by Tierney Gode-von Aesch and Alex Levitan, AP Lang students and Features Contributors
photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
How do you remember high school feeling? Most people didn’t exactly enjoy it. But you probably didn’t wake up every day with an overwhelming sense of dread or feeling that you’d never be happy. Or that something about you was different and it made you feel physically unsafe in school. Bad enough that there were classes you didn’t attend because you didn’t feel safe.
Well, many teenagers these days feel that exact thing. Transgender and gender non-conforming youth across the country face daily challenges at school. They wake up each morning dreading going to school. A survey by GLSEN in 2009 found that genderqueer students face much higher levels of harassment than their peers, with 75% reporting feeling unsafe at school, leading to significantly lower GPAs and overall worse attendance.
But this isn’t anything new. For decades, transgender and gender nonconforming students have struggled with a lack of resources and a lack of respect. Asher Baron, now a high school guidance counselor, spoke to us about their experience trying to understand their identity back when they were in high school. They reported having always felt extremely anxious and jittery in classrooms in high school. They elaborated to say that it definitely affected their overall classroom performance and that they couldn’t recall a time when they felt completely safe during highschool. They felt lost.
Moreover, Baron told us that being queer, trans, or gender non-conforming was something that was never talked about. They could not identify one teacher that was a role model or someone they could go to for help. Asher told us that it was never discussed because they didn’t know any terminology to discuss how they felt.
And students across the country face these same issues, even so many years later. One student we spoke to, who we’ll call Mac, told us that they hadn’t seen or felt any representation within their school. And if not for their unfettered internet access and community of queer friends online, they never would have been able to understand their gender identity. They acknowledge that they are still figuring themself out, but had it not been for their friends they never would’ve known the name for how they feel.
This is a similar story that many teenagers experience across the country. Only 44% of transgender and gender non-conforming teenagers reported that their school had a club that addresses LGBTQIA+ issues. Even more astounding is that 46% of transgender and gender non-conforming students, fewer than half, were able to find any reading material on queer issues in their school libraries.
Even when genderqueer students are able to find the resources they need, they often face numerous issues with having their identity accepted by their peers, teachers, and their school as a whole. Another student we spoke to, Athena, was able to learn about trans issues on her own, but being recognized by the school was another problem entirely. It took over three months of requests for her school to acknowledge her chosen name and preferred pronouns.
This lack of institutional acceptance contributes to harassment facing many transgender and gender nonconforming students today. Both Mac and Athena admitted to intentionally skipping classes on multiple occasions because they felt they weren’t being treated with basic human decency. The most recent available data show that only 83% of transgender and gender non-conforming students can identify a single teacher who they feel is supportive.
Without the support of teachers, students’ peers are less respectful in turn. It’s not uncommon for trans students to experience slurs and harassment in their schools. Mac says that they hear homophobic and transphobic slurs follow them in the hallways.
But it doesn’t stop at verbal abuse. Willow Andring, a 14-year-old freshman in Armstrong, Pennsylvania, was attacked and suffered a concussion because of her gender expression. She had to miss school in order to recover, and she was fearful when she returned. And there are countless cases of transgender people being yelled at and physically attacked. These kinds of crimes follow transgender and gender non-conforming people, both teenagers and adults, everywhere they go.
Under that much stress, it’s no wonder that transgender highschool students are broadly outperformed by their cisgender counterparts. According to GLSEN’s 2009 study, students who face harassment for their queer identity were found to have an average GPA of about 2.2 compared to an overall average of 3.0. That’s the difference between a C grade and a B grade.
The good news is that many of these problems have simple solutions. Much of the harassment facing genderqueer students surrounds their choice of bathroom, with many transgender and gender non-conforming students not allowed to use the bathroom that aligns with their identity, and instead forced to use gender-neutral bathrooms or those matching their birth sex. Mac told us that while they would prefer to use the women’s room, they feel extremely unsafe unless they use the men’s, as they’re forced to present in a way that aligns with their assigned gender at birth.
Asher Baron also told us about their experience in gendered spaces like locker rooms in high school. They never felt like playing with the girls and playing with boys made others stare at them and it put them out there. Even nowadays, 18 states bar transgender students from playing sports on a team consistent with the student’s gender identity.
There are so many things that can be implemented in schools that can help improve the quality of life and mindsets of these teenagers. For starters, it’s critical that gender nonconforming students be allowed to choose restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. Just like many fight for an all-inclusive curriculum of races and cultural identities, an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum would also support teenagers. Widened access to clubs, other organizations, and accurate information about being LGBTQ would also help teenagers feel safe in their high school environment.
We understand that for people who have never struggled with their gender identity, things like using the wrong pronouns or not being able to choose which restroom to use may seem minor. In response to that sentiment, Athena shared her perspective: “People like to pretend as though they know what it’s like to be transgender, but you cannot possibly understand how stressful it is until you’ve been in the situation yourself. Undermining a trans person’s lived experience only makes it worse.”
GLSEN’s 2009 report concluded that practices that are supportive and respectful towards transgender and gender nonconforming students are not only imperative to ensure the safety of queer youth, but also to form a community that accepts all of its members, no matter what. By extending more empathy towards our transgender students and peers, hopefully the next generation of queer students will be able to walk into classes without fear.
Greytak, Emily A., et al. “Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools.” GLSEN.org, 2009, https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/Harsh_Realities_The_Experiences_of_Transgender_Youth_2009.pdf. Accessed 2 January 2023.
Movement Advancement Project. “Equality Maps: Bans on Transgender Youth Participation in Sports.” https://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/sports_participation_bans. Accessed 01/02/2023
Yurcaba, Jo. “Sexual assault, harassment, bullying: Trans students say they’re targeted at school.” NBC News, 14 December 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/nbc-out/out-news/sexual-assault-harassment-bullying-trans-students-say-targeted-school-rcna7803. Accessed 02 January 2023.