What Back To School Is Like For Trans Kids

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My fourth grade son can’t wait to get back to school — after a long, hot summer of missing his friends, he’s itching to get back on that playground and show everyone his monkey bar tricks and the sweet tae kwon do moves he worked on over vacation.
I, however, always face the new school year with trepidation. Because my fourth grade son is transgender. Adding to the new school year anxiety is the fact that we also live in Texas, a state that attempted to pass 30 anti-LGBTQ bills during this year’s legislative session and, when that wasn’t enough, Governor Greg Abbott added a “special session” over the summer just to try to eke out a little more hate before the school year started.
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While other families are concerned about getting haircuts, new shoes, and backpacks for the first day of school, parents like me add considerably more to the list: worries like, “Will my kid’s teacher use the correct pronouns?” And the very basic, “Will my kid be able to use the bathroom at school?” That's on top of wondering if this presidential administration is going strip what remaining Constitutional rights people like my child have.
In no particular order, and certainly far from complete, here’s a list of a half-dozen things that parents of trans kids are thinking about when the school year starts, and how teachers, parents of cisgender kids, and friends can be allies. I’m sure we’d all rather be thinking about cool monkey bar tricks — but there’s a lot of work to do, first.
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Does the school board have a written policy for supporting transgender students?

Let's start at the top, shall we?

My son’s school district has a no-bullying policy, but it doesn’t have a written policy in place to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students when it comes to things like using the correct pronouns, or allowing them access to the bathrooms and changing rooms that match their gender identity.

In the absence of a clearly stated written policy, creating relationships with the people who are in a position to support my son has helped ease some of my worries. Having honest, face-to-face conversations with his teachers and members of our school board has helped me educate them on the challenges that trans kids face, and we’ve made it a point to have as many meetings as we can so the folks in charge have a chance to look at my son’s big brown eyes and freckled nose and reflect on how much he’s counting on them to keep him safe.

Knowing that his principal, teachers, and superintendent have his back is a huge relief. I know that the majority of them want to be allies but are skittish of saying the wrong thing when their hearts are in the right place, and so this is a chance to help everyone get clear about the correct language to use. (Y’all, it’s not “transgendered.” Just like you wouldn't call a tall person, “talled.")

I certainly know plenty of trans kids who had to be withdrawn because their school was so hostile toward them, but every situation is different, and you can't know how your school will react until you get in there and have the conversations. I've found, even in my small North Texas town, there are usually more allies than bullies out there.
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Will my kid be able to pee?

Yikes. That’s a good one, and one that a lot of parents of trans kids are worried about right now. If you’re more concerned about your bladder than you are about your books, you’re not going to get the education that you deserve. Bathroom-bill supporters argue that a trans boy, like my son, should use a gender-neutral facility like the nurse’s room, or be forced to use the girls’ bathroom despite the fact that he presents as a boy.

The nurse’s bathroom is out of the question for my son, because separating him from his peers for being different is the exact same thing that bullies do, and besides: Even the Supreme Court has said that separate isn’t equal. If Max were forced to go to the girls' bathroom to use a toilet, he’s far more likely to just hold it all day (like he did in first grade, before we realized he was more than just a tomboy) or limit his food and water intake all day, which many transgender people do, so that he won’t need to use public facilities at all.

It was a situation like this that thrust Gavin Grimm, a courageous young man from Virginia, into the national spotlight earlier this year. Gavin socially transitioned to male around 10th grade, and had been using the men’s bathrooms at private businesses in his community for a while. Once he returned to high school in the fall, and after thoughtfully discussing the matter with his principal, using the boys’ bathroom at school “just seemed like the natural progression of things,” he told The Washington Post. Other parents complained to the school board, and the school responded by asking Gavin to use the nurse's bathroom. He and his family sued the school board for this discriminatory act, in a case that was set to be heard by the Supreme Court in March, when, due to a change of presidents and policies, it was sent back to the lower courts. The future of this case is uncertain, and Gavin graduated without being granted the justice he deserved.

Which is all to say, unconstitutional bathroom bills keep getting shot down, but our kids keep going through this. Let's say it loud one time for the cheap seats: A kid who needs to use the bathroom is nothing more than a kid who needs to use the bathroom, okay?
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What happens when there’s a sub, and my kid’s name doesn’t match their school records?

It happens — even at the doctor’s office. I can’t tell you how many times Max has been called by his birth name when someone new is taking attendance. My child identifies as male, but until recently, his medical and school records still had his birth name and his sex listed as female on the form. Situations like that can be embarrassing and possibly dangerous for the trans kids who are living stealth, because calling them by a given name can out them publicly, and not on their terms. (Forcing a child to use the nurse's bathroom could be outing them, too. So it's not just a separate and unequal accommodation; it's a potentially dangerous one.)

We’ve gotten around this by changing Max’s birth certificate, which isn't the right option for everyone. Before we got his legal documents amended, though, I spoke with his principal about communicating clearly with any subs or new staff, to ensure that Max would not be misgendered or called by his birth name. At the doctor’s office, we just entered his preferred name on the form under the “nickname” section, and many schools offer this choice, as well. Now that he has a new birth certificate, all the forms finally match up.

