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Transgender-inclusive K-12 Schools by Madelaine Adelman

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I began fifteen years ago to work on safe schools issues by founding a local GLSEN chapter to create inclusive schools for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students.[i] In the beginning, I spent considerable time convincing administrators that, yes, they had lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in their schools.[ii] Now, after a decade and a half of increased visibility, advocacy, and socio-legal changes,[iii] most middle and high schools understand that lesbian, gay, and bisexual students are integral members of the student body. Indeed, a recent survey conducted by trend-forecasting agency J Walter Thompson Innovation Group, found that only 48% of Gen Zs (13-20 year olds) identify as exclusively heterosexual.[iv] Today, some elementary teachers remain puzzled about how to avoid gender-based stereotypes or how to incorporate family diversity (i.e. the variety of what constitutes a family) into the school day;[v] and students continue to report troubling level of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation.[vi] Nevertheless, most inquiries I receive from media outlets or schools center on transgender issues. School leaders want to know what it means to be transgender or non-binary, and how to ensure all students have equal access to a safe learning environment, educational activities, and school facilities. This is a welcome and long-overdue addition to educational discourse about equity and difference.

Transgender students in K-12 schools

Similar to my local efforts to help create safe schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, the professional development workshops I facilitate on transgender issues focus first on the extent and effects of an anti-transgender climate in schools. Approximately 150,000 transgender youth attend U.S. schools, yet only 13 states and D.C. have education non-discrimination laws explicitly protecting them.[i] Overall, according to GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey, 3 in 4 transgender students felt unsafe at school because of their gender expression, and as a result, avoided using the bathroom; 1 out of 2 transgender youth were unable to use the name and pronoun that matches their gender. Their reported rates of verbal harassment, being kicked or injured with a weapon, and being sexually assaulted at school are more than two times higher for transgender students than for their non-trans (i.e. cisgender) peers.[ii] Transgender students face a dynamic hostile school climate. Victimized by their classmates (and educators), they also are disciplined at a disproportionate rate.[iii] Age, poverty, racism, and region also inform the intensity and effect of anti-trans bias on student educational outcomes and personal wellbeing. Not surprisingly, transgender students are three times more likely to drop out of school. Indeed, I regularly meet transgender and non-binary students (and their parents) who struggle to find a suitable school where they can be themselves.

Range of school climates

Recent conversations I have had with several schools in the U.S. about their policies and practices reflect the range of school climates that transgender and gender nonconforming students encounter in K-12 schools today. I will call them Eager School, Discretionary School, and Reticent School.[iv] Eager School is keen to audit their policies, and offer professional development workshops to staff as concrete steps toward transforming the school’s culture. Discretionary School is interested to learn what it would entail to make their school culture more transgender-inclusive, and in the meantime, the school handles transgender student and teachers needs on an individual basis. Reticent School, after passing a policy that requires school staff to treat students according to the gender assigned to them on the birth certificate, and not according to their gender identity or expression, which may not align with the certificate, is unwilling to adopt “Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices” to support trans students recommended by the U.S. Department of Education. The continuum of understanding among educators thus includes: adding “T-inclusion” to school cultures already aware of its LGB students; schools becoming aware but unsure of how to integrate openly transgender students and teachers; and, school administrators braced against the acceptance of transgender and gender nonconforming people.

Enacting license-to-discriminate laws and policies

My experience with Reticent School’s approach is part of a larger effort to deny the existence of transgender students, and to reject efforts to address entrenched assumptions about gender that prevent trans students (and others) from participating fully in school. Opposition to recognizing transgender individuals as part of the student body can be traced in part to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. RFRA soon led to state-level “religious exemption” laws, which create a “license-to-discriminate,” often aimed at LGBTQ people. Sparked further by withdrawal in 2017 under the Trump Administration of the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education’s clarification of how transgender students are protected under Title IX, prime sites in the fight over transgender rights and the license-to-discriminate in public schools are now courts (e.g. Gloucester County School Board vs. GG) and legislatures (e.g. North Carolina and Texas). In the meantime, schools in my region are not prohibited by state law from including transgender students, so I continue to share resources with Eager School and Discretionary School, as well as with Reticent School.

