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How Schools Can Better Support Gender Non-Conforming Kids
As kids head back to school all across the country, debates rage on as to how teachers and schools can best support gender non-conforming kids. These arguments often pit teachers against parents in a fight that sees students as the most common casualty. As the parent of a gender-distressed kid, I have felt betrayed by school officials in the past; at the same time, I have great respect and empathy for teachers and guidance counselors. I do not think deepening the divide between families and educators is the way to solve this problem, rather, here is my three step plan for creating a more supportive environment for ALL students.
Stop conflating “gender non-conforming” and “transgender.” As Dr. Erica Anderson recently pointed out on the Megyn Kelly show, these two descriptors are not the same thing. “Gender non-conforming” simply means a person who does not adhere to the societal stereotypes of his or her sex. Almost everyone I know is gender non-conforming in some way. I know boys who wear their hair long and girls who wear it short; boys who hate sports and girls who love them; boys who excel in art and poetry and girls who climb trees and snatch frogs out of river banks. None of these kids are transgender. The term “transgender” currently has many different meanings— for the purposes of this piece, I use “transgender” to refer to a person that has taken social and/or medical steps to live as the opposite sex.
To say that all gender non-conforming children are transgender, is to say that anyone who doesn’t act or present themselves in a way stereotypical of their sex, should be grouped with the opposite sex. How have we landed here? Don’t we want men to help in the kitchen and women to have a voice in the boardroom? Saying that “gender non-conforming” people are literally the opposite sex is completely regressive and not what we should be teaching our children. In the classic John Hughes film Some Kind of Wonderful, there is a brilliant scene where Watts (a gender non-conforming girl played by Mary Stuart Masterson) says to another character: “This is 1987. Didn’t you know a girl can be whatever she wants to be?” Thirty-five years later, I am left wondering, what happened to that message?
Stop asking for “preferred pronouns.” I understand teachers have been led to believe that this question is necessary and kind. But who is being helped by this ritual? And who is being harmed?
Students are typically registered for school with their name and sex. I recently registered both of my kids for school and provided this information. Therefore, any teacher who understands how pronouns work, would already know what pronouns should be used when referring to each of their students. If a student is in the process of transitioning (socially and/or medically) with the support of their family, therapist and doctor, the parents can (and should) make that information clear to the school. These families can then work with school administrators to determine what needs to be shared with teachers and how best to support the student in question, in coordination with the family. (Social and medical transitions are serious interventions and should be carried out with psychological support that the school, alone, cannot provide.) Since this information will have been communicated to teachers and school personnel in advance, transgender students don’t need to regularly announce their pronouns to rooms of people, drawing more attention to what might be an awkward and vulnerable time for them. Therefore, transgender students are more likely to be harmed by pronoun rituals.
Next, let’s consider the gender non-conforming kids. A girl who, until recently, would have been considered a “tomboy,” does not want to stand up and state her pronouns, just to have people openly wonder if she’d rather be referred to as “he/him.” (Same goes true in reverse for effeminate boys.) This is an unfortunate situation that is occurring more and more, where well-meaning adults who are hung up on stereotypes, try to “be kind” by placing alternate pronouns on a gender non-conforming kid. If the student is registered as female, refer to her as such. Yes, even if she has short hair and wears “boyish” clothes. This is a dynamic that author and journalist Lisa Selin Davis has written and spoken about extensively, I encourage readers to check out her substack here. As Lisa states in one of her many nuanced pieces: “Though many feel the current gender revolution makes room for organically gender nonconforming kids, I’d argue it actually pathologizes them. Telling a stereotypically boyish girl that she can be or is a boy doesn’t manifest a liminal space for her to occupy. Telling a feminine boy that his mannerisms and tendencies make him a girl, or affirming his fantasy that he is one, tells him he’s doing boy wrong, that there’s not room for him in the category he naturally, biologically belongs to. I think this not only creates more shame, but can lead to very serious medical interventions.” Since most gay adults report being extremely gender non-conforming as kids, we are talking about creating an environment where pre-gay kids are led to believe that they were actually “born in the wrong body.” Gender non-conforming kids and gay teens are, therefore, more likely to be harmed by pronoun rituals.
