Photograph by Scott Nobles
Goodwill Not Enough
You’re a teacher, and you want your classroom to feel safe. You want your school to be a place where kids are happy and ready to learn.
But what happens when you don’t know how to do that? When one of your young students is transgender and your training on how to support them is spotty at best?
Like Jacob’s teachers, you figure it out.
Jacob was about to start kindergarten. A new school with new kids. But some of the kids were from his neighborhood and they might remember that Jacob had once been Mia, the second child of Mimi and Joe Lemay.
Although the family was open in the community about Jacob’s transitioning, Jacob didn’t necessarily want to be outed in class — he just wanted to be Jacob, a boy with a spiky Mohawk who carried his stuffed Doggie everywhere. So when his parents met with teachers at the beginning of the school year, the teachers had a question: What should we do if someone does remember him as Mia?
“‘What if someone says something? What if his older sister says something?’” Mimi remembers the teachers asking. “We decided the teachers would say, ‘Oh, you made a mistake. His name is Jacob.’ We’d keep it simple.”
From that first set of questions came more over time, making it clear that the teachers were still worried about what to say or how to act. What if someone asked about the so-called bathroom bill or about a transgender celebrity? Teachers wanted to do the right thing, Lemay says, but most had no experience with transgender students and few had any pre-service training around these issues.
“There was goodwill, but they didn’t always know what to do,” she says. “That’s why ongoing professional development is so critical.”
What about at other schools? Are teachers, counselors, and other educators who work with transgender kids getting that professional development? And even when they do receive training, do they really know what to do with it? As Lemay points out, “Even guidance is just a piece of paper.”
Unfortunately, most interviewed for this story point out that while transgender issues are certainly in the spotlight these days, training for educators specifically around supporting transgender students and their families hasn’t quite kept up.
“I think most educators are getting very little specific training pre-service or even in-service,” says Michael Sadowski, Ed.M.'95, Ed.D.'05, referring to the time they spend in college or grad school, and then later once they’re in actual education jobs. Sadowski, author of Safe Is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students and on faculty at Bard College, adds, “Even LGBTQ issues in general are relegated to a small segment of a diversity class or a youth development course if they’re covered at all. A specific focus on transgender students is even smaller than that.”
Justin Kim, Ed.M.'13, a social studies teacher at the Tobin K–8 school in Boston, says he hasn’t received any specific training on how to support or understand transgender students from his district.
“Any understanding of transgender students comes from my own friends and research,” he says. As a result, “there is still a lack of general understanding of what being transgender means among many of the staff. Much of the media and general dialogue, when talking about inclusiveness, is around gay and lesbian students but stops there.”
Lecturer Gretchen Brion-Meisels, Ed.M.'11, Ed.D.'13, addresses transgender issues in the graduate classes she teaches at the Ed School, including Establishing Loving Spaces for Learning: Gender and Sexuality in U.S. Schools. But for most of her students, this type of course is a first for them. “Some have talked about it [at their schools], but it really depends on the state and the district,” she says. “In states that have been thinking and talking about how to support LGBTQIS+ and gender-nonconforming youth in particular, there is sometimes a very small level of training. I think the only folks who get substantial training are folks who are in schools that have had a student transition.”
Sadowski attributes this to many things, including lack of time. “Some is the pressure of how long teacher training is. You’re getting a master’s in one year or principal training in two,” he says. “Often really important issues about young people can get lost, especially when schools are so driven by test scores. There’s a tendency, especially under that time pressure, to assume the issue is covered if there’s mention of LGBTQ one week during a course.”
Lemay sees this time crunch when she visits schools, including Jacob’s, with Jeff Perrotti, C.A.S.'85, director of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ students. Perrotti travels almost daily to schools throughout New England to help with training, but, as Lemay says, “Jeff is stretched so tight. He’s given 40 minutes to cover all of the terminology, all of the statistics — basically as much as he can,” she says. “You run out of time to work out scenarios. It needs to be part of a bigger effort in schools.”
This bigger effort is impossible when trainings are one-offs or based only in theory, she says.
