On Teachers Letting Kids Transition Gender While Keeping It A Secret From Their Parents
Also, please stop comparing sexual orientation to gender identity
The New York Times just published a big story by Katie J.M. Baker about the question of whether and under what circumstances it might be appropriate for schools to hide from parents the fact that their kid is seeking to change their name and/or pronouns and/or other stuff because they believe they are trans.
To call this a loaded subject is an understatement. I think it’s really one of the most incendiary areas of the youth gender discussion, perhaps because it’s among the only ones where it’s possible parents of minor children might not get final say over what’s best for them. Parents get very freaked out by the idea that their kid’s school is hiding something from them. And this isn’t limited to conservative parents at all — Baker’s story features plenty of pissed-off liberal ones.
The policy in question, which has been enacted at schools across the country (Baker doesn’t provide any stats about how common this practice is, and I don’t think any exist), is quite simple. If a child wants to change their name, pronouns, and so on, and they simply say they don’t want their parents to know, that’s that: The school will go ahead and allow them to socially transition at school, and will keep it a secret from their parents. It puts a lot of power in the hands of kids who are in some cases very young, very troubled, or both.
There are clearly some situations where school should be a safe haven for kids who are experimenting with different ideas or ways of expressing themselves, and where teachers should let them do so without the risk of parental interference. If a male student from a conservative religious household were, within the security of his school walls, dressing in a feminine manner, it would be quite inappropriate for a teacher to rat him out to his parents — for many of the same reasons it would be inappropriate for a student from a conservative religious household to be ratted out for reading Carl Sagan’s and Bertrand Russell’s arguments against Christianity in the school library. Minors do not have full autonomy, and adult supervision and/or permission are required in a host of different settings. But surely they should have some right to pursue their own path without their parents hovering over them every step of the way, even if reasonable people might differ on the specifics, and even if age clearly should be factored in (a 12-year-old and a 6-year-old are both minors, but no one would argue they should be granted exactly the same amount of autonomy).
But adopting a whole new identity, as a different gender under a different name, is a bigger deal than experimenting with fashion or atheism. For one thing, if a decision to socially transition that is kept from parents sticks, a young, developing person will then spend months, or maybe even years, living one identity at school and another among their family. That just can’t be psychologically healthy. It fosters distrust between students and parents, and it isn’t sustainable because the parents are inevitably going to find out (if schools think they can keep it a secret in the long term, that’s ridiculous).
For another thing, the teachers and school administrators participating in this agreement might lack certain basic information about the context surrounding the kid’s declaration that he or she is trans — information that could be vital for determining whether a swift social transition is appropriate.
Here, for example, is the story Baker starts with:
Jessica Bradshaw found out that her 15-year-old identified as transgender at school after she glimpsed a homework assignment with an unfamiliar name scrawled at the top.
When she asked about the name, the teenager acknowledged that, at his request, teachers and administrators at his high school in Southern California had for six months been letting him use the boy’s bathroom and calling him by male pronouns.
Mrs. Bradshaw was confused: Didn’t the school need her permission, or at least need to tell her?
It did not, a counselor later explained, because the student did not want his parents to know. District and state policies instructed the school to respect his wishes.
“There was never any word from anyone to let us know that on paper, and in the classroom, our daughter was our son,” Mrs. Bradshaw said.
The Bradshaws have been startled to find themselves at odds with the school over their right to know about, and weigh in on, such a major development in their child’s life — a dispute that illustrates how school districts, which have long been a battleground in cultural conflicts over gender and sexuality, are now facing wrenching new tensions over how to accommodate transgender children.
The Bradshaws accepted their teenager’s new gender identity, but not without trepidation, especially after he asked for hormones and surgery to remove his breasts. Doctors had previously diagnosed him as being on the autism spectrum, as well as with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, PTSD and anxiety. He had struggled with loneliness during the pandemic, and, to his parents, seemed not to know exactly who he was yet, because he had repeatedly changed his name and sexual orientation.
Given those complexities, Mrs. Bradshaw said she resented the fact that the school had made her feel like a bad parent for wondering whether educators had put her teenager, a minor, on a path the school wasn’t qualified to oversee.
This is a very common storyline in 2023: A lot of kids appear to suddenly (or seemingly suddenly) come out as trans, and anecdotally, at least, it seems like it happens more often in the case of kids who are on the autism spectrum and/or have other mental health problems and/or are dealing with some sort of jarring event, whether a pandemic or a divorce or something else.
