Science, Not Politics, Needs to Guide Policies Protecting Trans Youth

After my year-long research study on social determinants of transgender health, a leading conclusion was that we need to pass policies to protect our trans youth -- but now a hate group is threatening the lives of youth by drowning the science in inflammatory rhetoric.

Earlier this week the East Aurora, Ill., school district passed a policy that would provide key supports to their trans youth. Soon thereafter a confirmed hate group, the Illinois Family Institute, published an outraged letter and urged people to complain about the policy. Today the East Aurora school district might very well rescind that protective policy.

There is absolutely no scientific debate about the health risks of growing up trans. There is no scientific debate about the stigma trans youth endure, or about the extremely high number of trans youth who attempt suicide. And there is absolutely no scientific evidence that supporting trans youth in any way compromises the experience of non-trans youth.

After life-history interviews with dozens of trans people, I was struck by the fact that every single one of them had had their education interrupted by stigma. Two of the young girls I interviewed literally walked away from their schools and their homes because the stigma was too intolerable -- at the tender age of 12. This reaction illustrates the pressure of stigma on these youth.

The Trevor Project reports that 80 percent of trans youth admit to feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression. This fear appears justified. In the National Transgender Discrimination Survey trans and gender-nonconforming students reported alarmingly high rates of school harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent) and sexual violence (12 percent). Nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt.

Scientists know that early life factors have a magnified impact on one's life course. The years when school and family provide guiding wisdom are key to developing strong, healthy, productive members of society. The two 12-year-olds I interviewed were just the youngest of the subjects who had to interrupt their education to cope with the stigma they endured. Others dropped out of high school, then college. A rare few were able to restart their education and get degrees. But too many tried to commit suicide multiple times, and all were extremely scarred. I walked out of the interview with one 19-year-old trans woman knowing that she had no place to sleep that night and that she was making no plans for the future, because violence had claimed so many living like her.

More and more professional societies are now creating policies based on the scientific evidence. The American Psychiatric Association is clear that we need to support our trans youth, and that stigma and misguided interventions such as reparative therapy threaten their mental health.

But for trans youth, we need change in the arenas they encounter: family, friends, the media and schools. Trans-supportive school policies like the one that the East Aurora school district adopted earlier this week are powerful tools in the fight to save our trans youth. As we know from school climate surveys, most schools passively participate in the stigmatization of trans youth simply by staying quiet. When a school stays quiet on the subject, their staff too often implement their own personal standards. In the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 31 percent of respondents reported harassment by teachers or staff at school.

For the most comprehensive review of the impact of school policies on LGBT students, read LGBT Youth in America's Schools, the newly published book on the subject, by one of my fellow scientists at The Fenway Institute.

A policy like the one that the East Aurora school district passed is a way for a school system to simply and elegantly stand against the stigma that threatens trans youth. Policies' primary effect isn't allowing recourse but setting ground rules, in this case demonstrating to every professional and youth in the East Aurora school system that trans youth also deserve respect and support. We know that family acceptance can cut LGBT youth suicidality rates eightfold. There should be absolutely no controversy over taking steps to demonstrate acceptance of these youth in the educational system, as well; in some cases these steps will literally save lives.

As a scientist I cannot understand the groups that bury science under rhetoric. As a parent I cannot believe we as a society allow this threat to our youth to persist. Let us set our personal feelings aside and follow the science; let us put the safety of our youth first and foremost in our educational system.

UPDATE: The East Aurora School District has rescinded the protections it recently passed for transgender and gender-nonconforming students.