How might this pronoun exercise affect neurodivergent kids? For a kid who is prone to obsessive thinking, intrusive thoughts and/or hyper fixating, this constant request for “preferred pronouns” can lead to obsessing over identity in unnecessary and unhealthy ways. Maybe they never thought about it before because it was always just a given, an immutable fact that they didn’t need to ruminate on. (For some, it may have previously been the ONLY thing they didn’t need to analyze to death.) But, once a slew of teachers keeps asking this question, a neurodivergent child may become fixated on trying to find the answer. Unsure, they will likely turn to the internet for advice. They may pose a question into the cyber void, “How do I know what gender I am?” More often than not, the internet will respond “If you are asking this question, then you are trans.” The child then announces they are trans and become showered with praise and affirmation, something they have been longing for. This solidifies an identity that was the product of obsessive thinking, rather than actual gender dysphoria. Ritchie, aka Tulip, a detransitioned man, writes about how his OCD led him to believe he was transgender, only to pursue a medical path that he later deeply regretted. He writes: “The definition of Gender Dysphoria is deeply appealing to someone in distress, it’s an invitation to abandon all your other obsessions and ruminations, in place of Gender, but the only difference between this and every other obsession I had, is this was being affirmed socially, legally and medically.” Seen through this lens, it feels less like we are supporting gender distressed kids, and more like we are creating them by asking for preferred pronouns.
What about the teens who are politically active, or, at least, sensitive to things happening in the world around them? Here, I’m going to focus specifically on girls. Imagine a girl who is exposed to world and cultural news either through her family watching it on TV, social justice activism in her community, or stories she picks up online. Imagine this girl hearing that “cis” people are oppressors. Does she want to stand up and say that she prefers the pronouns she/her? Isn’t that saying that she prefers to be “cis”? In other words prefers to be an oppressor? Is it fair to make her claim that mantle? Or perhaps this girl has seen stories of the #MeToo movement, and how women are vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse, or not taken seriously at work, or objectified in society. Maybe she reads about the girls in Afghanistan being denied education by the Taliban, or the horrors of sex trafficking that primarily effects young women and girls. Can she hear these stories and then stand up and say she prefers to be a girl? By saying she prefers to be a girl, is she acquiescing to this treatment? Is it fair to pose this as a preference, knowing the implications? A girl who doesn’t want to be an oppressor or a victim is not helped by the question of preferred pronouns.
And what of the budding feminist? What questions swirl in her mind when she hears the newest Supreme Court justice unable to define the word “woman”? Maybe, in search of answers she reads Andrea Long Chu’s book Female commonly lifted up by liberal feminists. There she reads that Chu “transitioned for gossip and compliments… for Daisy Dukes, bikini tops, and all the dresses, and, mygod, for the breasts.” Is that what one is choosing when they say they “prefer” to be a girl? Or is it more of a fantasy as Julia Serano (author of Whipping Girl) has stated? “I would imagine myself being sold into sex slavery and having strange men take advantage me. It’s called forced feminization… it’s about turning the humiliation you feel into pleasure…” Julia Serano was born male, but prefers she/her pronouns. Is this what we are asking our girls to endorse when we ask for their preferred pronouns? What about a girl who doesn’t want to be a fantasy in a man’s head, one who prefers cargo shorts to Daisy Dukes, is uncomfortable with her growing breasts, and could never turn humiliation into pleasure? As Louise Perry writes in this review of Andrea Long Chu’s book Females: “When a porn-obsessed writer can be lauded as a feminist prophet for describing the ‘barest essentials’ of ‘femaleness’ as ‘an open mouth, an expectant asshole, blank, blank eyes’ we should wonder how on earth we got to this point.” So, where do our would-be feminist daughters turn when looking for a better example of “she”? To Joan of Arc? Not so fast.
Our fiesty daughters, who were raised on stories of fierce women who broke boundaries (and often paid a heavy price for it) such as Joan of Arc, are caught in a mindbend, as well, now that we are seeing those women being rewritten as non-binary, with “they/them” pronouns. Joan of Arc, and Queen Elizabeth I, have been posthumously transed along with other great women of history. How do our daughters process this mixed message? How does this impact their “preferred pronouns.” As Victoria Smith wrote: “The transing of women who cannot speak for themselves — either dead or fictional — is not a break with patriarchal norms. It is an extension of them. It tells women and girls not just that there were too few women of significance to matter; it suggests that to be significant is not to be female at all.” Clearly, the concept of preferred pronouns is not helpful to girls trying to become “women of significance,” themselves.