Schools organized around gender binary

Awareness about transgender and non-binary students has increased recently, as has related concern over gender-segregated school spaces and activities, but this is not an entirely new conversation. The advocacy and research I conduct on safe schools today echoes my earlier work on gender-based violence – from volunteering with the Rape Crisis Center in Durham and helping to reform Duke University’s sexual harassment policy in the 1990s, to my recent ethnographic study of the politics of domestic violence.[v] Specifically, transgender students who demand safety and dignity at school reveal not only long-standing feminist critiques of sexual harassment,[vi] but also how schools have been traditionally organized around a rather rigid and well-policed gender binary.[vii] The gender binary embedded in the official and hidden curriculum prescribes and proscribes behaviors, and affects all students, trans and non-trans. Consider, for example, two non-trans boys, 4-year-old Jabez Oates, and 9-year-old Habib Dwabi, who were barred from schools this fall in Texas because their long hair violated school gender-binary-based grooming codes.[viii] The gender binary is reinforced in more informal ways, too, when elementary school teachers tell students to line up “boys over here” and “girls over there” or position girls against boys in classroom competitions, or when students are re-directed to so-called gender-appropriate toys, costumes, books, and extra-curricular activities. Faciliaties and curriculum are arranged according to a gender binary. School bathrooms are labeled “boys” and “girls.” Physical education locker rooms and sports teams are similarly configured for exclusive use by either boys/men or girls/women. Sexual health education, when it is offered, is often delivered to gender-segregated audiences. Still, transgender students can be incorporated with limited fuss when schools treat them according to their asserted gender identity, and have the requisite administrative leadership, policies, professional development and curricular reforms to bolster transgender-inclusion. Notably, however, the majority of Gen Zs question the utility of the gender binary and gender-segregated activities in school as a whole.

Steps toward transgender inclusion and gender diversity in K-12 schools

Part of why I enjoy doing safe schools work is that we know what works. And the good news is that school communities across the country have begun to address intentional discrimination as well as unintentional bias against transgender students, guided by peer-reviewed research, government recommendations, and model policies and best practices from organizations such as Center for Transgender EqualityGender Spectrum, and GLSEN. Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), for example, is to receive the 2017 CUBE Award for Urban School Board Excellence, bestowed by the National School Boards Association, for their support of immigrant and transgender students.[ix] Districts like PPS will help hold onto and inspire rather than push out or throw away our disconnected youth, immigrant students, students with disabilities, students of color, and LGBTQ youth. Educators can use evidence-based solutions – and common sense — to transform K-12 schools into learning environments where transgender youth, who may be rejected elsewhere – by their families, neighbors, political decision makers, or workplaces – can find respite and support, feel a sense of belonging, and become who they ought to be, all the while achieving their educational goals.


Adelman, Madelaine. 2017. Battering States: The Politics of Domestic Violence in Israel. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Alfonso, Francisco. 2017. “Houston-Area Boy Banned from School Because of Long Hair.” Houston Chronicle. http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/texas/article/Texas-boy-banned-from-school-because-of-long-hair-11949574.php

Gender Spectrum Education-Focused Resources. https://www.genderspectrum.org/resources/education-2/#more-424

GLSEN. 2016. Educational Exclusion: Drop Out, Push Out, and School-to-Prison Pipeline among LGBTQ youth. New York: GLSEN.

GLSEN Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students Resources. https://www.glsen.org/article/trans-and-gender-nonconforming-student-resources

GLSEN and National Center for Transgender Equality. 2016. Model District Policy on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students, revised February 2016. New York & Washington DC: GLSEN and NCTE. https://www.glsen.org/article/model-laws-policies

Kosciw, Joseph, Emily Greytak & Elizabeth Diaz. 2009. Who, What, Where, When, and Why: Demographic and Ecological Factors Contributing to Hostile School Climate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth. Journal of Youth Adolescence 38:976–988.

Kosciw, Joseph, Greytak, Emily. A., Giga, Noreen, Villenas, Christian & Danischewski, David. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. New York: GLSEN.

Lugg, Catherine & Madelaine Adelman. 2015. Socio-Legal Contexts of LGBTQ Issues in Education. In George Wimberly, (Ed.), LGBTQ Issues in Education: Advancing a Research Agenda. Pp. 43-73. Washington DC: AERA.