For that reason, I am so glad that we changed Max’s birth certificate, but I honestly feel a bit of survivor’s guilt because not everyone has that option. And besides, I’ve never had to change my birth certificate in order to use a public bathroom — why should transgender people?
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Will my child be able to play on a sports team?

There are no clear nationwide guidelines for transgender student athletes, leaving a patchwork of policies across every state. Some states require surgery or hormones for a student to play on a gendered team, and some states do not. In Texas, an athlete is only able to play on the team that matches the sex on their birth certificate, which creates some unintended consequences and awkward situations.

Take, for example, Mack Beggs, a transgender boy who, despite identifying as male, was not allowed on the boys’ wrestling team. Mack is transitioning under the care of a physician and, as a result, is taking medically prescribed testosterone. Guess who won the state girls’ wrestling championship in 2017? Mack Beggs, a boy who was forced to wrestle against girls. Amid cheers and boos, he held his head high, and served as both an inspiration to athletes across the state of Texas, and a cautionary tale of what happens when we have backward birth certificate policies.

Max is working on getting his black belt in tae kwon do, so we’re fortunate that he’s involved in a sport that doesn’t require playing on a team or using a locker room — and the team sports are still co-ed at his school in fourth grade, anyway. But he’s really getting interested in swimming, and knowing how competitive he is, it’s just a matter of time before we have to figure out how best to encourage his interest in that sport, while knowing that there may be some significant hurdles along the way.

This is a big reason why we advocate so publicly for his rights: If we don’t speak up, nothing is going to change. And when I hear of other transgender athletes, like Chris Mosier, the first openly transgender Olympian on Team USA, I feel hopeful that my son will be able to accomplish anything he sets his mind to, too.
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Will my child be bullied for being gender non-conforming?

I sure hope not. Max was on the receiving end of a bully in first grade, and it broke our hearts as his parents to hear him retell some of the mean things that this bully would say to him. When his dad and I discovered that he was being picked on, not because he didn’t fit the typical gender stereotype — but because this particular child was just a meanie to everyone — it was strangely reassuring. Knowing that my kid just had an everyday, run-of-the-mill bully was (sadly) a surprising relief to us both.

The sad truth, though, is that 75% of transgender students report feeling unsafe at school, according to a national survey. Despite the fact that most schools have an anti-bullying policy, a lot of these kids feel under attack and unsupported, leading to depression and a suicide-attempt rate that is nearly 10 times higher than the rest of the country. One way to combat this is to work on building a more inclusive campus and curriculum at every school in the nation. Programs like “Welcoming Schools,” a resource sponsored by The Human Rights Campaign, has helpful ideas on how to educate others on inclusivity, diversity, and respect for all. But we’re not going to change the world before the first day of school, so each family has to decide how to navigate the world we exist in right now. Here's what we do:

Max has his own cell phone now, and I’ve made sure to install a parental controls app on it — not because I don’t trust him, but because I don’t trust other people. I am vigilant about monitoring his use, what apps he’s downloading, and who might be calling or texting him. I’d like to think this can help me keep an eye on cyber-bullying, but I know it’s not 100% foolproof. Still, I’m doing my best. On the playground and at school, Max’s friends are good allies when other kids misgender him, but that advocacy didn’t happen accidentally; it came from having conversations with the parents of his friends, letting them know that these sorts of things were happening, and asking them if they could instruct their kids on appropriate language that could both educate the other children and show Max that they’ve got his back.

Sometimes a professional is needed, though, and whether a trans child is well-adjusted or having anxiety, counseling can be helpful. Giving trans kids (or any kid, really) a safe, parent-free space to express themselves under the guidance of someone trained to identify red flags can be a reassurance for parents raising their gender-nonconforming children in a world that still has a hard time affirming them.
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Can my child go to sleepovers?

School isn’t just about multiplication tables and spelling bees, it’s also about making friends and learning how to socialize. And plenty of young kids consider sleepovers an essential part of childhood. Most of the debate I’ve been reading online seems to center around sexual experimentation and alcohol: two things that my fourth-grader and his friends are pretty disinterested in right now.

To make it a little easier on our particular situation, we’re pretty public about Max’s story, so all of his best friends that he’s grown up with, and their parents, know that he’s transgender.

We take sleepover invitations on a case-by-case basis. If we feel Max would be unwelcome in a friend’s home because their parents are disapproving of transgender people, then no way would we let him spend the night. And if we are concerned about how a parent would react if their child was invited to our home, then we wouldn’t invite that kid over. Regardless, we always make sure that Max has his phone with him, so that if he ever feels unsafe, he can call us to come get him.

When kids are at our house, we supervise their activities and make sure they are keeping themselves safe, like any protective parent would. Trying to give Max as normal a life as possible is a huge priority for his dad and me. As we’ve discovered, a lot of trans kids are already excluded from sports teams and bathrooms (two places where friends bond at school), so our being mindful of finding ways to include him in other activities (like sleepovers) whenever possible makes him feel more like “one of the guys” and less like “that transgender kid.”

I don’t have all the answers, and I know we have it a lot better than a lot of other trans-inclusive families out there who don’t have supportive communities around them. Every parent wants to do what’s best for their kids, and every parent is going to have a slightly different list, with vastly different stories, from mine. But I know that together, through big acts and small ones, we are all making a difference, and that someday, a list like this won't be necessary at all.
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Related Video: Watch trans people explain the absurdity of the bathroom debate
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