Beyond Non-Discrimination: A Critical Examination of School Safety, Support, and Inclusion of Transgender Youth

By J.M. Bendett

This paper is part of a larger work focusing on the safety and support of transgender students in private schools throughout New York City. The greater work centers the recognition and visibility for transgender, gender independent, and gender non-conforming identities in a school context and explores the production of social norms to maintain systems of categorization and homogeneity throughout a school climate. This larger work includes actions taken by a number of schools within a small case study to address the value of recognition and the right of all students to a visible and valued identity. I utilize author and trans-activist Julia Seranos holistic model of inclusivity to demonstrate a model that resists the power of the social norm and shifts the conversation to accommodate and celebrate difference rather than hierarchical homogenization. I argue that an inclusive school environment necessitates the recognition of disparate identities and the exposure of the violent power of norms. The following sections focus specifically on the effects of policy reformation and proactive structural changes schools take to foster a positive environment for all students. For more information on these works, please contact the author.  

By the time a child turns 18, they have spent nearly 20,000 hours in school, or roughly 22% of their waking life.[1] The classroom serves as a child’s first and most substantial exposure to the microcosm of society at large. This knowledge informs the value and importance schools offer all children, and signals why the culture and environment created within an individual school is a meaningful element in the identity formation of each child. This paper investigates the ways in which school communities offer support to transgender youth. I argue that a supportive school community necessitates an expanded understanding of the notion of safety that promotes an inclusive environment for all gender identities. In his work Normal Life: Administrating Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law, trans-activist Dean Spade explicates the ways in which legal reform and policy changes are overused and often ineffective strategies for ensuring the safety of transgender people, particularly transgender youth. This framework applies to policy reform and anti-bullying protocols as ineffective measures in establishing a culture of support for transgender students. Schools that place importance on protocol and policy development do not address the systemic and structural ways in which trans students are often not supported within the school community. These policies do not address the social structures within a school environment that stifle the self-expression of children who do not conform to a binary gender system and produce a climate that enforces limiting gender norms and damaging stereotypes that have a negative impact on all children in their path to self-identification. I argue that this process is violent, and that a definition of safety for all children necessitates a social environment in which identity formation is inclusive of gender expression, presentation, and identification. This paper explores the limitations of schools’ use of policy and legal measures to establish a welcoming and inclusive environment to transgender students, as well as the successes and positive effects of schools making proactive, cultural changes.

Justification for this project stems in part from the expansion of Title IX in 2014 to include protection of individuals on the basis of gender identity (Ennis 2015). Title IX was originally signed into law in 1972 in the United States as part of the Educational Amendments prohibiting any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance from discriminating or denying benefits to any person on the basis of sex (US Department of Justice 2015). This includes all aspects of education, from academics to athletics and applies to individuals at all levels of education including students, employees, teachers, staff, and faculty members. As a result of the amendment of this Act in 2014 to include gender identity as a provision, transgender students in public schools have the ability to use Title IX to build a case against discrimination in their school communities. Though it is legally compulsory for public institutions to protect transgender students from discrimination on the basis of their gender identities, many schools across the country fail to uphold this responsibility. As a result, transgender, gender-nonconforming (GNC), and gender independent children continue to face great risks of violence in public institutions despite the legal ramifications set forth by Title IX. According to a GLSEN report entitled, “Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools,” 65% of transgender students in public institutions felt unsafe in school because of their gender expression, and 87% of transgender students reported being verbally harassed (Greytak, Kosciw and Diaz 2009). Furthermore, the nature of this violence and lack of safety towards transgender youth is intersectional, meaning it affects students across race, class, sexuality, disability, and gender backgrounds in interconnecting ways. A transgender child in a public school who is from a low income family, who is a person of color, and who identifies as female faces oppression from multiple angles of society that must all be considered when establishing a school climate that is inclusive and supportive of identity formation.

Though public schools have the support of federal policies like Title IX in efforts to establish inclusive environments for all students, the complex standards and regulations of the Department of Education and lack of funding in many cases pose potential roadblocks to establishing proactive structural change. Consequently, this paper focuses on private institutions and interrogates intersectional oppressions, centering on transgender and GNC student safety, in order to highlight the potential for change in school climates that are not legally bound by Title IX, yet are not restricted by the DoE or funding challenges.

