School bus in front of school building

How to Stay Safe as a Trans Student in School

Teen Vogue interviewed experts from Equality Texas and Advocates for Youth to understand trans students' rights in this contested moment.

As of the writing of this story, according to the ACLU, at least 435 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been proposed in 2023. According to Track Trans Legislation, 487 anti-trans bills, specifically, have been introduced in state legislatures, a number of which target trans kids in school and their families. Some proponents of anti-trans legislation targeting children have openly admitted that they are focusing on kids as a way to ban transition for all, including adults, even though one of the biggest anonymized surveys of trans Americans, released last week, found most trans adults say transitioning improved their lives.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than one in five trans kids live in states with bans on gender-affirming care and more than half live in states that have considered bans. Students are protesting across the country in states like Florida and Iowa. “I was already concerned about young people in this country to begin with because of the pandemic because that is a group trauma that we're also in,” says Dr. Jaymie Campbell, MD and PHD, of Advocates for Youth. “Adults aren't even processing the pandemic, they're not processing their grief, they're not working on their trauma, so how are young people supposed to take their cues?”

Dr. Campbell continues, “Add that 2021 was recorded as the deadliest year for trans people… and then last year had the most anti-trans bills in the history of ever. I'm just like, Okay, what's 2023 gonna do? We're not off to a great start.”

Kids and families are already dealing with enough as states attempt to ban youth gender-affirming care, which advocates say forces them to cross state lines to access lifesaving health care for their kids, like parents in South Carolina and South Dakota who need to head to neighboring states. 

States like Texas have upped the ante by deputizing teachers to report on families if they believe parents of their students are supporting their children in transitioning or living openly as a trans youth and then initiate CPS investigations into those parents. Johnathan Gooch, communications director for Equality Texas, notes that while this particular policy – a directive from governor Greg Abbott to the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services – is tied up in litigation, it isn’t on pause. Currently, Texas families impacted by this  and be exempt from enforcement under an injunction resulting from a lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, and Texas-based law firm Baker Botts.

The legislature is considering changing the Department of Family and Protective Services mandate to define providing health care to your trans kid as child abuse, which is obviously incredibly dangerous,” says Gooch. This continues while states like Florida float bills to separate trans youth from supportive parents.

But, of course, it’s not just Texas or Florida and it’s not just that one policy. Here’s the slate from just one week in mid-March 2023, courtesy of them’s weekly roundup: Trans youth health care bans passed in Georgia, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Kentucky passed what’s being called the “worst anti-trans bill in the nation,” which blended three anti-trans bills into one, incorporating a bathroom ban, a “Don’t Say Gay”-esque instruction ban, policies around misgendering and deadnaming, and the aforementioned trans health care ban for minors. Though governor Andy Beshear vetoed it, the Kentucky GOP overrode the veto on March 29. In Texas, Louisiana, and South Carolina, deadnaming/misgendering bills in schools — referred to euphemistically as “parental rights” bills (more on that later) — were proposed. 

Again, this was one week, and this was just the legislation that specifically involves schools. (For more on bathroom bans, we have an explainer for you.) It was also the week that Florida’s ban on gender-affirming care for youth went into effect. 

Things are moving fast. There are a lot of people who want to keep trans youth and their families safe. Here’s what they want you to know to protect yourself as a trans kid in school.

What are the laws being proposed on the state level? What do they have in common?

Recent reporting from outlets like Mother Jones has shown that the current anti-LGBTQ+ legislative drive has been pushed by a coordinated campaign from conservative Christian groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom. “These are groups we know are not interested in the best-practice care for trans kids,” Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign tells Mother Jones. “These bills are coming from national organizations whose purpose is to harm LGBTQ people.” 

Because so much has been coordinated, it’s possible to identify commonalities. The proposed legislation can generally be lumped into those targeting education and information, like “Don’t Say Gay” laws; those around individual students’ rights to control what name and pronouns they use, which conservatives couch in the language of “parental rights"; and those that focus on surveilling trans-supportive parenting. 

One example Gooch highlighted was Texas’s version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which initially targeted students through third grade; Texas’s recently introduced SB 8 includes students through 12th grade. “Texas lawmakers saw what Florida was doing, took that idea, and made it even more extreme,” Gooch tells Teen Vogue. As them reported, Florida governor Ron DeSantis is looking to expand the policy to include grades four through twelve.

