There’s a Reason the Department of Education Is Ignoring Trans Kids

Young children raising their hands in a classroom lead by a teacher.
Schools should take the lead on gender from kids, not dictate it to them.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The federal Dept. of Education has decided to ignore the complaints of transgender children. Last month, a representative for the agency reported to BuzzFeed News that, when it comes to the issue of bathrooms, they would not investigate or take action on complaints filed by transgender students.

In my role as a former elementary school teacher, and as a current teacher educator, I think a lot about what the actions of adults communicate to children. Here, the message to trans and non-binary kids is clear: We don’t care about your suffering. As a transgender person myself, that suffering is something I know all too well.

Schools are tough places for trans kids to be. According to the 2015 US Trans Survey, 77 percent of trans people report some form of gender-related mistreatment during their K-12 experiences. 24 percent had been physically attacked, and 10 percent were sexually assaulted. These grim statistics are inextricable from the most devastating one of all: 40 percent of trans people report having attempted suicide at some point in their lifetime. These statistics are higher among trans people of color, who stand at the nexus of multiple forms of structural oppression. By signaling that they will ignore the complaints of trans youth, the Dept. of Education makes it even more challenging for trans and non-binary kids to meet their most basic physical needs in school without fear of harassment or punishment.

Awful as it is, there’s a reason for this. As I wrote in an essay, Unscripting Curriculum: Toward a Critical Trans Pedagogy, published recently in the Harvard Educational Review, schools were not designed to support trans and non-binary children who defy imposed identity categorization. Instead, schools were designed to sort people into binary gender categories through record keeping, facilities (like bathrooms), and activities (like sports). In our current system, those kids who don’t conform to a strict gender binary as it’s understood by school administrators are made hypervisible, which often puts them at risk of violence and harassment.

Looking at the bigger picture beyond bathrooms, what the Dept. of Education is teaching children is that gender is something that institutions, rather than individuals, get to define. Here, American schools are simply a reflection of U.S. society. In most of the United States, there are just two options for legal gender: male and female. Which one we’re assigned is usually something a doctor gets to decide. These legal categories then follow us for the rest of our lives. Legal gender shows up on our official documents—birth certificates, driver’s licenses, passports, and so on. We need to documents like these to start a bank account, enroll in school, apply for food stamps, drive a car, vote, rent a home, or get on an airplane.

As legal scholar and public intellectual Dean Spade has argued, for those of us who do not easily fit into legal definitions of male and female, our bodies are made impossible within our current system. In situations where trans people are asked for their ID, from police encounters to emergency room visits, any perception of difference between how we present our bodies and their legal categorization can threaten our safety or even our lives.

So what does all this have to do with school bathrooms and the Dept. of Education? Policy is pedagogy. When the Department says that it will not review complaints about bathrooms from trans children, they teach children that their suffering doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Schools ought to be a place where educators listen carefully to children, and are responsive to the knowledge they bring into the classroom. After all, human understanding of the differences between our bodies has shifted only when people have shared the nuances of their embodied experiences.

When a trans or non-binary kid comes forward and says, “Hey, this bathroom situation isn’t working for me,” they’re doing us all a favor. Perhaps because they’re not yet as world-weary as the rest of us, they are able to point out the crude inadequacy of a system that is designed to sort all of humanity into two possible boxes. Trans people are scapegoated for the impossibilities of this two-box system, but the system harms all of us. Most people have felt ashamed of the ways we don’t conform to whatever narrow idea of man or woman has been prescribed onto our bodies, and that’s a problem that we can begin to explore in classrooms. This requires pedagogy—and policy—that responds to children, and makes the problems they share with the trusted adults in their lives into questions that might guide change. Why isn’t this working? How can we do something different? We need ways of teaching and learning from children’s experiences, not ignoring them.

Harper Keenan is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Teacher Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to being at Stanford, he was an elementary school teacher in New York City.