The first section of this paper analyzes Spade’s breakdown of legal discourse and policy reform to expose the shortfalls and limitations of equitable distribution of safety and life chances for the transgender population. The second part of this paper examines the practical application of this theory within a small sample of private schools in New York City to present a window into existing school structures that support transgender students.[2] These schools range in their levels of progress of implementation and practices of their process, each falling into different points on the continuum of building an inclusive environment. From schools at the very beginning, focusing purely on policy change, to schools that adapt policy in conjunction with intentional cultural shifts towards ensuring a welcoming and safe space for all students. The final part of this paper explores the ways in which proactive changes and cultural shifts have a profound impact on the school communities in my sample. I argue that Spade’s theoretical framework exposing the limitations of an individual rights structure must be applied to schools proactively in order to establish a supportive environment and offer students a new language of safety and support.

Theoretical Framework: Limitations of Policy Reform

In Normal Life, Dean Spade explicates the failure of contemporary legal strategies to improve the lives of transgender people. Spade parses how anti-discrimination and hate-crime or anti-bullying laws fail to address broader systemic disparities in access to resources and life-chances and focus too narrowly on an individual structure of rights distribution. Spade parses the use of an individual rights system as a problematic tool that inhibits protection of minority populations that experience violence, harm and disproportionate distribution of life chances. This section reflects the ways in which Spade exposes the myths and misguided strategies most often employed to promote the protection of transgender and minority populations. I argue that these frameworks apply to policy reform and anti-bullying strategies often employed by school communities.

Spade uses the notion of the “myth of equality” to demonstrate that anti-discrimination laws, hate-crime laws and “equal opportunity” programs misunderstand the operation of power and the role law plays in the function of power.  It is a myth to think that writing new laws that promote good behavior—i.e. laws that make it illegal to fire or harm someone because they are transgender—and suppressing restrictive or negative laws—such as laws that explicitly criminalize people for their sexual preferences or for whom they wish to marry—will improve the lives of those whom the laws presume to protect (Spade 2011, 36). A transgender person who lives in a state with hate-crime laws barring the harassment of persons on the basis of their gender identity endures no less risk for violence, wrongful employment termination, and inadequate health care coverage. A person of color living in a southern state that ruled racialized discrimination unconstitutional faces no less risk of racism and racial profiling in that state. As Spade clarifies, hate-crime laws do nothing to prevent the violence and danger vulnerable populations face every day, and anti-discrimination laws rarely have the effect of proactively preventing discrimination. Instead, these laws focus more energy and resources on the criminal punishment system that historically targeted the very populations it now alleges to protect. As Spade suggests, “Investment in such a system for solving safety issues actually stands to increase harm and violence” (Spade 2011, 36). As police and law enforcement historically targeted transgender, gay, POC, and other minority populations, investing resources into this system only stands to increase harm to these vulnerable populations by asserting what forms of violence are deemed unacceptable and rendering other systemic forms of violence invisible. Hate-crime laws do not restore or increase the life chances of the people they are assumed to protect, they do not prevent harm from coming to transgender people, and they legitimize legal structures that were designed to target those they are now instructed to defend.

Anti-discrimination and hate-crime laws rely on an “individual rights dyad;” a structure of rights that focuses so narrowly on individuals committing harm to other individuals, and trusting law enforcement to dole out appropriate punishments that it fails to take into account the broader systemic disparities and access to resources and life chances that put individuals on disparate planes of opportunity (Spade 2011). Spade emphasizes that this perpetrator/victim dyad is ineffective for addressing, transphobia, homophobia, racism, ableism, and other systems of subjugation, as it obscures deeper operations of power and instead individualizes instances of racism, transphobia, etc. (Spade 2011, 85). These legal structures seek out the “bad” individuals who have extreme bias and prejudice, meanwhile, as Spade suggests, “daily disparities in life chances that shape our world along the lines of race, class, indigeneity, disability, national origin, sex, and gender remain untouched and affirmed as non-discriminatory or even fair” (Spade 2011, 85). This suggests that the individualized rights system of law enforcement obscures the cultural pervasiveness of racialized and gendered prejudice in our society by instead focusing on the individuals who channel that prejudice into violence or harm directed at other individuals. This effectively sanctions forms of racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc. manifested in daily activities that are not directly obvious as discrimination. We see this demonstrated in many ways, such as wage gaps and hostile working conditions that are still a reality for many women in the workforce; migrant workers turned down for employment regardless of citizenship status; forced assimilation of indigenous and immigrant people in the United States; transgender people not receiving adequate health care as a result of mismatching gender markers on identification documents. These are all instances of sanctioned discrimination, as many of the legal procedures and protocols for anti-discrimination do not recognize these instances of targeting and prejudice, despite the obvious negative impacts on the lives of these vulnerable populations.