Let’s call the Bradshaws’ kid Jon, since he goes nameless in the story. This line from the latest edition (PDF) of the World Professional Association of Transgender Healthcare’s (WPATH) Standards of Care reads almost like it was written specifically about Jon: “As delivery of health care and access to specialists varies globally, designing a particular assessment process to adapt existing resources is often necessary. In some cases, a more extended assessment process may be useful, such as for youth with more complex presentations, co-occurring autism spectrum characteristics, and/or an absence of experienced childhood gender incongruence.”
Elsewhere, the SoC note that “considering autistic/neurodivergent transgender youth represent a substantial minority subpopulation of youth served in gender clinics globally, it is important [health care providers] seek additional training in the field of autism and understand the unique elements of care autistic gender diverse youth may require.” It also says that “For a select subgroup of young people, susceptibility to social influence impacting gender may be an important differential to consider” (references omitted throughout all these quotes from the WPATH SoC). Finally, the authors of the Children section of the SoC write: “We recommend the health care professionals discuss the potential benefits and risks of a social transition with families who are considering it.”
In England, meanwhile, the National Health Service’s interim Cass Review cautions that:
[Social transition] may not be thought of as an intervention or treatment, because it is not something that happens within health services. However, it is important to view it as an active intervention because it may have significant effects on the child or young person in terms of their psychological functioning. There are different views on the benefits versus the harms of early social transition. Whatever position one takes, it is important to acknowledge that it is not a neutral act, and better information is needed about outcomes. [footnotes omitted]
Do you think Jon’s school provided him with “a more extended assessment process” before agreeing to let him socially transition without his parents’ knowledge? Do you think it took any of the above into account? Of course not — the school appears to have been constrained by a very blunt policy in which kids get the final say, regardless of the circumstances, with no further investigation or assessment allowed.
In short, the decision even just to socially transition a kid like Jon is potentially fraught and complicated, and in some cases schools might not have all the background necessary to make an informed decision about whether it’s the right move. Jon’s school likely knew about his autism, but what about his ADHD, his other mental health problems, his shifting identities, and pandemic travails? On what planet is a teacher or school counselor qualified — on the sole basis of a single child’s say-so and in the absence of a fuller picture of who that kid is and what they have experienced — to make this decision?
One doesn’t get the sense, reading Baker’s article, that Jon comes from an unhappy or abusive home. His parents don’t want him to get hormones or surgery, but that seems to stem from well-grounded concerns about his autism and other mental health problems. It would be negligent for parents to immediately accede to these requests for permanent medical treatments in such circumstances. So in this case, the logic used to justify the secrecy policy clearly didn’t hold. Jon didn’t face getting kicked out of his home, or physical abuse, or any other negative consequences, really, as a result of his parents finding out. But all it took for the policy to kick in was for Jon to request it.
This obviously isn’t ideal. That said, maybe there’s a different Jon, somewhere else, who really does require secrecy while they figure out their gender stuff. How can schools tell which of these requests are based on legitimate fears, which are just teenagers being teenagers, and which are somewhere in the middle? I don’t have a good answer, but I do think this article nicely shows why “Let the kid decide” probably is not going to work as a widespread policy in the long run. Schools are going to have to figure out a better way to deal with these requests than “Whatever you say!”
The difficulty here is that there is deep conceptual disagreement and confusion about the nature of the phenomenon. Is it like sexual orientation, or a mental health/medical issue, or a choice about membership in a subculture, etc? Schools vs parents cannot be resolved if there isn’t some agreement about how to conceive of what these kids are doing. And sadly the state of the discussion among those who should be figuring this stuff out is very poor.
Gorin is absolutely right. This lack of philosophical precision plagues every aspect of the gender identity debate, but it’s particularly vexing here. Here’s how the American Psychological Association defines being transgender:
Transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else; gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics. “Trans” is sometimes used as shorthand for “transgender.” While transgender is generally a good term to use, not everyone whose appearance or behavior is gender-nonconforming will identify as a transgender person. The ways that transgender people are talked about in popular culture, academia and science are constantly changing, particularly as individuals’ awareness, knowledge and openness about transgender people and their experiences grow.
This is a common definition you’ll also find elsewhere, and if you follow it logically you’ll see that mere discomfort with the way you are “supposed” to act or dress as a boy or girl, and a desire to act or dress differently, means you’re trans (if you want to be), even if you don’t have gender dysphoria. Sure enough, a lot of people, particularly young ones, seem to come out as trans much more to make a statement about their desire to transgress gender boundaries than because they are suffering serious anguish at having a (fe)male body or being seen by others as (fe)male. Here’s a good and representative example — a lot of the experiences recounted by those young nonbinary people are experiences many of us who aren’t trans have.
