We Have a Lot of Work to Do: Supporting Transgender Students

I recently visited a middle school that was preparing to receive a transgender girl. After affirming her gender identity, she was rejected by her parents and kicked out of her home. Placed in a group home for foster children - separated into boys' and girls' living spaces - she was bullied and physically assaulted. The next foster placement did not last long because the parents said it was against their religion to have such a child in their home.

Finally, safe in an understanding and protective home, the child was being placed in a new school, where, with the onset of puberty, she would continue her transition. The resource team - psychologist, sociologist, principal and counselors - gathered to decide what to do for the child, how to educate the faculty, and how to respond to concerned parents. There were many questions, inadequate answers, and much concern. The longest discussion was about which bathroom the child would use.

It may seem that more and more children are expressing their gender identity at very young ages. The truth is that gender identity is established when children are as young as two. We have only recently begun to listen to our children, and to the stories of adults whose gender was inaccurately assigned when they were children.

How old were you when you decided you were a boy or a girl? How old were you when you decided you were gay or straight? If you decided you were in the wrong body, how old were you when you said something about it?

If you are thinking "I never decided those things, I just knew," then your gender identity conformed to the perception others had of you. Your external physiology conformed to your internal identity. If on the other hand, a child understands she is a girl and her body does not conform to that identity, then the child's expression of gender may be received as a decision, rather than an affirmation of what others perceive. If you never question the child whose gender identity conforms to your perceptions, why challenge the children who declare what they are, just as clearly, even though they are not what you had assumed?

Transgender children are being encouraged by their doctors and psychologists to make gender-conforming transitions before puberty. This means that in middle school, the boy who had been Rob, is now Robin, the girl, who must be supported during this challenging time. She must be protected from bullying by other children, and from adults who may find such transitions offensive. These adults may say, "God doesn't make mistakes." Maybe not, but humans certainly do, and we may have some inaccurate assumptions about gender and gender identity.

1. You can't judge a book by its cover. We already knew that. Now we must apply this understanding to people.
2. Gender is not binary. You are not one or the other, gender identity is on a continuum.
3. Children know a LOT about who they are and what they are not. We need to listen to them.

As adults, the challenge may be in a public bathroom. For children, the challenge is to be heard by their parents and then accepted and supported in their schools. We have a lot of work to do.