“The trainings are extremely helpful, but they can be what I’ve heard called drive-by training: Teachers show up, they take notes, they are interested, but it’s hard to apply in the classroom,” she says. “They’re scared. Teachers have asked me questions like, ‘What happens if…’ or ‘What if a kid says, Ewww’ or ‘My dad says transgender people are going to hell’? I realized that training is an excellent way for the teacher to learn more, but do they ever have to face or work out these issues in reality?” When teachers ask her questions, Lemay says she’s found it helpful to relate it to what they already know. “I ask how they’d react to racism, ethnic and religious intolerance, or ableism. They have answers like, ‘Oh, I’d do this or that.’ I say, ‘Exactly!’”
Some teachers are actually limited in what they can say. Eight states (Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah) have laws at the state or local level (often referred to as “no promo homo”) that expressly forbid educators from discussing lgbtq issues in class in a positive light, or even at all. Even when the atmosphere isn’t that restrictive, concern about pushback from parents is another reason training often doesn’t happen, especially in the younger grades. A Google search from just the past couple of years pulled up hundreds of stories with headlines like, “Parent furious over school’s plan to teach gender spectrum” and “Maine school under fire for reading transgender children’s books to kindergarteners without telling their parents.” But Sadowski says talking to all kids when they’re young actually makes complete sense.
“Elementary students are well aware of gender identity, so this is actually a perfect time to get them engaged,” he says. “Children have a lot to say about this, and they will. They’re going to talk about gender anyway, so better it be guided by adults than based on the stereotypes they know.”
For starters, Perrotti says schools can get books written for that level about how people identify themselves around gender. They can also keep the discussions simple. “You can use language like ‘she has a girl heart in a boy body,’” he says. “That tends to be the language kids understand.”
Educators should be age appropriate about any discussion, Sadowski says, and cites the work of the Welcoming Students organization, which offers lesson plans, professional development material, and family education focused not on sexuality, which is what usually prompts parent pushback, but on the harmful effects of bullying, understanding gender stereotypes, and family diversity.
“This is an age-appropriate way to talk to elementary students,” Sadowski says.
Perrotti makes the comparison that, years ago, when we first started talking about different configurations of families or students, educators often worried about how to talk to young kids “about sex” when those kinds of discussions in schools didn’t happen until at least fifth grade.
“Back then I said, ‘What we do is talk about family, about love.’ That was the conversation 15 years ago,” he says. “Now people are asking the same question about transgender. You can say, ‘We want everybody to be happy, and he’s happiest being a girl.’ We can say things like that. It’s amazing how smooth that conversation can be.”
But what happens when the conversations don’t or can’t even happen? When districts and schools worry too much about the headlines or parent concerns and they don’t intentionally carve out time for ongoing, comprehensive training for all staff? What happens when schools receive mixed messages about how to handle various issues, like the abrupt reversal by President Trump of President Obama’s earlier guidance, which stated that Title IX protected the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room that match their gender identities?
For parents like Lemay, any educator your transgender child encounters — teachers, school psychologists, the bus driver — can become a liability.
“Families have had the Department of Child and Family Services called on them for supporting their child’s identity,” she says. “Especially in today’s climate, that your child is going off to a school therapist for an hour — it’s very important for families to feel that they have a basic understanding of what transgender is, at the minimum. I don’t know if there’s that understanding yet. That’s very frightening for a parent.”
The impact can be even worse for transgender students, turning school into a war zone, not a place to learn. According to Harsh Realities: The Experience of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools, a report put out by GLSEN, a national organization dedicated to ensuring safe and affirming schools for lgbtq students, transgender students face much higher levels of harassment and violence than other students, even higher than LGB students. Nearly 90 percent surveyed said they were verbally harassed at school because of how they expressed their gender, such as how they wore their hair. Of the surveyed, 53 percent reported being physically harassed, such as pushed or shoved, and 26 percent were physically assaulted at school — punched, kicked, or even hurt with a weapon.
Brandon Adams, an 11th-grader, transitioned during eighth grade. He was bullied on school grounds, in the hallways, and the bathroom. He was cyberbullied, receiving daily death threats.
“The bullying was verbal and physical,” he says. “There was an attempted sexual assault by a fellow classmate, I was threatened on a school camping trip, and I was pushed and shoved into the wall, called a freak, tranny, dyke. I was cyberbullied for a year and a half. Police had to get involved. Not only were people threatening my life saying things like ‘I dream of waking up with blood on my hands and you dead,’ but there were cases where it was threatening the life of my family.”
