Addressing Transgender Issues in Schools

Summer 2016

By Marian Cavanagh

As mainstream media focus more attention on transgender issues, and as antidiscrimination laws evolve, a shift is taking place on campuses. Many schools now include gender identity and expression in their inclusivity work and seek to establish policies and procedures to support transgender students and their families. It’s not an easy task. 

At a single-gender school, this can prove more challenging than in a coeducational community. While many schools perpetuate a binary view of gender — they offer sports teams for girls and sports teams for boys, acquire uniforms for girls and uniforms for boys, and assign children to these categories based on the physical attributes they displayed at birth — single-gender schools, by definition, serve only one gender. How have these schools approached transgender issues? 

In 2014, the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) established a task force that developed a Transgender Position Statement to address the unique issues facing all-girls schools in dealing with transgender persons. The NCGS statement acknowledges that each school must consider its culture, environment, and regional expectations in terms of laws or human rights components, and must always take into account practical considerations. But at its core, says task force leader and Vice President of the NCGS Board of Trustees Martha Perry, “The goal is that schools will always put the well-being of the student at the heart of any decision.” 

Students who identify as transgender or agender, or students who are transitioning genders, often deal with issues that school personnel never have considered previously. “There’s so much attention and discomfort that can happen during that time, so it’s important to work together to ensure that the student and the family are supported,” says Perry. Perry is principal of St. Clement’s School (Ontario), which uses the term “single gender” to describe its students in grades 1–12. 

Seattle Girls’ School (Washington), for students in grades 5–8, was founded with anti-bias woven into its mission, “So parents already understand that we’re going to be on the inclusive side of any issue,” says SGS Outreach Specialist Rosetta Lee. “We also try to be communicative about our programs, why they’re important and developmentally appropriate.”

The school doesn’t yet have an official policy on what to do if a girl at SGS transitions. “But philosophically,” says Lee, “We’ve made a commitment to the family. If they or the student no longer feels comfortable, or that the school is the right fit, we look at what accommodations we can make that are still in line with our philosophy. We’re not going to change what we say we do: serve girls in Seattle. The reality is that we’re a single-gender school not because we want to teach children who have a certain anatomy or brain chemistry, or how students dress. We want to focus on what they need.”

Having in place policies, programs, practices, and curricula related to diversity, inclusion, equity, and anti-bias establishes an essential component to educate the entire school community — students, parents, faculty, staff, and trustees — and allows everyone to become conversant on different identifiers, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.

Extracurricular programs also can play significant roles. At SGS, the Alphabet Alliance group includes students who identify as, question their individual identity, or want to be allies to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, or asexual (LGBTQIA) and want to talk about these issues. The Alphabet Affinity group creates a safe space for students to talk about their experiences and identities and get the support they may need.

“Change needs to happen intentionally and meaningfully,” says Lee. “Rushing through these processes can lead to people feeling confused or frustrated. It’s not a problem; it’s an identity. Only dealing with surface issues can lead to treating the student as an aberration rather than providing a new understanding of gender in the United States.”

Gender Inclusivity Commonly Used Terms 

Gender Identity: The internal awareness, which may not be visible to others, of being male, female, neither, or both   

Gender Expression: the way a person uses appearance, mannerisms, hairstyle, attire, and other personal traits to communicate their gender   

Gender Fluid: Changing gender identity over time or in different circumstances   

Gender Spectrum: The range of varying and multidimensional gender possibilities   

Gender Nonconforming: Expressing differing gender identity from societal expectations of birth-assigned gender   

Cisgender: A term for someone who has a gender identity that aligns with what they were assigned at birth   

Transgender: Having gender identity or expression that doesn’t correspond with birth-assigned gender  

Agender: Without gender or with gender-neutral identity; having no particular gender expression   

Transitioning: Living as the identifying gender rather than the birth-assigned gender

Marian Cavanagh

Marian Cavanagh has served as communications director at several independent schools. She’s now a freelance writer specializing in education issues. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​