Although anti-discrimination and hate-crime laws inadequately address the needs of populations of individuals who experience a disproportionate access to life chances, as Spade suggests, there are some reactive benefits to these types of policy reform (Spade 2011, 80). Primarily, they establish a basis for legal claims against discriminating employers, schools, restaurants, housing providers, individuals, etc. However, the reality that the people most affected by discrimination often cannot afford legal representation or cannot access the resources to uphold anti-discrimination laws renders these laws ineffective. Additionally there is a symbolic value to these types of legal measures (Spade 2011, 80). It is valuable for transgender people to be recognized under statewide and federal measures preventing discrimination, as it sends the message that their lives are meaningful. Furthermore, in specific cases, such as athletics and competitive sports, legal reform and policy formation are vital to a person’s ability to participate in their chosen competitive activities. For example, Chris Mosier,[3] Men’s US National Team Triathlete, was the first openly transgender person to make the Men’s national team. However, until very recently, Olympic-level policy regarding transgender surgeries and hormone levels[4] would have barred Mosier from competing in the US National Triathlon (Mosier n.d.). In this situation, policy reform was necessary for Mosier to participate in the US National Triathlon, for which he already qualified. This legal battle demonstrates that athletics is one avenue in which a fight for policy reform is vital.

Yet reformed policies do not prevent athletes like Mosier from the risk of violence, harassment in their work establishments, and denied health care coverage. In this way, individualized rights systems obscure the ways in which transphobia permeates our cultural landscape and detract from a more productive framework of protection and support. As Spade suggests:

In order to properly understand power and transphobic harm, we need to shift our focus from the individual rights framing of discrimination and ‘hate violence’ (which emphasizes harm caused by individuals who harm other individuals) and think more broadly about how gender categories are enforced on all people in ways that have particularly dangerous outcomes for trans people. (Spade 2011, 29)

This shift from a policy-centered focus to a cultural understanding of systemic prejudice is fundamental in the process of establishing a supportive environment for transgender people, namely students. Social categorizations with rigid boundaries create potentially hostile situations for individuals who do not fit easily within those confines. Within a school community, policies and protocols that are based on the individualized instances of harm or confrontation, such as anti-bullying and zero-tolerance policies, work in this same function. There is an assumption that these policies will “send a message” to students against potentially bullying or harassing someone, and when necessary (or deemed valid), the school can take action—and in a sense, bully the student into an apology or suspension. However, these policies fail to raise awareness about the dangerous and potentially damaging limits of binary gender categories; these policies do not educate teachers, students, and parents about the value of gender sensitivity; these bullying protocols do not help all students understand that gender stereotypes are limiting identities and that exposing these limits produces a more welcoming environment. Policies that focus on individualized harm do not facilitate the cultivation of a supportive community. A school that is focused on reacting to problem situations or harm done to a member of its community does not focus on fostering an environment that inspires respect and support. Proactive cultural shifts and structural changes with durable solutions have a lasting impact on the school community and make for a more inclusive environment for students, faculty, and parents.

School Sample: Practical Applications

This section provides an examination of the ways in which the schools in my sample are working towards a community that is inclusive of transgender and gender independent students and their families. This project was designed around interviews with administrative heads at four independent schools in the New York City Area. These administrators have an intimate understanding of the working mission of the school, the efforts taken by faculty and staff to uphold that mission and maintain a supportive environment within the school, and the day-to-day functioning of the school.[5] I use Spade’s theoretical framework to interrogate the amount of focus each school places on policy reform, and the amount of consideration given to cultural changes that promote a supportive environment.

The schools included in this small sample, labeled School A, School B, School C, and School D, were selected based on a set of criteria. All names of schools and administrators have been changed for the purposes of this paper unless noted otherwise.[6] Each school boasts a commitment to diversity and inclusion, has a mission statement that outlines the value of community and respect for all students, or was recommended as a community that supports gender inclusiveness by members of a school that satisfies either of the first two requirements. All schools are independent schools in the New York City area; they do not receive federal funding and are overseen by a leadership committee or board of trustees. The cost of attendance is equitable at all schools, and while all schools offer scholarship programs, all families in attendance at these schools belong to a similar socioeconomic class that is well above those attending public institutions. All schools begin with pre-kindergarten and go at least through 5th grade. The schools vary in size of student population, from nearly 650 students to over 900. Length of establishment of each school ranges greatly, from less than five years to over 100 years. None of the schools included require uniforms, however the dress code policies varied greatly from school to school.[7]

