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No Gender Cops in Classrooms

Legislators in Ohio are debating whether to require teachers to inform guardians if a student comes out as transgender. If signed into law, the bill could have devastating consequences for trans students.

Recently, state representatives in Ohio introduced a bill that would mandate teachers to out transgender students to their parents and caregivers. House Bill 658 would require educators and all government entities to immediately notify a student’s guardians in writing if they exhibited signs of gender dysphoria or a desire to express a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Tom Brinkman and Paul Zeltwanger, would allow caregivers to withhold consent for any “gender dysphoria treatment or activities that are designed and intended to form a child’s conception of sex and gender”—including educational materials about gender identity. Teachers could face felony charges for referring a trans or nonbinary student to a school counselor or suggesting resources about gender identity.  In their response statement, LGBT advocacy group Equality Ohio condemns the bill for its "ridiculous and unenforceable requirements—requirements that out transgender students and create a significant threat of bullying and reduced access to social support systems."

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Educators, you must be clear: There will be no gender cops in your classroom. 

Teachers hold a pivotal position in the lives of trans and nonbinary students who, for good reason, have chosen not to come out yet. These students are taking their rightful space to question, to be confused, to exist amid uncertainty. This is a part of healthy adolescent development and their ability to thrive. Moreover, teachers work tirelessly to build trust with all of their students. To pry a wedge into this trust is an affront to teachers’ integrity, an assault on the profession itself. 

Proponents of the bill say it’s designed to support families, rather than threaten the safety of transgender youth. As Brinkman told his fellow representatives, “Parents have the right to decide what is best for their children.” The statistics, however, present a different truth. Being outed as transgender means more than discomfort and humiliation; it can pose a direct threat to a transgender person’s mental and physical safety. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 37 percent of transgender people attempt suicide before the age of 24—and the likelihood of an attempt is worse for those who feel rejected at home or at school. 

If HB 658 is written into law, it will effectively rob young people of their ability to decide who it is safe to come out to as trans, how to do it, and when.

While the representatives say their bill supports youth and families, it places these vulnerable students at an even higher risk for discrimination by forcing teachers to out them. Trans students have a keen internal gauge of their own safety, often out of necessity. We must trust them to utilize these gauges in deciding whether, when, how and to whom they disclose their identities.

As a trans youth in school, I remember conducting constant tests on my environment, silently and assiduously measuring the transphobia in any room or social situation. If I felt a glimmer of acceptance, I would gradually creep out of silence as the otherwise thick physiological tension began to subside. But I was always vigilant, ready to slip back into hiding at any moment in the locker room, cafeteria or classroom—with peers or adults. In this way, I, along with so many other trans students, learned to carve out my own safety and retain the self-determination we all need to thrive.

If HB 658 is written into law, it will effectively rob young people of their ability to decide who it is safe to come out to as trans, how to do it, and when. It would wrest this vital shred of agency from trans youth.

When done by choice, coming out as trans can liberate a young person from the ceaseless pressure to perform as someone they will never—can never—be. Forcing trans kids to be out before they are ready will only support the cultural perception that trans people are an aberration to be exposed and fixed. Educators should be fighting against this bias, not cementing it.

While educators in Ohio have been called on to stand up against this bill, they are not the only ones who can take action. Here are some steps you can take to stand up for the personal dignity of all students.

You can display your respect for students’ development by encouraging formalized support networks in schools. You can break the silence and cut through the fear by talking about the proposed law in GSAs and other welcoming spaces. 

You can advocate for mandated trainings for staff to review and practice implementing your school’s trans-inclusive anti-bullying policies. You can apply for a Teaching Tolerance Educator Grant to serve the unique needs of trans students in your school community. You can work with administrators to create an action plan to protect LGBTQ students in time for the start of the next school year.

Whenever, however and to whomever a student decides to come out as transgender, safety will likely remain first and foremost in their mind. They have a right to that safety, just as they have a right to self-determination. We must do our part to protect those rights for transgender students in our schools.

Ehrenhalt is the school-based programming and grants manager at Teaching Tolerance.