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Outlook: How Welcoming Is Your School?
Outlook: How Welcoming Is Your School?

Advice from the parent of a transgender teen about creating a supportive community

By Lori Woehrle


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Philippe Lechien



I am the mother of two teenage sons. One graduated from an independent school in May 2016 and is a college freshman, and the other attends a college preparatory magnet school. But my family didn't always look this way. Nearly four years ago, at the tender age of 12, my daughter revealed that she was actually a he.

To say I was stunned is an understatement. My husband and I had no idea that our child had been silently wrestling with such an enormous, life-altering realization. Our love and support for him never wavered, but accepting this new reality took time. We had multiple tearful conversations, educated ourselves about gender identity and gender expression, and sought guidance from experts at Children's National Health System in our hometown of Washington, D.C.

Those of us who are close to a transgender person know that they struggle with day-to-day issues that are much quieter, less dramatic, and more human than sensationalistic headlines might lead people to believe. As we arrived at acceptance, our first goal was to help our child finish middle school as a girl—and enter high school as a boy. Checking out high school options for my transgender son was an educational process both for me and some of the schools I visited. Initially, I wasn't sure what he needed, but I quickly learned that it would be more than just a gender-neutral bathroom. Based on the experience we had in choosing a school, I offer the following advice:

Be proactive and prepared

Is your school ready to offer support to transgender students? Believe it or not, they may already be members of your school community. More than one administrator said my son would be that school's first transgender student. We knew this was not the case: Some of his friends in the transgender community attend those same schools. Children are self-identifying as transgender at younger ages: They're seeing people like themselves in popular culture, and information about gender identity is more accessible and less taboo. Parents of preschoolers are listening to and respecting their child's choice to express their gender in ways that don't conform to their assigned sex. Parents will be looking for schools that welcome, support, value, and protect their child's safety, privacy, and the confidentiality of their information. Parents will want their child to have access to appropriate bathroom and locker room facilities; accommodations for participating on athletic teams, in physical education classes, and in activities such as overnight field trips; and a plan for addressing disrespectful or threatening behavior, just to name a few issues. Parents will gauge your school's attitude toward and understanding of transgender youth. What will parents see on the website? Do your school's forms present only binary checkboxes for male and female? Will your face register shock or confusion upon learning that a prospective or current student is transgender? Or will you appear unfazed and understanding? What will your first words be?

Understand that transitioning is a process

Transgender students and their families may not yet be ready to make themselves known to you, but if your school has supportive policies and accommodations, don't be surprised when a student steps forward.

Seek guidance

In the two years that my son has attended school as his authentic self, many useful resources to help institutions support transgender youth have been published. Good places to start reading include:

The Transgender Student: Guidelines for Independent Schools Working with and Supporting Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students

Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students

Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools

Model District Policy on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students

Educate your community

Guidelines aren't enough. It's essential to educate your faculty and staff about transgender and gender nonconforming issues. The organization Gender Spectrum (genderspectrum.org) provides training and information to help schools understand young people's evolving conceptions of gender identity. In addition to providing educational resources, the Human Rights Campaign and Gender Spectrum will send trainers to help schools prepare for conversations with their community members. Welcoming Schools, a project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, offers guidance on educating families and building a welcoming community. It also provides books, training films, lesson plans, and more.

Remember R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Students learn best in schools where they feel safe and accepted. Gender identity can be a confusing and sometimes inflammatory topic, mainly for adults. Children are more accepting of differences and more likely to follow the example of parents and teachers. As a mother, my bottom line is simple: Treat my son with kindness and respect, just as you would any other child.

As we think about our youngest son applying to college, our list of concerns about the institution he will next attend is much shorter than when he began high school. Now that his social transition is complete, we expect him to be accepted and treated like any other 18-year-old freshman. Our focus will be on more typical worries, such as how to help him achieve a different kind of identity—law student.

About the Author Lori Woehrle

Lori Woehrle is a managing partner at Leapfrog Group DC in Washington, D.C. She is the former director of corporate relations at CASE.

 

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