School A exemplifies a school just at the beginning of inclusivity work. This school offers a language immersion program for Chinese and Spanish speakers, meaning that a large percentage of the teachers and staff were born in China and various South American countries and various cultural differences are considered on many levels of school programming. This school is less than five years old, and the newness of this school works in its favor in that large-scale changes can often be made rapidly. Though this type of immediate action can be beneficial to policy change and protocol implementation, there are specific cultural challenges to enacting such rapid cultural change within a school community that employs a large number of faculty members who were born outside of the United States. A. Grand, Head of Lower School, expresses the ways in which challenges came up at a recent faculty workshop for gender sensitivity training.

We’re not afraid of change. We can make large changes immediately. But I do think that we are working at a different pace than other schools just because we cannot make any assumptions with [regards to] our faculty. Because most of our faculty [members] were not born in the United States, just the idea of homosexuality might be earth shattering to some of them. So this is all very new information… Even though we are this independent school that goes through all this change, we have to work with the social constructs of our faculty (Grand 2016).

Grand admits that cultural changes and educating staff members is an important focus in establishing an inclusive environment. The workshop and gender sensitivity training offered faculty members tools to explore the deeply complex and problematic ways in which gender stereotypes are employed in our society.[8] This workshop demonstrated to faculty members that gender norms are limiting for all individuals, as no one truly fits into any one category 100% of the time. However, as Grand admits, “that’s day one of this work” (Grand 2016). Grand has focused primary resources on establishing protocols for conflict resolution to ensure that all teachers are on the same page in the event of a situation in which a student is confronted or hurt. In a school community where few of the faculty members share the same first language, protocol is a valuable asset. Although policy and protocol are necessary to establishing a baseline of support for all students in this unique community, there is more work to be done. “Our school mission is very much about language and culture, and from that perspective, we’re not doing this that well. But it’s definitely part of our mission. We’re trying, and we’re going to get there!” (Grand 2016). Grand concedes that a challenge for School A is finding the middle ground between a policy that transcends faculty cultural difference, and a culture that supports all members of the school community.

In contrast, School D[9] has been actively working towards a balance between school policy and cultural inclusion for over six years. School D opened in the 1920’s and has a history of reflecting a social justice perspective on many issues. D. Chap,[10] Head of Lower School and former Director of Diversity, explains that although official policy does play an important role, it is not the solution to establishing a supportive community. This school developed an environment through teacher training programs, student and family workshops, and support systems for community members. Chap explains the ways in which teachers and administrators commit to transgender awareness and inclusion through the use of official school policy changes as well as cultural changes in the community. School D maintains various handbooks and guidelines that offer parents, students, and faculty members best practices and expectations for social conduct within the community. More importantly, as Chap notes, teachers are trained to be vigilant about “stepping in” when kids make gendered comments or taunts towards other students as a result of how they were socialized (Chap 2016). This training is intersectional—meaning teachers are taught to respond accordingly to issues of race, religion, sexual orientation, physical and/or mental disables, etc. Chap explains that School D doesn’t necessarily include this type of anti-bias approach to training in written form, such as policy and/or specific guidelines demanding teachers respond in specific ways to specific scenarios. Chap argues:

What we do offer is professional development and ongoing resources. People know that there are team members in the community that have had the training, have the dialogue, and those are the go-to people when you’re stuck, when you’re not sure, when you’re hearing things you want to be able to address properly, when you want to come back to a situation you don’t think you handled well, or—and this is the unfortunate piece but the reality—when you’ve put your foot in your mouth, said something wrong, called someone the wrong gender, and you’ve got to go back and fix it or address it. And there are enough people in the community whom you can go to mull that over. And again, I say that as it relates to race, and all issues of identity. We follow the same “protocol” if you will (Chap 2016).

