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U.S. Civil Rights Offices Take on Trans Students’ Right to Use Appropriate Bathrooms and Pronouns

A recent survey of middle and high schoolers in America confirms that these are some of the most fraught issues for LGBT students today.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Christopher Webb/Flickr)

In an open letter published online today, federal civil rights offices affirmed protections for transgender students at schools receiving federal funding. Among other things, federally funded schools must allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender, refer to transgender students by their preferred names and pronouns, and provide such protections even if parents or other students protest. Refusal to comply could lead to a school losing its federal money.

The letter isn’t just lip service to a hot topic in American politics right now. It addresses real problems for many LGBT students in America:

  • Bathrooms and locker rooms. Schools “must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity,” says the letter, which is stamped by the Departments of Justice and Education. Bathrooms and locker rooms are among the most fraught places in school for LGBT students, according to a survey of almost 8,000 LGBT American middle and high schoolers that the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network conducted in 2013. More than one in three survey respondents reported avoiding bathrooms and locker rooms at school because they felt “unsafe or uncomfortable.” Perhaps fairer bathroom and locker room rules will help.
  • Names and pronouns. Teachers and staff should use pronouns and names that transgender students prefer, no matter what their birth certificates or official IDs say, the letter states. After all, some local laws prevent transgender folks from changing the gender designation on their official documents, the letter notes. No need to perpetuate such discrimination. Names are a big problem for trans students, the 2013 school survey found: Forty-two percent had been prevented from using their preferred names at school.
  • The right to privacy. According to the letter, the Departments of Justice and Education consider schools’ unauthorized disclosure of transgender students’ birth names or sexes without their permission to be in violation of federal law. Such disclosures aren’t as common a problem as unfair bathroom rules or incorrect pronoun use, but the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network did find that a few of its 2013 survey respondents reported that their schools informed parents about students’ LGBT identities without their permission.

For queer students, the consequences of unfair rules can be grave. Among survey respondents who said they planned to drop out of high school, the most commonly reported reason was a hostile or unsupportive school environment. Survey respondents who experienced discrimination in school had lower grade point averages and self-esteem, were more likely to be depressed, and were more likely to have missed school because of fear for their own safety.

Staff who follow guidelines like the Obama administration’s can make a big difference. “I am so glad to have teachers who are cool with students being LGBT,” one survey respondent told GLSEN surveyors. “If it weren’t for them, I know I would’ve dropped out of high school.”