Massachusetts schools are gearing up to comply with a 2011 anti-discrimination law that notably included gender identity along with other protected classes, extending civil rights protections to transgender students in the Massachusetts school system. An eleven-page document carefully details how schools are to handle the needs of transgender students, and provides definitions and background information for school officials who might not be familiar with transgender issues.
The document is notable in its breadth, scope and sensitivity. For example, in addition to discussing transgender girls and boys, gender nonconforming youth are also discussed, with a clear definition to provide context for officials: “Gender nonconforming youth range in the ways in which they identify as male, female, some combination of both, or neither.” This ensures that genderqueer, agender, and other gender nonconforming youth are also clearly addressed in the guidelines to ensure that school district officials know they need to be protected as well.
Notably, the document discusses the fact that there is more than one way for a student to express a “pervasive gender identity.” While a formal note from a medical care provider, counselor or similar person in a student’s life could serve as official notice that a student is transgender, schools must also accept testimonies from friends, family, coaches, religious officials and other people who know a student. The document stresses that there are many ways to prove gender identity, noting that there are very few cases in which a student’s stated gender should be regarded with suspicion.
In unequivocal words, the document clearly articulates that the gender identity of all students is to be respected, and that schools are responsible for enforcement; activities like misgendering students with the wrong name or pronoun are not acceptable, and would be considered contributions to a hostile educational environment. Detailed guidelines discuss changing names and gender markers on school records, ensuring students get to join sports teams with other members of their gender, and making students feel wholly welcome.
Privacy concerns are also discussed, to keep students safe and respect their role in the school community. Information about a student’s assigned name and gender must be kept confidential unless students (or parents, in the case of young students) feel there is a pressing need to disclose it, or if there’s a specific reason for a school official to know about it. This is designed to keep school environments safer for transgender students by keeping information about their past that could be used to bully, abuse, or harass them in confidential files.
All in all, this document is great news for transgender students in Massachusetts. It means students will be safer and more comfortable in school, and provides some much-needed guidance for school officials struggling with how to accommodate the needs of trans students. And it could be used as a model in other states seeking their own guidance on these subjects as well. While the release of this document doesn’t mean trans students magically won’t face discrimination any more, including discrimination from bigoted school personnel, it does constitute a significant step in the right direction, and it creates a framework for implementing anti-discrimination policies.
Naturally, conservatives are falling all over themselves to condemn the document, specifically bringing up “bathroom panic,” a common argument that arises in conversations about the trans community. Convinced that transgender students are planning on sexually assaulting or harassing cisgender students, they’re using scaremongering tactics to suggest, for example, that girls will be forced to use bathrooms with boys. (Wrong: cis and trans girls will be allowed to use bathrooms together.)
Conservatives are also claiming that students who don’t follow these guidelines will be “punished,” which is only correct inasmuch as any students who discriminate against each other, harass, bully, or otherwise make school environments unsafe will be asked to meet with teachers and staff to address the situation.
Trans students are at far more risk from their cis counterparts than the other way around, no matter what conservatives want to claim. This document is a good move for Massachusetts, and it’s a sign of progress for the rest of the country as well.
Image credit: Donald Lee Pardue