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Recently, a high school student told me she was terrified to go back to school. “I know,” I responded, “it’s hard to feel safe with Covid and the Delta variant and everything.”

“Oh, it’s not Covid — it’s the other students and the teachers,” she told me. “I had gotten so used to virtual school and not having to deal with everyone misgendering me and devaluing me, and I’m scared to go back to seeing everyone in person.”

This fall, transgender students must contend with environments that are often explicitly hostile, anti-trans and exclusionary. They have returned to buildings without appropriate and safe bathrooms and locker rooms, in defiance of federal guidelines. They may have teachers who refuse to use their names and pronouns and classmates who make anti-trans comments under their breath.

Those who are Black, indigenous, students of color, disabled or undocumented may encounter in-person surveillance and exclusionary discipline policies that limit their access to equitable education. 

This return may be especially painful now because many of these students thrived with remote schooling.

In order to support all our students — and especially our trans, nonbinary and genderqueer students — teachers and administrators need to learn lessons from remote education and enact policies and conduct trainings that build equity into their school buildings.

Schools need to ensure that our students are welcomed, affirmed and included. Our students can’t be expected to learn in hostile, dehumanizing environments.

“I had gotten so used to virtual school and not having to deal with everyone misgendering me and devaluing me, and I’m scared to go back to seeing everyone in person.”

Transgender student

As a former high school English teacher who now researches the factors that support trans students in their families, schools and communities, I’ve had conversations with over 30 trans students in the last year about their experiences during remote learning.

Many reported feeling safer, more able to connect with online resources and more able to focus on schoolwork. Being virtual also gave some students more control over their presence in class.

“It was nice to know that if things got too bad, I could just log off and close the computer,” one told me.

Related: What it’s like to be a transgender student in Mississippi

Virtual learning also allowed students to display their names and pronouns so that teachers and other students could clearly see them. Some felt more comfortable attending clubs and support meetings that had moved online, where they weren’t concerned about their privacy and personal safety.

Unfortunately, instead of learning lessons from remote education, legislators across the country have been actively working to make schools worse for all students — and especially for trans, nonbinary and genderqueer students. They are doing so with a slew of anti-trans bills; so many, in fact, that the Human Rights Campaign and many others are calling 2021 the worst year for trans rights in recent history.

Lawmakers from Alabama to Minnesota, from Connecticut to Hawaii and in between — Iowa, Arizona, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and other states — have worked to make it more difficult for trans, nonbinary and genderqueer students to fully express themselves, participate in sports, receive necessary medical care or even go to the bathroom.

To counteract this onslaught of bigotry, school administrators and policymakers must ensure that they are following Title IX guidance and protections. In addition, we must push for:

  1. Policies that make names and pronouns as easy to change and display in school as they were for many of our students during online instruction. Students should be able to easily update their names and pronouns on the roll before the first day of school, so that teachers do not incorrectly identify students. If your existing data system does not allow for an extra field for pronouns, this is a great time to get creative and consider how you can still be inclusive — teachers could send out pre-class surveys to students to obtain their correct names and pronouns, or could start their first class with a “get to know you” sheet that asks for the names and pronouns students use in class. It’s important to get every student’s pronouns correct — teachers can’t guess someone’s pronouns by looking at them. Teachers should also include their own pronouns in their email signatures and other course materials.
  2. Inclusive bathrooms, locker rooms and campus spaces where students are free from concerns of physical and emotional harm. Students have the right under Title IX to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, and schools have the responsibility to ensure that students can do so without fear of hostility, harassment or retribution. This means that schools should work to have all-gender restrooms available (often single-stall bathrooms). It is very difficult for students to learn when they cannot go to the bathroom freely and safely, especially over a seven-plus hour school day.
  3. Training for teachers, administrators and students that enables them to recognize, interrogate and interrupt anti-trans bigotry and microaggressions. There are clearly established best practices for inclusion and affirmation, and our school leaders and community members need access to them in order to make the necessary changes to the school environment. 
  4. A reckoning with the fact that, for many of our trans, nonbinary and genderqueer students, their multiple identities mean that they are subject to unique forms of oppression, such that trans and gender-expansive students who are Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian, non-native English speakers, have disabilities and/or lack formal documentation are often systematically over-surveilled, under-supported and excluded from the education to which they are legally entitled. Schools must move beyond the punishment and isolation of students who don’t conform to narrow identity bands and toward transformative justice frameworks in which no student is treated as disposable.

To be sure, this list may be daunting — accomplishing its goals will require extensive work, unlearning and a radical restructuring of school policies and practices. The last 18 months, though, have taught us that we have a much greater capacity for flexibility than we ever imagined.

Our students — especially our trans, nonbinary and genderqueer students — deserve learning environments that are inclusive, welcoming, affirming and safe, and it’s up to us to create that future for them. 

Robert A. Marx (they/he) is an assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Development at San José State University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

This story about transgender students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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