Perhaps those harmed the most by the pronoun obsession, are desistors and detransitioners. (Desistors are people who socially transitioned before reverting to their birth sex, while detransitioners are people who medically transitioned, with hormones and/or surgery, before reverting to their birth sex.) Desistors and detransitioners generally go through an incredibly difficult period of time while sorting out their identity. They may not know how to honestly answer the “preferred” pronoun question. They already risk being shunned by friends. They risk being accused of “faking it.” They often feel ashamed or embarrassed for believing they were trans. There is no “D” in LGBT, and the flags, and celebrations, and “inclusiveness” seem to go in only one direction—toward transition. Chloe Cole, a young girl who transitioned and detransitioned all while in high school has been speaking out. Her story was recently shared on the substack Common Sense. “Detransitioning senior year was tough: She was dressing like a girl again, but still had ‘rough’ features and a deep voice from all the testosterone. ‘I got looks from people, and other students would talk smack behind my back,’ Chloe said. Her friends abandoned her. Another friend told her that ‘the gay side of my school hated me’ because she detransitioned.” Desistors and detransitioners need space and understanding, recurring pronoun circles are harmful to their process.
So once again, I ask: when you ask your students for their preferred pronouns, who is benefitting from the ritual? Not transgender kids, not gender non-conforming kids, not neurodivergent kids, not girls who are socially and politically aware, not young would-be feminists, and certainly not desistors or detransitioners.
Stop making parents the enemy.
With a huge rise in kids and teens identifying as transgender at school, the question that keeps being asked is: Should teachers “out” students to their parents? Over and over I hear the refrain that “schools should not ‘out’ kids to their parents, because the parents might not be accepting, therefore the student would be unsafe at home.” I would argue that this answer, and actually this question, misses the point entirely. It’s not really a matter of “outing” kids, but rather a question of how can we best support kids in distress? In nearly every situation, the best support comes from schools and parents working together, not through creating cloaks of secrecy.
If a student approaches a teacher and says: “I would like you to call me by a new name and different pronouns,” the teacher should respond: “I need a letter from your parents making that request.” Seeking parental permission is required for field trips, after school programs, and sports participation—why not something as life altering as social transition? I have only heard two arguments for why teachers should immediately honor this type of request from students (without parental consent), and both of these arguments are rife with contradictions.
The first argument is that teachers must support this change in identity, no questions asked, because gender-dysphoric teens are at an increased risk of suicide. This narrative has been proven to be exaggerated, misinterpreted and misrepresented as the Society for Evidence-Based Medicine outlines here. An additional study showed, “claims that gender affirmation through transitioning socially is beneficial for children with GD [gender dysphoria] could not be supported from the present results. Instead, the study highlights the importance of individual social support provided by peers and family, independent of exploring additional possibilities of gender transition during counseling.” If the best evidence for improving mental health is keeping kids connected to their families—then telling distressed kids that they cannot trust their parents, and should keep secrets from them, is a dangerous idea. Additionally, if you truly believe that being gender distressed makes a child more likely to be suicidal, you are obligated to tell the child’s parents. School officials who are keeping this information secret from parents are either derelict in their duties to inform parents that their child is at increased risk of suicide, or they don’t truly believe the manipulated narrative in the first place.
The other argument you hear for why schools should not alert parents if their child is requesting a change in name and/or pronouns, is that the parents may not be supportive. The word supportive, in this case, is twisted up to mean only one thing: parents willing to socially transition their kid without question. Most of the parents that I know are extremely supportive, willing to go to the ends of the earth for their kids. At the same time, they do not think transition is a cure-all for their kid’s distress. Parents typically know their children better than any teacher does. They may know that their teen has co-morbidities such as autism, or ADHD, or disordered eating that is influencing their gender confusion. The parents may know their teen has been subject to peer pressure or bullying or sexual trauma, and their child is seeking respite in a new identity as a maladaptive coping mechanism. Parents often are working hard day and night to help their kids work through their distress. Just because a parent doesn’t think gender transition is a good solution for their child, does not mean they are abusive. If you would call a parent in to discuss a dramatic shift in your student’s academic performance, you should call a parent in to discuss a drastic shift in their identity. If you have to ask a parent’s permission to give a child Advil, you certainly have to ask a parent’s permission to initiate a psychosocial intervention, which is what social transition is. As Dr. Stephen Levine, and others, pointed out in this paper, social transition is an intervention that requires explicit informed consent. They state, “While the causality has not been proven, the possibility of iatrogenesis and the resulting exposure to the risks of future medical and surgical gender dysphoria treatments, qualifies social gender transition for explicit, rather than implied, consent.” Working WITH parents, not against them, is the route to better outcomes for all students.
I recently had a meeting at my daughter’s school. As I sat in the office, I noticed a poster beside me that said: “Feelings aren’t facts. Feelings are real but they aren’t always reality. Feeling like a failure doesn’t make you a failure. Allow feelings to come and go without judging yourself for having them.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we could teach kids that message with regard to their bodies? We need more posters that say: “Feelings aren’t facts. Feeling your body is wrong, doesn’t make your body wrong. Allow these feelings to come and go without judging yourself.” This is how schools can truly support gender non-conforming kids.