School Days for Transgender Youth

It can be difficult for gender-non-conforming students to navigate school—but there are things you can do to help.

Speaking as an adult transgender individual, I can tell you: It isn’t always easy. I can also tell you from experience that trying to navigate the world as a teenager if you’re unsure of your sexual orientation, gender identity or even your own body can seem nearly impossible at times. I grew up in a time and place when the word “transgender” did not even really exist—not in public discourse anyway. These days, thanks to the Internet and the ever-present social media, it is fairly well-known. But that doesn’t mean it is any more understood or accepted.

So what makes the transgender young person’s experience different from most of his or her peers? Think about it this way: Adolescence is the time when we build our own identities. We branch off from our parents more than we ever have before, and we establish our likes and dislikes. Then, of course, there are all those hormones raging through our bodies. This is just nature taking its course, and it leads us to search for relationships that will give us the emotional intimacy we crave. This is all well and good for youth who can follow the blueprint society has laid out for them: Dress a certain way, act a certain way, and the boyfriend or girlfriend of your dreams is bound to come along and validate your existence.

But imagine you are on that path and something feels not quite right about it. Maybe you are a boy but you don’t want a girlfriend; maybe you appear to be a girl on the outside, but inside you have always felt like a boy. Whatever it may be, this issue is a bump that keeps you from progressing down the culture-mandated road like all your friends are doing, leaving you an outcast. And we all know how outcasts fare in teen life.

On top of that, add in the hostility you might face from family and friends, the discomfort you feel in your own body, and the tension you feel between what is expected and what you know is right for you—there is no way you can ever see yourself fitting in. Still, you try. Because you want to be accepted for who you are. And you deserve that—just like everyone else—no matter who says you don’t.

It’s important for everyone to understand the role bullying can play in the life of transgender youth and how it can be prevented. Toward that end there are a number of things educators and caregivers can do to ensure their children have access to the safest learning environment possible:

  • Identify safe spaces for LGBTQ youth. These can be administrators’ offices, student organizations and clubs or any place they can go when they need to be in an accepting environment—someplace they will not be judged or harassed.
  • Include transgender and gay students as well as those who are questioning their identities in all school curricula. Use inclusive language and terminology. When teaching about health issues such as STDs or pregnancy, be sure to include materials that are relevant to LGBTQ youth.
  • Offer counseling within the school for those who need it and facilitate access to outside resources when the school’s resources are not adequate.
  • Keep the lines of communication open and ensure LGBTQ students know that they are not alone, that they are valued and respected. This is especially important for those who do not get support at home.
  • Monitor bullying hotspots. Bullying happens mostly when there are no adults around. Keep things as supervised as possible, even in bathrooms, on playgrounds and in cafeterias.

These measures may not completely stem the tide, but they are a start. And as Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

See Teaching Tolerance’s Best Practices: Creating an LGBT-inclusive School Climate guide for more information about keeping LGBT students safe at school.

Timane is a counselor, minister, performer and public speaker specializing in the intersection of religion/spirituality and LGBT rights.

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