Adams had the help of police and two teacher allies, but not all transgender students feel supported. The glsen report found that a third of transgender students have heard school staff make remarks that were homophobic, sexist, and generally negative about someone’s gender expression. For many of these students, their school lacked helpful supports such as a gay-straight alliance or a school anti-harassment policy that specifically includes protections based on gender identity.
The result — at best — is missed school days, lower grades, and feelings of isolation from the school community. At worst, there’s depression and self-harm. According to a 2016 study by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, 42 percent of transgender youth age 12–22 report a history of self-injury, such as cutting. A 2015 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Movement Advancement Project found that 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide — nine times more than the general population.
Adams was among that group.
“I attempted suicide at one point because of how depressed I got,” he says. “Luckily I am still here.”
Ethan Smith, Ed.M.'17, felt the same way. Smith was born as Emily but started to wonder by the time he was 7 or 8 why he had been born that way. He didn’t know how to describe the unease and never talked about it to anyone out of fear. Things got worse.
“When I was 11, I didn’t know exactly what was wrong, but I knew that I was unhappy living in the world the way I was,” he says. “I had just gone through puberty, which was confusing and did not feel right, and I contemplated suicide for the first time.” In a spoken word piece he wrote called “A Letter to the Girl I Used to Be,” Smith describes how he didn’t expect to make it to the age of 21. But then by 19, when he was a student at Berklee College of Music, Emily started to fade, and he started to transition. “It was complicated because in many ways, she was gone and that was certainly a loss to many of my friends and family, and those that were closest to me experienced this as grief,” he says.
Lemay says stories like these are exactly why she’s been so outspoken and why she wrote her own piece, “A Letter to My Son Jacob on His Fifth Birthday,” that landed her major media interviews.
“People sometimes wonder why are you doing this,” she says. “Even my superintendent, the first time I asked for permission for NBC to tape back in 2015, said, ‘aren’t you considering Jacob’s need for privacy?’ I said, ‘I do consider his privacy and check in with him every time, but ultimately, if I don’t say anything, then he’ll have no choice but to live in a closet. He’ll never be able to live out of a closet if people don’t understand that there are transgender children out there.’”
Luckily, the number of superintendents and principals who do understand this, and are starting to see the importance of providing quality training for their staff, is growing, at least in some places, including Melrose, Massachusetts, Lemay’s district. She says she realizes she is lucky that her superintendent, as well as the school committee and her son’s principal, have all been supportive and eager to learn.
Since Perrotti started the Safe Schools Program in Massachusetts in the early 1990s, he’s seen more interest in offering targeted training on transgender issues at both the university level in the programs that prepare teachers and other educators and at the school district level.
“At the Ed School, for example, professors are intentionally incorporating this into their curriculum,” he says. “There are people intentionally making sure students are prepared. We also get asked to work a lot with pre-service teachers and counselors at local universities like Tufts, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern. It’s definitely increasing with the increased visibility. People are recognizing that they need to do this and politically there’s more support for this, so people are less afraid.”
At the school district level, he says requests for trainings have shot up this past year.
“The requests for technical assistance and training were double what we predicted,” he says. During the 2015–16 school year, the Safe Schools Program conducted 315 trainings and technical assistance sessions. In 2016–17, as of May, the number was already at 432. And as Perrotti points out, the requests are not coming just from high schools.
“Now it’s really preK–12, especially because transgender students are socially transitioning younger and younger,” he says. “It’s exciting, the different collaborations we’ve had, everything from afterschool programs to adult education. There are a lot of opportunities. For many years, there was interest in talking about different types of families and making sure those students felt included in schools, but now there’s a whole other wave, sometimes prompted by a student transitioning. It’s a great opportunity to talk about gender identity."
It can even happen when a teacher or principal transitions. Asa Sevelius, the principal of a preK–8 school in Brookline, Massachusetts, came out to his school community in June. After first telling his staff, he sent an email to parents, which included guidelines on how to talk to their children about his transition. As he told The Boston Globe, “I don’t pretend to believe I am some kind of beacon, but if one kid thinks, ‘That’s cool, that’s just like me,’ that would be pretty awesome.”