This description outlines the recognition that policy reform is necessary up to a point within a school community. A non-discrimination policy will not help a teacher who misgendered a student go back and make the situation right with that student. Anti-bullying policies will not offer resources to a parent whose child is expressing their gender in ways that are not aligned with their assigned birth sex. These are situations in which school resources and support within the community are invaluable to changing the cultural conversation around gender to be one of inclusion and support. Chap explains that six years ago, School D did not have these community support systems and cultural changes in place, though they did have a number of general policies that outlined the school’s commitment to social inclusion. However, one teacher recognized that it was not enough to assume that gender independent students would feel supported by policy alone. Chap suggests that although students and families within the community may never have felt they didn’t have a place there, the dearth of understanding around gender sensitivity and teacher training was critical:  “So we weren’t doing a horrible thing by not having training and language and specific policies, but we weren’t explicit about what we were doing” (Chap 2016). This initiative and intention to shift the cultural conversation at School D had a profound impact on the school community, and the very next year, the school enrolled its first transgender student.

School C likewise places greater importance on active cultural changes rather than policy documentation. This school, celebrating 100 years of active student enrollment, is working towards a more inclusive curriculum. C. Brook, Director of Community and Inclusion, articulates the school’s commitment to gender inclusion through faculty education and training. Brook outlines the ways in which School C functions as a unit and leads by example. The policy is far less important within this dynamic than the notion that everyone in the community understands the school’s dedication to fostering a supportive environment. Brook explains:

Official policy protocol is a little loosey-goosey. We are much more about cultural change. We will probably never tell our teachers, ‘you can’t say boys and girls’ because we almost never tell them what [they] can’t do. But culturally, we talk a lot about it. We talk about what teachers do when they hear kids do things that might be pushing kids around, we do role play about race and gender related issues…we practice it but we don’t say, ‘You have to say this,’ because it’s much more dynamic than that. This applies to all diversity work. We are doing some things that make people uncomfortable. But we always try to work towards an inclusive community. And we have a lot of work to do (Brook 2016).

The notion that this school stands by its students and stands by its commitment to establishing a safe space for all families, teachers, and students sends an important message to prospective families. This message demonstrates that the school values all members of the community. Brook admits that this process began partly in response to a young student rising grade by grade whom the family and teachers recognized was at the early stages of identifying as transgender. However, the school community responded to this student and family by offering support systems, resources, and professional development workshops for the staff. Brook mentions that in addition to these responsive changes within the school climate, the Head of School sent a letter home to all Lower School families with the message that as a school, School C values identity development as a primary goal, and that the school stands by all students and families in their pursuit of authentic identification (Brook 2016). Though policy reform is an important part of enumerating the specific ways in which the school stands by its students, this message sent home by the Head of School demonstrates the value of developing a cultural climate in which all students feel supported by their community.

Similar to School D’s proactive work, School B began implementing various measures for addressing gender inclusivity nearly four years ago. Director of Diversity, B. West, clarifies that most of these changes were culturally based rather than focused on policy or protocol. West explains that School B boasts over 100 years of respectful language and behavior protocols that were written into the official handbook, however, the handbook itself is not the primary focus for teachers and faculty members when addressing situations that come up in the community. This mentality is ingrained within the cultural climate at School B and promotes an environment that not only supports inclusive dialogue and community building between students and faculty, but is adaptable to the changing and developing needs of the students.

I think policy definitely needs to be there. So in our handbook that no one reads, it’s there. We have it if something were to get to that point. But I think it depends on the culture of the institution, whether the policy actually dictates [action] or if there’s more of a cultural moral imperative of support. I can’t imagine in a place like this that we’d ever ask, ‘what does the handbook say?’ because we just handle it. This child is in pain, this kid doesn’t understand they hurt this kid; we need to fix this (West 2016).

The understanding that policy is in a sense a backup to dynamic systems of inclusion and direct action demonstrates the value School B places on addressing student needs and social encounters West acknowledges that the policy in the school handbook is an important document that reflects the school’s mission to respect and support all students. Yet she mirrors Spade’s recognition that policy and protocol do not address the systemic ways in which gender stereotypes and transphobia permeate a school climate. In this way, School B is more focused on establishing a cultural atmosphere in which teachers are trained in a wide range of programs and activities to show support to their students. This demonstrates the imperative for schools to promote cultural structures and changes that facilitate an inclusive environment.

The anecdotes in this section provide an initial window into the general outlook administrators in my sample take towards building a community that supports the needs of transgender students. For School A, the challenge of establishing a unified cultural atmosphere exposes the need to create underlying policies and protocols that transcend cross-cultural differences. School D offers extensive systems within the community, both in the form of professional development programs and community members with specific training, to facilitate a welcoming environment for all students, teachers and parents. School C promotes a school-wide approach to inclusion that sends a message to all community members and prospective families that the school stands behind the needs of all students. School B places value in student interaction and facilitation of teacher training above official policy and written documentation. These schools are taking steps towards providing families with a community of support, inclusion and understanding. The next section provides clarity on the value of implementing these changes proactively to ensure developmental support at the structural level of a school system.

