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Elementary Schools, Transgender Kids, and Educator Freak-outs

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For seasoned education professionals who have "seen it all," the new school year usually brings little cause for alarm. But for the past few years, we at QuERI have had an increasing number of elementary schools contact us in the beginning of the school year with reports that their teachers and school staff were "freaking out." The cause for alarm? The new enrollment of a transgender child or the gender transition of an already-enrolled student. Administrators, faculty, and staff expressed high levels of fear and anxiety over trans kids in their elementary schools and have wanted us to come in and "fix" the situation for them.

When this first began to happen several years ago, we weren't sure how to respond and were a little taken aback by the volume and force of fearful reaction to these young students. As researchers we wanted to better understand their reported "panic," and we began to study the experiences of elementary educators with transgender students in an effort to better respond to their reactions and help these schools support transgender kids. For most of the school professionals we interviewed, the initial reaction to finding out a transgender elementary student would be in their school was fear. The words they most frequently used to talk about it were "freak out," "panic," "crisis," "fear," and "unprepared." So we wanted to know what exactly they were so afraid of. Here's how their fears broke down:

  • First, because this was a new experience, the lack of education and institutional protocol intensified one type of fear: literally not knowing what to "do."
  • Another fear was of community backlash: that the school or staff would be seen as supporting or "endorsing" "homosexuality" or transgender identity, which might be unacceptable to the community.
  • Other fears had to do with how to actually teach a transgender child, to make meaning of student experience, and make educational decisions in the best interest of the child. Over the course of the study, it became clear that teachers' determination of what is right or wrong for an individual child is often deeply entrenched in what they "know" about teaching boys or girls and what they believe to be "natural" about gender. A transgender child disrupted this frame of reference.

Their fear responses should not have surprised us, given that teacher preparation programs rarely provide pre-service educators with any information on LGBTQ students -- particularly in elementary education programs. No teachers, administrators, school psychologists, school counselors, or school social workers participating in our study had ever heard anything about transgender students in their pre-service education or in their professional development programs. The few U.S. Education programs that do address LGBTQ issues often use texts that provide inaccurate information or reinforce negative stereotypes, like associating LGB identity with risks for disease and suicide (without addressing the social stigma that elevates risk). Many Schools of Education are uncomfortable teaching about these topics, and their presence in the teacher education curriculum is often based on the efforts of individual faculty members committed to including these topics in their (often elective, rather than required) courses. As a result, future school professionals don't have an opportunity to consider the likelihood of working with LGBTQ kids at some point in their careers, and those planning to work in elementary schools may feel particularly insulated from having to address these issues, thinking it only "happens" at the older grade levels. It was completely unexpected -- in fact unimaginable -- to our research participants that they could be addressing these issues.

When the school professionals we spoke with began to look for resources to help them figure out what to do in this new situation, what they found was not very helpful. In one school district an administrator was told to contact the school district physician and attorney for answers on how to proceed. The physician told her that the child was too young to be transitioning, and the attorney was silent on the other end of the phone. In another school an administrator assumed her school was not the only one with transgender students and felt sure there must be school district policies, but no policy existed. Their sense of "flying blind" added to their fear. District-wide policies and procedures provide security for education professionals because following protocol means they are representing "official" positions and will have "back-up" if anything goes wrong. Without these, they lacked confidence.

Sex, sexuality, and gender are risky topics at all school levels, but they are strictly taboo in elementary schools. Even though elementary schools are usually very gendered and heterocentric spaces, elementary educators rarely recognize that gender and (hetero)sexuality play key roles in their classroom practice. Americans think of young children as "innocent" and "asexual," so sexuality is considered unmentionable in elementary classrooms. Children are perceived as "too young" for such conversations. Because of the ways gender and sexuality are connected in our culture and thinking, addressing non-normative gender brings the ideas of "sex" and "sexuality" into the "innocent" elementary school space and is thus dangerous. Teachers want to avoid this at all costs. Teachers faced with having to address these issues in their classrooms experienced anxiety and feared reprimands from administrators, resistance from parents, and backlash from the larger community.

Confidentiality was also a concern. Many of the fears about confidentiality were resolved once a school figured out how to manage the use of the child's chosen name and pronoun on school documents and in their various information systems. But there was still fear of people "finding out" and having to answer questions. The schools we worked with found themselves in a conundrum: While they adamantly did not want to directly address the presence of a transgender student with the school or larger community, they also could not convince themselves that students and parents did not have a right to know that a gender transgressor was among them. In short, some educators were not convinced that a transgender kid is nonthreatening to other students and "safe" to be around. Some educators felt that the safety of normatively gendered students was compromised, especially when it came to activities that were supposed to be "single-sex." One teacher we interviewed cancelled the swimming activities of her class to avoid questions about the appropriate swimsuit and changing room for a transgender child. Others were concerned about activities outside school, such as sleepovers, and felt that perhaps they should tell parents "the truth" about a transgender child.

Another significant fear was the possibility of parents' opposition to the mere presence of a transgender child in school, or accusations of "promoting it." There was fear that parents would take their child out of the class, or that parents would require their normatively gendered child to be separated from the transgender student. Many of the school professionals we spoke to believed that the parents would "freak out," be "angry" with the school for "deceit," and feel that their child was "exposed" to something dangerous. Teachers asked, "Will we get in trouble for accepting it?" These statements suggest that educators were associating support for a transgender child with political activism. Their fear of "promoting" implies a belief that, in the event that a controversial issue affects a school, the school should do its best to remain politically neutral. In this context, educators were expressing fear of being perceived as "promoting" a pro-LGBTQ or pro-transgender political position, which they believed might be in opposition to parents' political commitments or religious beliefs or even have legal consequences. Our recommendations to make issues of gender and sexuality more visible were quickly dismissed in favor of trying to reduce the chances that anyone in the community would find out there was a transgender child in the school. The fear of parental resistance or community backlash was constantly on the minds of the school professionals who worked with transgender students.

Without education or policy to guide them, educators lacked tools to form practical, child-centered, equity-oriented strategies for meeting the needs and affirming the identity of a transgender child. Instead, their response to this new situation was fear. These are preventable problems. Schools can minimize the possibility of professional fear by proactively preparing to support a transgender or gender-nonconforming student before a student actually enrolls. Policies and procedures can be developed for managing issues of confidentiality, name/pronoun use, and bathroom and locker-room use. Educators can critically examine the ways their schools and classrooms operate on the assumption that all kids fit neatly into the stereotypical "girl" or "boy" boxes. Through this work, educators can begin to identify possibilities for challenging these categories through curriculum and school social life. In addition, schools can engage in professional development that will give faculty and staff the skills and vocabulary they need to feel competent in addressing gender and sexual diversity in an affirming way. Such training is necessary for educators to feel competent challenging students' (and adults') taken-for-granted beliefs about the "naturalness" of binary gender. Breaking down these beliefs is key to creating schools where the presence of trans or gender-fluid kids is "no big deal." Finally, schools and districts must consistently communicate to their communities that they take seriously their responsibility to support all children. Period. Clear policies and strong administrative commitment to diversity and to supporting teachers in their work to affirm all students will go a long way to reducing the fear and panic.

A research report on findings from this QuERI study will be published later this year in a special edition of the Journal of Homosexuality on education titled: Queering Education: Serving LGBTIQQ Students in P-12 Schools.