Chessie Shaw, Ed.M.’98, an eighth-grade counselor at Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School in Massachusetts (Jacob’s district), says that in the past few years, her district has put a lot of effort into helping educators at all levels — elementary through high school — get the training they need. This was especially helpful when she previously worked at one of the elementary schools in the district as an adjustment counselor and started to work with a second-grader who was transitioning.
“At the time, most of the staff, including me, had never worked with a transitioning student before,” she says. “We worked closely with the family, and even though we were not very experienced, one thing that really helped us was always checking in with each other and using the question ‘Is this what’s in the best interest of the child?’”
Isaac Taylor, Ed.M.'14, a principal at North Middlesex Regional High in Townsend, Massachusetts, says training for his staff on transgender issues has helped them better understand not only the nuts and bolts — the laws and policies — but it has also provided space to increase their comfort level.
“For many of the staff, it came as a surprise that gender identity is often established at a young age,” he says. “Discussing this research provided a window for the faculty to begin to see and understand people with different identities.”
One of the most powerful parts of the training, especially in building empathy, was giving teachers the opportunity to meet a transgender student.
“Most of us have a close friend or family member who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual while far fewer have a close friend or family member who is transgender,” he says. “This can make it difficult to understand and support this group. Watching the staff engaging with this student, I could visibly see people relaxing in their chairs and soaking in the experience. Many of the staff also began experimenting with new language in their questions or observations, which increased comfort levels around the topic of gender identity and broadened the scope and range of the discourse.”
Brion-Meisels says, “For my students, hearing from folks on the ground,” who have come to speak in her classes, “has been critical.”
In 2015, Ed School students learned just how influential educators can be to their students when Kelsey Mayabb, a high school cheer squad coach in Kansas City, Missouri, spoke in the Askwith Forum about supporting Landon Patterson, a transgender student on her squad who had to wear the boy’s uniform for years before and after she officially transistioned. Patterson and Mayabb had been invited to speak at the Ed School as part of a new student speaker series, Out Front! LGBTQ Leaders to Learn From.
“When Landon said to me that she would only cheer if she could wear the girl’s uniform, not only was it my duty to do that for her, but also as an advocate for change in my building, it was my responsibility,” said Mayabb. “You do what you have to do for your kids because you love them.”
Perrotti says personal stories of how educators have dealt with these new issues are especially powerful when working with reluctant staff.
“One of the first courses I took at the Ed School was on small group dynamics. One of the first papers we had to write was on how people change. It really influenced my work,” he says. “When I’m dealing with resistant people, I give examples of what it looks like to be supportive. I give examples of someone who has also had questions. Nothing affects and changes people like hearing the experience of young people and parents. It resonates when they hear a parent say, ‘This is my journey.’”
On a recent trip to a school on Martha’s Vineyard, Perrotti included two transgender students and two parents. “I recognize that this will be the most valuable part of this training. It will reach people’s hearts. That’s central to our work. That’s why we have a student and parent speakers’ bureau with a dedicated budget.”
It’s why Brandon Adams became a student speaker for the Safe Schools Program.
“I believe in the personal effect,” he says. “You can’t really understand something by just reading a book. Experiencing it and seeing it is where you truly understand.” In doing this, he says he also benefited. “I learned that not speaking up caused more danger for myself and others. I’m not just speaking for myself; I’m speaking for those who are scared and those we’ve already lost because of bullying or discrimination toward them.”
As Lemay says, “If stories aren’t told, if they don’t filter into the classroom, and if students don’t ever hear the word transgender, the imposition is on the transgender student or the nonconforming kids to have to figure out how to deal with the bullying,” she says. “These things need to be addressed before an incident happens. And freeing transgender kids to be who they are helps cisgender kids, too. We’re all a mixed bag. ... For as long as this topic is a black-box topic, the burden of being ‘other’ is still on the transgender student and their families.”
To prevent this, schools need to make the time and effort to better train their staff.
“To help transgender kids, you do whatever it takes because equal is equal,” Perrotti says. “We say this is the no-flinch moment for school personnel. You can’t be equal in some areas but not in all.”
- Listen to a Harvard EdCast with Jeff Perrotti.
- Learn more about what educators can do to support their transgender pupils.
Photographs by Steve Nobles