No room for backlash on protecting trans, nonbinary students

The real story is not parents’ rights versus student privacy. It is transphobia versus trans existence.

SHARE No room for backlash on protecting trans, nonbinary students
For gender expression, it has to be students who decide who knows what and when about how they identify.

For gender expression, it has to be students who decide who knows what and when about how they identify.

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Schools should be places kids feel like themselves.

For gender nonconforming students, we have made real progress on that front. Now that’s under attack, in predictable and surprising places.

Recently the New York Times ran a cover story: “When Students Change Gender Identity, and Parents Don’t Know.” There is a picture of a child, but every sentence on the front page is about grown-ups: parents upset their children changed gender expression at school and educators did not tell them, because the children asked educators not to.

The issue touches a national nerve. Lawmakers in Indiana proposed a law to make schools tell parents when a student changes pronouns. In Virginia, the governor’s new rules would stop teachers from using trans students’ preferred names without their parents’ consent.

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But the real story is not parents’ rights versus student privacy. It is transphobia versus trans existence.

I am the principal of a Chicago elementary school. We have gender nonconforming students at every grade. In schools, we need to believe students when they tell us who they are. We need to use the names and pronouns they ask us to and affirm them in the clothes and spaces that make them feel themselves. Everyone in schools should learn about gender diversity and to confront transphobia.

Gender variance is not new. We had trans students when I started, almost a decade ago. Your school did, too. Pew Research Center found 5% — one in 20 — of young adults identify as trans or non-binary.

How was school for them?

How was watching TV? Applying for a job? Walking down the street?

My sons are 9 and 11 years old. I watch them every day: eating pretzels, walking down the hall. I remember how scared I was when they were first born. I remember the relief to wake up and see them breathing. I remember thinking: they are still here.

Here is what should break your heart: Trans children are in danger all the time. We have not done enough to keep them here.

More than half of trans people considered suicide last year, according to the nonprofit Trevor Project. Not because it is bad to be trans, but because we treat trans people badly. More than two-thirds of trans young people say their gender is not affirmed at home.

I have learned so much from parents of trans and nonbinary children. And it is always best when students, parents and teachers are a team. But not everyone is supportive. For gender expression, it has to be students who decide who knows what and when about how they identify. It’s their right. And the risks are too great otherwise.

I am glad Illinois and Chicago Public Schools have affirming policies. We have more to do.

There is an undercurrent out there, a belief in some places that young people’s gender nonconformity is not real. A fad. A social contagion: something children might catch from others if grown ups are not vigilant. I have sat in rooms with adults who say out loud they fear children will identify as trans if they learn about trans people.

There is another undercurrent, maybe a reaction to the anxiety and interdependence of the pandemic: Some parents want direct control of what their children experience at school.

Together, these forces threaten changes protecting trans and non-binary students. A backlash cannot make us go backward.

The Times subhead is: “Educators are facing wrenching new tensions over whether they should tell parents when students socially transition at school.”

It is not wrenching to call a student “him” in front of her dad when she asks you to. Here is a tension: a non-binary child whose school cannot teach that they exist; a trans child whose teacher cannot say her name.

We cannot stand by in the battle to stop schools from being safe places for gender nonconforming children.

The school where I work is not perfect. But it is a place where gender nonconforming children eat pretzels. Where they walk down the hall. Where they inhale and exhale and decide what we call them. This school is a place where children can be themselves.

On a classroom door, a teacher has placed a sticker. It says, “Las personas Trans son divinas.”

Her kids walk by it every day.

Seth Lavin is the principal at Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy in Logan Square.

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