biggest point that’s driven home again and again is that, unless they’re in a situation where they’re legally required to use a student’s legal name or gender, schools should use the name and gender preferred by the student. This goes for all of the following situations:

  • School IDs are to be issued in a name that reflects the student’s gender identity;
  • Within the constraints of a school’s dress code, students have the right to dress in accordance with their gender identity;
  • During activities that involve separation by gender (things like overnight field trips), students are to be permitted to participate in accordance with their gender identity;
  • Transgender students should never, ever be made to use a locker room or restroom that conflicts with their gender identity;

And loads more.

The guidelines also mention repeatedly that if a student expresses a need or desire for privacy, efforts should be made to provide it — even if that means coming up with reasonable alternatives to accommodate it. They also stress educators figuring out what the child wants when it comes to confidentiality: Some transgender kids may feel better about their fellow students being aware of their transgender status; others may want to stay quiet about it. The guidelines state that both of these preferences are A-OK, and that educators should work with transgender students and their parents to plan either how to educate other students or how to maintain confidentiality.

The one thing that concerns me is that they’re “guidelines,” not firm, fast rules. This opens the door for less understanding schools, parents, and kids to brush them off. And there’s still a long way to go; note that while the guidelines state transgender students should not be forced to use restrooms that "conflict" with their gender identity, they also don’t specifically say that they should automatically be allowed to use the restrooms with which their gender identity coincides. As Michael Silverman, the Executive Director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said in a statement, “This is a big step in the right direction, but transgender kids face unique challenges in school that require more. Officials need to ensure that transgender students have the same opportunities as all students that allow them to thrive. That means treating them as the boys and girls they are, including letting them use bathrooms that match their true identities. Anything less stigmatizes them as the only boys and girls who are forced to use separate facilities.”

But it’s definitely a start. The New York City Department of Education is the largest system of public schools in the country; hopefully it’s only a matter of time before others begin to follow suit.