By the time Jay was 4, he was stuttering and had become anxious and depressed. The burden of having a female body and being socially perceived as a girl had become unbearable. When his parents realized that the issue was much deeper than a passing phase, they began helping him socially transition, identifying him as a boy, letting him dress in the clothes of his choosing and referring to him with the male pronoun.
“After his parents accepted him as a boy, he just thrived,” recalls Jeff Perrotti, director of the Safe Schools program, a joint initiative between the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth. Perrotti first met Jay as he was preparing to enter kindergarten; his parents first approached Perrotti to ask for his guidance and assistance with starting Jay in kindergarten as a boy. “I came in and arranged a meeting with the principal and by the end of the meeting the principal assured Jay’s parents that he would be safe and supported in his school.”
Today, more and more gender nonconforming children like Jay are entering schools, some even transitioning during the school year, within settings that often lack both the education and infrastructure to fully integrate them. Jay is one of thousands of children in Massachusetts schools who identify as transgender or do not otherwise fit into the neat boy/girl gender binary. There are countless names to describe them — transgender, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender creative — but they all have one thing in common: the underlying recognition that gender is not inextricably tied to physiological sex.
In 2012, the Transgender Equal Rights Law, signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, took effect. The law prevents schools from discriminating on the basis of gender identity and mandates a number of specific measures schools must take to support gender-nonconforming students. The next year, DESE issued guidelines for schools on how to comply with the law and provide their gender nonconforming students a safe and supportive educational atmosphere. The Safe Schools program provides material help and trainings to help schools and families with gender nonconforming students or students in transition.
“My role is not only to help schools navigate specific student situations and support them and their families, but also to help them develop practices and policies that are inclusive of [all] gender-nonconforming students whether people know who these students are or not,” Perrotti says. “It can be the simplest changes — getting teachers to tell students to sit with ‘someone you work well with’ rather than dividing the class by boy/girl.”
Perrotti also works directly with families, helping to connect them with resources and other families with gender-nonconforming kids.
“Transition goes most smoothly when the schools and families work closely together, and when there is time dedicated to developing a good plan, which is specific to the individual student’s needs,” he says.
But even before the DESE guidelines were released, some schools were already working to integrate gender-nonconforming students, says Karen Jarvis-Vance, director of Health Service, Health Education and Safety for Northampton Public Schools.
“Northampton has been ahead on this for a while,” she notes. “We were already changing policies and practices to make our schools more inclusive before the guidelines were released. We were changing, making sure that there were gender-neutral bathrooms and changing spaces in every school. We’re not 100% there yet, but we’re working hard to get there.”
Making the changes has been a steep learning curve for those involved, many who are encountering the topic of gender variance explicitly for the first time.
“We all — all of us: school people, kids, parents — need to keep educating ourselves,” Jarvis-Vance says. “I am continually learning, and sometimes it’s hard for my brain to wrap itself around these things — but having an open mind is the best gift you can give our kids.”
In addition to obvious changes — implementing gender-neutral bathrooms and changing spaces, eliminating gendered classroom practices, etc. — Jarvis-Vance says a good deal of the work they do is determining what individual students and their families need.
“Every kid is different. Every kid has different needs. A lot of what we have done has been on a case-by-case basis for each individual child,” she says. “Gender-neutral spaces are just as important as allowing gender-nonconforming kids to use the pronouns and bathrooms of their preference.”
Sometimes, actions with the greatest potential impact are as simple as correcting past oversights. For example, in 2014 Northampton Public Schools changed their Youth Risk Survey questionnaire to include not just male/female categories, but also trans and “not sure.” In the coming year, it will add another category: Other.
“Just because someone is not identifying as male, female or transgender doesn’t mean they’re not sure, so we wanted to give them an ‘Other’ category,” Jarvis-Vance explains.
Still, as positively as schools have reacted and adjusted to the influx of gender-nonconforming students over the past decade, some see room for improvement.
“No one is thinking ahead in a social justice framework about how to be proactively inclusive,” says Shannon Sennott, gender justice activist and family therapist. “These are reactive support systems that are often implemented from the top down, but they are not being created from the ground up.”
In her work, Sennott often sees gender-nonconforming kids and their families for years and believes that some approaches designed to accommodate their needs may cause psychological harm, particularly the decision to treat the child’s gender nonconformity as a secret that can only be revealed on a need-to-know basis.
“I get those kids in my office, and they come in with severe anxiety and depression,” she says. “The message that they have been receiving is that there is something wrong with them, that they’re not OK. It also deeply supports the socially constructed gender binary. We’re making progress on the backs of our trans children. They’re holding everything. Their backs are breaking under the weight.”
Sennott believes that true gender equality in schools will not happen until education encompasses it and proactively includes gender education in its curriculum.
“I think there should be gender education from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade at every school,” she says. “There’s plenty of ways to talk to young children about the fact that gender is a social construct. That will go much further toward gender justice than changing the bathroom signs.”
Workshops and trainings:
Free gender curriculum:
* Name changed by request