Speaking to the concerns caused by such policies, Gooch continues, “That means an 18-year-old will have never participated in a classroom discussion about LGBTQ issues, which also means that our Texas high school graduates would be learning everything about LGBTQ issues from the internet. Personally, I think teachers are much more trustworthy. Teachers are better at translating those complex ideas into age-appropriate lessons, which is so important.” 

Beyond teaching cultural competency and trustworthy, vetted information, Gooch says that it’s also important for young people to see “it's possible to be a successful, thriving, queer adult.”

“The education stuff is really important. I think a lot of queer people like myself, who grew up in Texas, didn't have the opportunity to learn about LGBTQ issues in school,” Gooch says. “We still grew up to be queer. It's so important for the next generation to have better access to resources, to have teachers that can talk about these issues.”

What rights do students have?

This legislation is an effort to circumvent federal protections on a state-by-state basis, so it’s important to know what rights are protected federally. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a know-your-rights guide for LGBTQ+ students navigating school, which includes: You have the right to express your gender, whether that means cutting your hair, wearing gender-affirming clothing, or being referred to with the correct pronouns, without harassment from peers or teachers. “In general, you have a right to live openly, to expect your pronouns and name to be used, all of that is protected in some form or another,” explains Gooch. 

Both Gooch and Dr. Campell highlight the importance of Title IX, the federal law that dictates educational institutions’ access to federal funding based on their compliance with protecting gender- and sex-based rights. (You’ve probably heard of it in the context of sexual harassment and violence on college campuses.) In the summer of 2021, the Department of Education stated that Title IX’s prohibition of sex-based discrimination includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The rule is currently in the process of being codified into law by the Department of Education.

Title IX “protects them from discrimination along the lines of sex in schools, in terms of sports, dress codes, all of that,” says Dr. Campbell. The other federal protection he highlights is the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. “That protects young trans people and schools in that they don't have to give out any personal information; they don't have to disclose it. It's a federal protection.”

Dr. Campbell also notes that federal courts have protected students presenting as themselves in schools in recent case law, citing a winter 2022 ruling in the case of Foote vs. Town of Ludlow. Four parents sued the Ludlow, Massachusetts, public school district accusing school officials of violating their parental rights by “using the students’ requested names and pronouns and waiting to discuss their gender expression at school with parents until the students themselves were ready to do so,” per GLAAD, who filed an amicus brief in the case. The federal judge dismissed the case. 

“I would love for young people to know that [things are ] very scary, very loud, and deadly, and there are added protections,” says Dr. Campbell. “Federal judges are not ruling in favor of the schools because they're trans-affirming, they're ruling in favor of the schools because the Constitution is protecting trans people or trans youth.”

We also know that even though you may have rights, the administrators you need to turn to for help could be transphobic or generally unsupportive. Thirty-three percent of LGBTQ+ students say they've experienced disciplinary action at school. If you think you’ve been targeted or discriminated against at school, you’re encouraged to reach out for legal representation. Groups that may be able to help include Lambda Legal and the ACLU.

For Texas students facing the state’s threat of investigation, says Gooch, “it's important for students to know that they do not have to speak to a CPS officer alone. If they get approached at school, they are allowed to say, ‘I would like to have a lawyer present, I would like to have a guardian present.’ That is completely within their right.”

What resources are there?

If you’re in Texas, Gooch recommends, which hosts a toolkit for knowing and understanding your rights as a student in Texas. And here’s that “know your rights” guide again from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which focuses on your federal rights. If you’re an educator or work in a school, Advocates for Youth, where Dr. Campbell is the associate director for trans health and rights, provides training for teachers on creating LGBTQ+-inclusive school environments.

Dr. Campbell, who is trans, offers some suggestions for where he hopes to see more resources: “What I would say is putting dollars toward helping trans folks, especially young trans people, feels awesome. I feel dollars need to be put toward healing, wellness, rest, and joy.” 

Some organizations are working toward that, too. Emma Chinn of the Campaign for Southern Equality earlier this month, says that their emergency grant funding for trans youth and their families goes toward whatever they might need to take care of themselves.

What should you do if you want to get involved?

If you have monetary resources to share there are countless organizations, probably right in your local area or in your state, that could use your support.

Gooch cautions that school boards are where a lot of these fights are being waged on the local level. “Stay tuned into what your school boards are doing because they have a lot of power and can make a lot of decisions that will impact people's lives,” he tells Teen Vogue. “School boards have a lot of power to decide policies that are in a sort of legal gray area right now in Texas, that can obviously protect LGBTQ students or make their lives a lot more difficult.”

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