Proactive Changes

This section demonstrates the ways in which proactive cultural shifts and structural changes have a positive impact on school communities and make for a more supportive environment for students, faculty, and parents. A school that is focused on responding to student needs only as they arise to harm perpetuates the individualized structure of rights distribution, and fails to take into account systemic issues that allow for those instances of harm to continue. Schools in my sample demonstrate various stages of proactive changes to foster environments that inspire respect and support within the community.

Three years ago, a third-grader at School A vocally protested the gender they were assigned at birth. While this child never articulated a transgender identity, they strongly resisted participation in stereotypical gender presentations of their assigned birth sex.[11] When A. Grand, Head of Lower School, began to take notice of this student, she had no knowledge or understanding of how to support a gender independent child, and attempted to offer accommodations to this specific child wherever she had the power. A unique challenge of this situation was that the parents of this child were also faculty members at School A and were not supportive of their child’s gender independence. In the Lower Division of School A, Grand clarified, parents still have significant say in the ways in which the school regards their children. “We can’t really do anything without parental consent,” Grand explained.[12] As a result, Grand had limited options to offer the child. Grand offered the student the use one of a single-use, private adult bathroom to ease the child’s distress with using binary-assigned restrooms. The parents rejected this offer, claiming their child was going through “a phase” and would grow out of it. The parents’ refusal to allow their child to accept this safe bathroom space put Grand in a challenging position, as she wanted to support her student but was unfortunately compelled by school protocol to oblige the parents. This instance demonstrates the ways in which placing too much focus on the policy and protocol of a school has the potential to cause more harm than benefit. In this case, the fact that these parents were also faculty members further reveals the lack of cultural support for trans identities within the school community.

Grand has since retroactively pursued her own gender education training. Grand recently arranged for teacher training workshops for all Lower School faculty members. Unfortunately the student has since aged out of the Lower School and these developments, only recently set in motion, are years behind a time when perhaps more than one child would have benefited from school-wide cultural shifts and education around gender inclusivity. Furthermore, many of these changes are in direct response to a circumstance in which a student was left without the support of their school. Spade’s theoretical framework helps us see that School A’s initial response to a gender independent child was to treat it as an individualized case rather than approach it from a systemic perspective. Grand admits that she was “treading water” at the time, and there was a lot she needed to learn (Grand 2016). Treating this child’s experience as a unique situation in which only one child needed special support suggests that other potentially non-vocal transgender students, and all students in general, did not receive the support and education, and did not experience a community that values gender inclusion. However, the workshop Grand arranged exposes the promising potential for School A to establish proactive structural changes to shift the cultural climate and encourage gender inclusion at the school.

In 2010, a teacher at School D recognized that the school had considerable gaps in the school climate and faculty understanding about gender. D. Chap recounts that at that point, the school had never enrolled a vocal student who openly identified as transgender, and this teacher recognized that if they ever did, the school would fail to meet many of the needs of a transgender child. Chap explains that this recognition launched teachers and faculty members into a concentrated effort on educating themselves, students and parents about gender identity, gender expression, and the needs of individuals who identify as transgender and/or gender independent. Through a series of lectures, workshops, family assemblies, and professional development retreats, the school community began to move from a dearth of awareness around gender sensitivity to a community of inclusion and support for all genders and identities. Chap clarifies that it was not a coincidence that the year after the school began to make these dramatic changes, they enrolled their first transgender student. Chap proudly recalls:

That training was pivotal, real pivotal [to] our school’s ability to be welcoming of our first transgender student. He enrolled in one gender, and then decided he wanted to live his life in his male form and his male identity. [He] changed his name before the school year started and introduced himself in his preferred pronoun. And then at the start of his senior year, we enrolled another student who again had heard through the grapevine [about] the work we were doing, the conversations we were having, some of us were presenting about this work, and then we enrolled a 9th grade student who also identifies as transgender. And she was able to start the year with her preferred pronouns. She is now a senior and high school [student body] president! (Chap 2016)

This overwhelmingly positive outcome stemming from training and developmental work demonstrates a direct impact of proactive education and community support. The preemptive training paired with active exposure and community outreach lead to a student feeling secure enough, before even walking through the doors, to come out in his chosen gender. As Chap suggests, this type of structural change and support has a lasting impact on the school environment. By the time the second transgender student enrolled with her chosen name and preferred identity, the atmosphere at School D was already at a high level of support, inclusion, and respect. That three years later she is now the student body president demonstrates the ways in which this type of proactive structural change has a lasting impact on the school environment.

