SSWN Top 5: Understanding and Supporting the Needs of Transgender and Gender Nonbinary Students
Transgender and gender nonbinary people have recently garnered increasing media attention and representation. One example includes activist, writer and producer Janet Mock who has appeared widely across U.S. media discussing her experience as a Black transgender woman, and has garnered major acclaim for producing the hit drama, ‘Pose.’ Though representation and acceptance have increased in some areas for transgender and gender nonbinary people, evidence suggests that they continue to face social rejection and stigmatizing policies across social institutions in the United States. To name but a few examples of challenges for tansgender and gender nonbinary people: the proliferation of state-level legislation to bar transgender and gender nonbinary people from using bathrooms aligned with their gender identity, and the recent policy reversal banning transgender and gender nonbinary people from U.S. military service.
Adolescence is a profoundly important time in human life that can set trajectories of health and wellness throughout the lifetime (Sawyer et al., 2012), and creating safe and affirming schools is an important starting point to make a positive change for transgender and gender nonbinary people in society at large. My dissertation examines the schooling experiences of transgender and gender nonbinary students and offers evidence-based recommendations on how to create affirming schools for this youth demographic. Here are my top 5 recommendations on how to do this.
1. Transgender and gender nonbinary adolescents experience high levels of violence in their school places in comparison to their cisgender (not transgender) peers. Transgender young people are those whose gender identity is different from that expected of them given the sex assigned to them at birth. Examples of these gender identities include transgender girl/woman, transgender boy/man, genderqueer and many others (for more information on gender identity and expression and important terms and concepts see: The GenIUSSGroup, 2014). In my research, I have found that transgender and gender nonbinary adolescents experience high burdens of school violence that include: weapon carrying on school grounds, physical fighting, and being threatened or injured with a weapon. Furthermore, compared to their peers these youth have been found to report feeling less safe at school and being more likely to skip school due to safety. This means that transgender and gender nonbinary youth at your school may be experiencing some of these forms of violence themselves, and as a result, may not feel as connected to their learning or to their school community. Informing others and building awareness of this fact is vital.
o Resource: CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Report and Infographic, “Transgender Identity and Experiences of Violence Victimization, Substance Use, Suicide Risk, and Sexual Risk Behaviors Among High School Students — 19 States and Large Urban School Districts, 2017”
2. Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) student alliances can be a protective factor for transgender and gender nonbinary youth in schools. Meta-analysis of tens of thousands of adolescents has shown the important role of GSAs in mitigating expectations of violence and rejection and promoting an overall sense of wellbeing for transgender youth (Marx & Kettrey, 2016). In my own dissertation work, some transgender and gender nonbinary adolescents have shared that GSAs and LGBTQ alliances on their campuses have made them hopeful and have provided an impetus for them to want to be at school. As a school social worker, identify and work with student leaders toward the creation of a supportive GSA or LGBTQ student alliance.
o Resource: ACLU’s “Tips on Starting a GSA”
3. Education on sexuality and gender is an important tool for transgender and gender nonbinary youth to be validated in their experience. School social workers and other school professionals should work with adolescents and teach them about sexuality and gender so that they have a vocabulary with which to identify and understand their experience, and the experiences of their peers. Health and sexual health courses can be a good opportunity for these discussions in addition to one-on-one and small group psychoeducation. It is increasingly clear that the sexual health of LGBTQ adolescents requires increased attention from school-based professionals (e.g., by ensuring that human sexuality and gender are topics of learning at school). Recent research has shown that transgender and gender nonbinary adolescents engage in more sexual risk-taking behaviors than their cisgender peers, and lack inclusive and culturally sensitive education on sexual health (Kattari et al., 2019).
o Resource: Get a sense of the power of learning about the LGBT community, gender and pronouns, consent and body positivity in the Ted Talk, “Why kids need to learn about gender and sexuality” by Lindsey Amer.
o Resource: Educate yourself and your colleagues on the problem of non-inclusive sexual health education, its’ impact on transgender and gender nonbinary youth, and what you can do.
4. Teachers can be exceptional supports for transgender and nonbinary youth. Educate teachers on the importance of including transgender and gender nonbinary people in their course curriculum. Nearly 70% of transgender and gender nonbinary young people in my dissertation research sample reported that LGBTQ topics were not covered at all in their classes. Further, Toomey, McGuire, and Russell (2012) showed that students perceived their gender-nonconforming peers to be safer at schools that had an LGBTQ inclusive curriculum compared to those schools that did not have inclusive curricula. Examples of LGBTQ people in the course curriculum serve to send a message to transgender and gender nonbinary youth and their peers that diversity in human gender expression and experience is normal and valid.
o Resource: Go over and share this guide by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools Project with teachers at your school. It provides quick ways for teachers to include LGBT people and experiences in their classroom curriculums.
5. The rejection of transgender and gender nonbinary young people by their families can have a severe impact on adolescents’ mental health and academic functioning. Transgender and gender nonbinary adolescents who are not supported by their families can face severe mental health consequences including suicidality. This is a common experience for these youth, and in many cases, the mental health impact of rejection keeps them from focusing and excelling academically. Research in a pediatric setting has shown that parents supportive of transgender and gender nonbinary adolescents’ gender identities and expressions are protective from depression and are associated with improved quality of life (Simons, Schrager, Clark, Belzer, & Olson, 2013). As a school social worker identify transgender and gender nonbinary adolescents who lack parental support in your school and educating their parents on the risks of rejection can motivate parents to change their behavior. (Note: This must be done while being extremely cautious not to “out” youth who are not comfortable with you identifying them to their parents as LGBTQ).
o Resource: You can use resources from the Family Acceptance Project including their publication, “Supportive Families, Healthy Children” to educate parents about the risk of rejection, and the benefits of acceptance. This resource is available in English, Spanish and Chinese.
Much more information is needed about the experiences and needs of transgender adolescents. Be an advocate of these youth by creating more affirming school environments in the ways described above. As applicable, ensure that gender identity and sexual orientation are included in evaluation and research on the school environment.
The GenIUSS Group. (2014). Best Practices for Asking Questions to Identify Transgender and Other Gender Minority Respondents on Population-Based Surveys. J.L. Herman (Ed.). Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.
Kattari, S. K., Walls, N. E., Atteberry-Ash, B., Klemmer, C., Rusow, J. A., & Kattari, L. (2019). Missing from the Conversation: Sexual Risk Factors Across Young People by Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation. International Journal of Sexual Health, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/19317611.2019.1667938
Marx, R. A., & Kettrey, H. H. (2016). Gay-Straight Alliances are Associated with Lower Levels of School-Based Victimization of LGBTQ+ Youth: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(7), 1269–1282. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-016-0501-7
Sawyer, S. M., Afifi, R. A., Bearinger, L. H., Blakemore, S. J., Dick, B., Ezeh, A. C., & Patton, G. C. (2012). Adolescence: a foundation for future health. The Lancet, 379(9826), 1630-1640.
Simons, L., Schrager, S. M., Clark, L. F., Belzer, M., & Olson, J. (2013). Parental Support and Mental Health Among Transgender Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(6), 791–793. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.07.019
Toomey, R. B., McGuire, J. K., & Russell, S. T. (2012). Heteronormativity, school climates, and perceived safety for gender nonconforming peers. Journal of Adolescence, 35(1), 187–196. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2011.03.001