An Open Letter to The Teacher Who Refused To Correctly Gender a Trans Student

By Vanessa Ford

One thing has remained true each year I’ve worked in education: Every student has an abundance of unique beliefs, experiences, cultures, passions and fears that lie just below the surface. Valuing, honoring and respecting these pieces that make my students who they are have always been the most critical factor to building a trusting relationship that ensures they can be successful in my class.

When I read an Indiana music teacher refused to use a transgender student’s name and pronoun — as mandated by his school’s policy — I was furious. He claimed doing so violated his religious beliefs and would “encourage harm to the students in my care and provide a poor example for others.”

In truth, he’s likely doing more harm to his students than good. Not only is he denying transgender students a welcoming classroom, but he’s signaling a lack of respect for transgender students to every other student. Many transgender children will spend far too long ashamed of their own selves and who they know themselves to be. Each time that fear is reinforced — especially by educators — it gashes their youth wide open, leaving painful scars.

According to a 2015 study conducted by GLSEN, two thirds of LGBTQ students had experience dealing with school policies that discriminated against their sexual orientation or gender identity. This includes transgender students who were more likely to face school discipline, have lower GPAs, and miss days of school because they felt unsafe from harassment and discrimination.

Half of the transgender students in the survey attended a school that refused to use their correct names and pronouns. Like the school that employed the music teacher in Indiana, many have adopted policies built around acceptance and trust of the student, requiring teachers to call them by their correct names.

It seems each week brings a federal court reminding schools that yes, discrimination against transgender students is illegal. And while that certainly helps encourage policies like these, they’re also a crucial step in setting a standard of inclusivity and acceptance of all students.

A hostile and unaccepting school environment is among the lead factors making transgender students our most at-risk youth. A lack of support or acceptance leaves transgender students with a higher risk for failing grades and expulsion, and can often manifest itself in mental health issues. They are more likely to face harsh punishments from schools, and much of these pressures results in a notoriously high suicide rate

These outcomes are not reflective of their potential or of their identities. These outcomes are a direct result of policies, educators, and communities who refuse to value and honor who they are.

There is an established and growing body of research showing the importance of names and pronouns to fostering a safe environment for transgender kids. Each new study confirms the strong correlation between a student’s mental health and the level of acceptance they receive from their schools and homes.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics earlier this year made this connection clear, highlighting the ways increased stress caused by discrimination can lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety among transgender youth. As the author of the study noted, unwelcoming school and home settings “can make it harder to cope with life challenges, regulate emotions, and build trusting relationships.”

Conversely, when schools and home are affirming, the mental health outcomes of transgender students begin to match their non-transgender counterparts. These effects of what the researchers call “gender minority stress” stem from the many small steps peers and adults take to “other” transgender children. A second study released earlier this year found markedly improved mental health among transgender teens who were regularly referred to by their correct names and pronouns.

Like many educators in the country, the topic of transgender students was new to me, and having a transgender daughter doesn’t automatically make me an expert on the topic. Thankfully, a host of organizations and even the Department of Education has resources for teachers, administrators, and parents in need of guidance.

The National Center for Transgender Equality, Gender Spectrum, The Human Rights Campaign, and GLSEN all have examples of best practices and simple things that schools, districts and states can do right away to ensure all students are welcome within their walls.

Being a teacher is one of the proudest titles I have ever held — sometimes battling for number one with “mom”. As educators, we are in a special position to help combat the many issues transgender youth face — and likely save their lives in the process. Even in states where transgender rights are being debated, schools and educators have stood up and proclaimed that their buildings and classrooms are devoted to inclusion and that names and pronouns will be respected.

We know that students cannot learn where they are not trusted, and they cannot thrive where they are not respected. When a student tells you who they are — no matter your religious or political beliefs — believe them. When any educator tries to fight against those simple principles, they not only risk losing the trust of their students but losing their students altogether.

Vanessa Ford is an award-winning educator and currently is the Director of Education for a national experiential learning non-profit. She is also one of the leading parent advocacy a for transgender youth with pieces seen in Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek and in National Geographic’ Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and two children.

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