When School C began the 2014 school year, a second grade student who had recently come out as transgender initiated many changes within the school that were in direct response to her transition. The letter sent home to families by the Head of School mentioned in the previous section was one way the school sent the message to all the families in the community that the school stands by all its students. Within the classroom, teachers helped classmates prepare for the transition by educating the class on identity formation, gender expression, and the importance of pronouns. C. Brook describes:

[When] the student and her family decided that she would transition [and] would begin to use female pronouns and change her name at school, her teacher put a lot of structures in place within the classroom. They began by having conversations about gender and what it means to identify in a certain way. For example—and this was with the student and family’s approval—all the students participated in deciding what her new name could be. So they had a name jar and they all put names in the jar that the classmates felt would be a great new name for their friend. [The student] ultimately chose one of those names to be her new name. (Brook 2016) 

This passage portrays the actions taken by this classroom teacher to demonstrate to students that names and pronouns are valuable parts of identity formation. Though this activity was directly responding to a classmate with specific needs, the lesson was preemptive of a potentially harmful confrontation between students and impacted the lives of all students, not only the child in need of support. This example reveals the importance of proactively addressing the needs of a transgender child, such as name change, pronoun change, and acceptance of a new identity. The beauty of this example is that this student not only felt supported by her classmates, she gained the experience of her school community moving with her through her journey.

Though School B has never had a student openly and vocally expressed a transgender identity, B. West describes the ways in which the school community is working to address weaknesses in structural support. West explains:

We send our teachers to a lot of professional development programs and workshops. We currently have a gender and sexuality committee doing a review of the curriculum. We’re having all the teachers record and document any gendered interactions they observe so we can collect that data and address what our greatest weaknesses are (West 2016).

West outlines the school’s process of addressing these systemic manifestations through a careful process of collecting data and recording instances of cissexism and gender bias. This process is vital to a school climate that actively works towards inclusion and support for transgender students and their families. The importance of data collection and the power that comes along with truly understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the school’s supportive climate are critical to successful inclusive development. These proactive measures help School B identify trends and distinguish how, where, and when to allocate specific resources. When instances of normalizing gendered standards are not specifically chronicled, it is far more difficult to recognize the systemic intolerance within the community. This type of recognition within the community offers knowledge and visibility and demonstrates a historical context for proactive change.

A school that is only reactive to student circumstances and situations that arise and is constantly working to “catch up” with the needs of the students is never going to achieve the positive cultural shifts and inclusive environmental support systems. Spade’s theoretical framework allows us to understand this as an individual rights system—a system in which the school, or administrator, or employer, or whomever, deals with harm done to an individual as an isolated occurrence, rather than viewing the situation as a systemic problem. Actively promoting an inclusive environment for transgender children is a language in which students and teachers become fluent, and in turn, teach others outside the community.


Schools are often the most consistent environment in which young children learn to make decisions about their identity, their world, and their relationships as they mature into adolescence and adulthood. This paper interrogates the ways in which school communities offer transgender students an expanded conception of safety: one that encompasses a breakdown of social norms, a culture supportive of gender identity formation, and exposure to transgender identities both within and outside the school. I explore the theoretical framework of Dean Spade to argue that policy reform is not the only means of achieving a school community supportive of identities that fall outside of the social norm. Rather, an inclusive environment necessitates increased parental involvement, intentional engagement with teachers and faculty through workshops and professional development, and curriculum expansion to include identity formation. Through primary information gathered from personal interviews with department heads at four private schools in New York City, this paper illuminates the ways in which contemporary schools are working towards these goals. Policy reform is a useful tool in some aspects of school development, however I argue for schools to focus on a shift within their community culture to render school practices and social trajectories that have a meaningful impact on the lives of transgender students, and in turn, the lives of all students.