Having gender dysphoria (GD) is different from merely wanting to subvert gender norms. It is a disorder in the DSM-5, and for understandable reason: It brings with it serious anguish, especially if left untreated. Traditionally — if you can have “traditions” in an area as new as youth gender medicine — the reason to socially transition a kid is to treat their gender dysphoria. It’s a psychosocial intervention geared at alleviating particular symptoms. But this understanding of youth gender identity is increasingly out of style and frequently derided as a form of “gatekeeping.” Anyone can be trans, the new thinking goes, no matter how they feel or whether they have GD, and someone’s statement about their gender identity needs to be respected — no matter how young they are. And what do trans people often do once they realize they’re trans? They transition.
Setting aside the many philosophical problems with the concept of gender identity as the term is used at present, all these fuzzy definitions make the situation in schools rather complicated. If a kid doesn’t have diagnosable gender dysphoria that needs to be alleviated, why would a school take it upon themselves to facilitate a social transition, especially one that is kept a secret from their parents? If a kid does have diagnosable gender dysphoria that needs to be alleviated, they might be a good candidate for social transition, but in this case how can you hide from parents that their kid has a mental health condition — one correlated with various negative mental health outcomes? Plus, how can you make sure the kid gets the comprehensive assessment that should precede a decision to socially transition, including a formal diagnosis of GD, if their parents don’t even know they feel this way?
It appears that from many schools’ perspectives, the answer to all these questions is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. At this point, as Gorin notes, the way we talk about sex, gender, and gender identity is so confused that it’s hard even to know where to begin. I think a lot of parents, teachers, and school administrators believe that if you don’t let a kid socially transition as soon as they express a desire to, something terrible will happen. That’s been the message activists have pushed, and it’s worked. But it’s a serious oversimplification of the available evidence. A kid who is otherwise cared for, nurtured, and listened to is not, except in the rarest and most outlying circumstances, going to harm themselves merely because the adults in their life want to ask some questions before allowing them to proceed with a social transition. Can we say the same about transitioning a kid without an assessment, and doing so in a way guaranteed to ratchet up the level of secrecy, distrust, and animosity between parents and child and parents and school? It just seems like a really ill-advised experiment, and one based on an extremely fuzzy understanding of the underlying concepts.
A final point: Many people treat this controversy as duh-worthy because it’s so obvious to them that gender identity and sexual orientation are very similar things, and of course we wouldn’t want schools to out gay kids to conservative parents. I saw this argument all over Twitter, and, more broadly, a significant amount of trans activism is premised on playing up the supposed parallels between gender identity and sexual orientation, perhaps because “Born This Way”–style arguments seem to be part of what propelled the gay rights movement to so many resounding victories that seemed unthinkable not too long ago.
In much the same way the discourse over sex and gender is plagued by philosophical incoherence, it’s also plagued by the endless invocation of this comparison. Gender identity and sexual orientation are very different things, and they require different approaches. If coming out as gay required name and pronoun changes, and sometimes was the first step on a short path to permanent medical procedures for which the available evidence is lacking, and if experts believed that it was harder to reliably “diagnose” kids as gay if they had autism or other mental health problems or recent trauma or disruptions to their life… well, in this hypothetical universe, yes, you absolutely would need to loop parents into the process of a kid coming out as gay, at least as a general rule. But in the universe we actually inhabit, if a kid is gay, or thinks he’s gay, you don’t have to do anything. There’s no psychosocial intervention, so there’s no justification for notifying parents.
Being trans is different. Especially for younger kids, or even older ones with mental health and other problems that might lead them to be a bit developmentally stalled, coming out is a process that is going to require parents’ input and approval, at least if it’s going to go smoothly. That doesn’t mean parents should be automatically informed about a kid’s gender questions or statements as soon as they crop up — like I said, I can imagine lots of situations where some degree of discretion is warranted, and there’s obviously no reason for teachers to “report” students merely for gender nonconforming behavior.
It does mean we probably need to land somewhere between “Parents should be instantly notified whenever a young kid says they might be trans” and “Young minor kids get to unilaterally determine every aspect of their social transition, including whether their parents are informed at all.” But facile comparisons won’t help us work through these issues.