In 2015, Vanessa Ford’s 4-year-old came out as transgender. Ford says she was lucky to have a strong support network and an understanding school, but she was still a little overwhelmed. Even though she had spent 14 years as an educator at D.C. Public Schools, she realized there was a lot she still didn’t know, such as how to make a support plan for her daughter Ellie.
Now a board member for the National Center for Transgender Equality, she's sharing hers and 8-year-old Ellie’s story at conferences, teacher trainings and in outlets like the Washington Post. In March, at ASCD Empower, which is a conference for educators with a focus on equity, she presented with Becca Mui, an education manager at GLSEN, an LGBTQ advocacy group focused on schools. At a time when 7 in 10 LGBTQ students face bullying, they shared startling statistics on the unique impacts felt by transgender students—but also how schools can build more inclusive and supportive environments.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: I want to talk a little bit about gender-neutral bathrooms to start. This may be the first point of entry into this topic for many people. How do schools address this sensitively yet practically?
Vanessa Ford: It's something that comes up a lot as we are addressing the needs of students. A gender-neutral bathroom is a really critical bathroom that students should have access to. What's most important is that no student is relegated to that bathroom. No adult is telling certain students that they must use it. It should be available to students who want the additional privacy, whether those are transgender, non-conforming students or other students who want privacy. And all students in a school should be able to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, with an option for a gender-neutral bathroom if that student chooses.
Do you have any language that you recommend that schools use with parents, or how do schools convey this?
Ford: One of the complaints that some parents have is that they don't want a transgender person in the bathroom with their child. There is a great resource from Gender Spectrum that gives administrators language to [address] specific parent concerns. One of the things that administrators or teachers can say to a parent who is upset by this policy is that there is a gender-neutral bathroom available to their child should their child feel that they need a private space.
Becca Mui: What we're really looking for in terms of these supports is for young people to be able to exist in this space where we’re telling them they need to show up. We need to make sure that the building itself that we're asking them to be in is a space where they can actually exist, and gender-neutral bathrooms are really critical because we know that not all people identify as male or female. So just having those two options, even with a supportive policy that says, “Anyone can use the bathroom of their identity,” that is not going to really support gender-fluid, gender non-conforming and non-binary or agender youth who need a space to go as well.
Are you finding schools responsive to these changes?
Mui: We get this question a lot because GLSEN is a national organization, and it's a really tricky one because the long and the short of it is that it looks different in every place. There are schools across the country that are putting in policies that are supportive for their transgender, non-conforming and LGBTQ students. And then there’s a lot of schools that are still working on it. I think what we look at in terms of policy sometimes is at a state level, but Vanessa has mentioned there are times when a state policy is not being enforced in the actual schools.
Vanessa, you are the parent of a transgender child and you've spoken about the desire to make your story an advocacy piece. Why was that important to your family?
Ford: That's a great question because not every family decides, “Let’s speak up and tell the world about what we're going through.” But when our daughter Ellie transitioned, it took us a lot of learning. We reached out to a lot of different organizations and people we knew. Based on what our child was telling us, we had to make a change, but we didn't know how to make that change. And as an educator who spent 14 years in the classroom and now leads other educators in learning, I realized there was so much I didn’t know.
Learning about how to approach schools, learning about how to talk with administrators and make a support plan for my child so that she could enter a school being safe was something that I needed to learn. When I went through that process, I realized that others could learn from what we were doing. And I think storytelling is a very powerful way for folks to learn from others’ experiences—to build empathy.
What we’ve found is that it has helped parents nationally. Parents and teachers start to understand the story. They start to understand from my perspective as an educator and from Ellie’s perspective.
There are plenty of educators and parents out there who think that they don’t know any trans youth, when in fact there will be at some point trans youth who come through their pipeline and if they have a story to grab onto, something they connected with, an emotion they felt that helps them support that child, then we know that child’s life has been improved by us telling our story.
This week’s podcast sponsor is Emporia State University’s Instructional Design and Technology program: designed for those interested in creating dynamic, interactive learning environments in both public and private sectors, the master’s in IDT from ESU can be completed quickly and entirely online, preparing educators for the new age of the technology-driven learning environment. Learn more here.
Bullying is an issue that every school deals with on some level. Do you address it differently for transgender students?
Ford: Any gender-based bullying should be stopped immediately. That includes things like, “You throw like a girl.” We hear that all the time in elementary school, and one of the things we encourage for any gender-based bullying is for the teacher to stop it, but then also use it as a teachable moment.
For trans and gender non-conforming youth, they are at a higher victimization rate for bullying, for harassment, for assault. I wouldn't say that we address those things differently—we just have a heightened awareness to them. And also that we have an eye on the school culture, on the language being used and we stop things when we hear them. A lot of trans and gender non-conforming youth actually have disproportionate disciplinary actions taken against them for things like dress code violations or use of bathrooms or sometimes actually sticking up for themselves after repeated victimization.
So while we often say, “Watch, listen, have eyes where there are not teachers,” we also say, “Be careful that we're not just targeting our trans, cisgender, non-conforming youth and keeping our eyes only on those youth.”
Mui: I would say that is particularly true for trans youth of color. We’ve looked at LGBTQ youth and know that LGBTQ youth of color face disproportionately high rates of discrimination at school. I also would like to say GLSEN research, through our National School Climate Survey—which looks at the school experiences of middle and high school LGBTQ-identified youth—found that more than 7 in 10 LGBTQ students experienced harassment or assault at school. Gender expression, identity and sexual orientation were among some of the highest causes for this.
So what are the important takeaways that schools can really learn from that research?
Mui: We think it’s important for schools to be creating more supportive environments, and we recommend that they do this through four different supports. One is comprehensive policies—ensuring that schools’ policies really enumerate and protect students in terms of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
We also recommend supportive educators as an inclusive support. That means that educators have had the professional development that they need and are being explicitly told by their administration that they’re expected to be supportive educators. And again provided the information that they need in order to do that, to interrupt anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment.
We found that student-led clubs, often called “GSAs,” that have a focus on LGBTQ identity, is an incredibly important support for a school to have. And finally, so is an inclusive curriculum to make sure that young LGBTQ people see themselves throughout history and our contributions. But we try to make sure that it’s a window for other students who may not identify as LGBTQ to learn about and start to begin to respect and understand LGBTQ people.
GLSEN research has shown that when these supports are present in schools, we find that they’re related to less negative school experiences from students, such as homophobic remarks or feeling unsafe, and that they're more likely to have school staff that are intervening in name calling, bullying and harassment. Students are also less likely to be absent from school because they feel unsafe, they’re more likely to have a higher GPA and to have a greater sense of school belonging.
So what about listeners that may be thinking, “I’d like to do something to make my school more inclusive, but I just don't know where to start.” What do you say to them?
Ford: First, it can feel really overwhelming. You're not alone in this. I think one of the first things to do is to actually research. Learn whether there is a GLSEN chapter in your area. If there's not, what are our policies? Teachers can use a student’s preferred name and pronoun, even if they’re not out to their families, even if they’re not out in other classrooms. It’s about really respecting and affirming that student.
Mui: I encourage folks to be patient with themselves and also to do their own learning. Go to websites and watch videos and listen and see what research they can find so that they can better understand and hear from people telling their own stories. It’s a way for them to better educate themselves before they really dive into action.