The current climate of trans organizing is primarily situated within a discourse of adult advocates fighting for the human rights of trans people. I argue that a trans politicization that highlights early childhood education as an essential concern offers transgender youth the experience of support and safety before they are victims of systemic violence and ostracized for violating social norms. A trans organizing strategy that focuses on creating spaces for children to grow into their identities and feel safe and supported throughout their education works to minimize instances of violence in the lives of trans youth as they mature into adulthood. All children learn the language of their communities. While this project centers on private schools that are actively pursuing practices supportive of transgender inclusion, these actions and changes are vital for all children, not only students wealthy enough to attend private school. All children deserve the opportunity to experience the support and protection of their school communities as they discover their identities. It is imperative that the changes employed by the private schools in my sample are adapted for all schools, regardless of funding status and cost of attendance, and I plan to incorporate these adaptations into future works. This paper is only the beginning of a life-long project to build a school community in which students feel safe, supported, and valued, as they grow into thriving adults.


Brook, C. Personal Interview. February 24, 2016. Transcript.

Chap, D. Personal Interview. February 24, 2016. Transcript.

Ennis, Dawn. “Department of Justice Affirms Title IX Protection for Trans Students.” 17 November 2015. The Advocate. 2015. Web.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, 1995.

GLSEN. “2013 National School Climate Survey.” GLSEN. Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network. 2013.

GLSEN “The Principal’s Perspective: School Safety, Bullying and Harassment.” GLSEN. Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network. 2009.

Grand, A. Personal Interview. February 16, 2016. Transcript

Greytak, E. A., J G Kosciw, and E. M. Diaz. Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. New York: GLSEN, 2009.

Margolin, Emma. Transgender students protected under Title IX, DOE says. April 30, 2014. (accessed Dec 3, 2015).

Mosier, Chris. Go! Athletes.

Serano, Julia. Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2013.

Spade, Dean. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law. South End Press, 2011.

United States Department of Justice. Overview Of Title IX Of The Education Amendments Of 1972. 2015. 3 Dec 2015. Web.

West, B. Personal Interview. February 19, 2016. Transcript.


[1] This figure makes the assumption that children attending school spend an average of eight hours a day, five days a week that in school from age three to age eighteen. There are of course many children who do not attend this many hours of school, or school for this many years of their lives. However, this figure demonstrates that, especially at an early age when children are required to attend school, the hours spent in school play a major role in a child’s social development.

[2] This paper utilizes primary research conducted over the course of several months. The schools in my study have been anonymized and the representative from each school was likewise given a pseudonym beginning with a letter that corresponds to their respective school.

[3] Chris Mosier is founder of and GO!Athlete, offering both resources and support networks for transgender athletes in the United States.

[4] Current policies for transgender athletes at Olympic level competition require a longer period of hormone treatment for trans women and proof of low levels of testosterone for a period of 12 months prior to Olympic competition. However, there are no time requirements for hormone treatments for trans men. The notion that testosterone levels indicate level of athletic success signals underlying misogyny and sexism within this institution. This, unfortunately, is beyond the scope of this paper, but demands a critical interrogation.

[5] While interviewing teachers, students, and parents would make for a more well-rounded and richer comprehension of the daily environment at each school, lack of time prevented that element of the project, however I plan to expand this project in the future to include that dimension.

[6] Participants who preferred to declare their real names and school affiliations are found in footnotes in order to maintain consistency of protected identities throughout the paper.

[7] I plan to include dress code as an element of future works, however as space was limited in this paper, I was not able to include a breakdown of this important theme.

[8] This notion is explored in greater detail in separate chapter of this project that is not included.

[9] School D represents LREI, a K-12 school in the West Village of NYC.

[10] D. Chap is a pseudonym for Sandra Chapman, Director of Diversity and Inclusion and Head of Lower School at LREI.

[11] It is not for me to say whether or not this student identifies as transgender, as, at the time this paper was written, they were never offered the safe space within the community or the appropriate language or exposure to transness to decide for theirself.

[12] The notion that a Lower School values the weight of the parents over the weight of a student whereas an Upper School student’s needs and desires would potentially be considered, despite the fact that both hypothetical students are minors, suggests an ageist practice. Though important in the discussion of gender education for young children, this concept is unfortunately beyond the scope of this project.

About the Author:

Jay Bendett is a Gender-Inclusivity educator and consultant who has worked with young children in early childhood care and education for over ten years. For Jay, any glass ceiling that prevents a transgender, gender independent, and/or gender nonconforming child from feeling safe and supported by their school communities must be broken to pieces. Jay holds a Master’s degree in Gender Politics and Early Childhood Education from New York University, with a Bachelor’s degree from University of California at Santa Cruz in Feminist Studies with a Minor in Education. Jay works with schools in the New York City area to establish gender-inclusive programming for administrators, teachers and parents, promoting healthy family-school dynamics and inclusive classroom environments.