Martinez, Jamie. 2017. “Pittsburgh Public Schools Recognized for Supporting Immigrant, Transgender Students.” Pittsburgh Gazette, September 29. http://triblive.com/news/education/12787352-74/pittsburgh-public-schools-recognized-for-supporting-immigrant-transgender-students

McCombs, Emily. 2017. “This 4-Year-Old Boy is Not Allowed at School Because of His Hair.” Huffington Post, August 25. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-4-year-old-boy-isnt-allowed-at-school-because-of-his-long-hair_us_599c790ae4b06a788a2c718f?utm_campaign=hp_fb_pages&utm_source=parents_fb&utm_medium=facebook&ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000037

Meyer, Elizabeth, Anika Tilland-Stafford & Lee Airton. 2016. Transgender and Gender-Creative Students in PK–12 Schools: What We Can Learn From Their Teachers. Teachers College Record 118(8):

Movement Advancement Project (MAP) & GLSEN with NCTE & NEA. 2017. Separation and Stigma: Transgender Youth & School Facilities. Boulder, CO and New York: MAP and GLSEN. http://www.lgbtmap.org/policy-and-issue-analysis/transgender-youth-school

Out & Equal. Workplace Gender Identity and Transition Guidelines. San Francisco: Out & Equal.  http://outandequal.org/app/uploads/2016/09/Transition-Guidelines-Full-Edition.pdf

Smith, Melissa J. & Elizabeth Payne. 2016. Binaries and Biology: Conversations With Elementary Education Professionals After Professional Development on Supporting Transgender Students. The Educational Forum, 80:1, 34-47, DOI: 10.1080/00131725.2015.1102367

Stein, Nan. 1999. Classrooms & Courtrooms: Facing Sexual Harassment in K-12 Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Transgender Education Program, Arizona State University. https://theconnectcenter.asu.edu/project-connect/trans-ed-program

Tsjeng, Zing. 2016. Teens These Days are Queer AF, New Study Says. Broadly, March 10. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/kb4dvz/teens-these-days-are-queer-af-new-study-says

U.S. Department of Education. May 2016. Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students. Washington DC: US Department of Education. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oese/oshs/emergingpractices.pdf

[i] Movement Advancement Project (MAP) & GLSEN with NCTE & NEA (2017).

[ii] Kosciw, et al. (2016).

[iii] GLSEN (2016).

[iv] Because my conversations with administrators are part of emergent advocacy- and research-based relationships, I am maintaining confidentiality.

[v] Adelman (2017).

[vi] Stein (1999).

[vii] Meyer, Tilland-Stafford & Airton (2016); Smith & Payne (2016).

[viii] Alfonso (2017); McCombs (2017).

[ix] Martinez (2017).

Author bio: 

Madelaine Adelman earned her doctorate in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. She is now professor of justice and social inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, where she teaches courses such as research methods, sexuality and social justice, and identity and justice, to undergraduate, Master’s and doctoral students. New ideas about identity, violence, and the state – and opposition to them — animate her research on families and schools, two social institutions that shape both the content and quality of people’s lives in profound ways. She is the author of Battering States: The Politics of Domestic Violence in Israel (Vanderbilt University Press, 2017), and co-editor (with Miriam Elman) of Jerusalem: Conflict and Cooperation in a Contested City (Syracuse University Press, 2014). Adelman also has published articles with colleagues and graduate students on school culture in journals such as the Journal of Poverty, Law & Society Review, Political and Legal Anthropology Review, and Violence Against Women. She has examined, with education scholar Catherine Lugg, the gap between the workplace equality and safe schools social movements in the U.S., and how law and policy have been leveraged to counter anti-LGBT bias in K-12 schools. Adelman has reviewed best practices of school-based interventions into anti-LGBT bullying for The Sage Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Studies, and co-authored a white paper on safe schools in Arizona for the ASU Morrison Policy Institute. She also has given a workshop (2009) and keynote (2010) on the safe schools movement to academics from the Middle East (MEPI, Syracuse University), and shared insights with Kyrgyz (2015) and Polish (2016) civil society groups in the International Visitor Leadership program, both sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Adelman co-founded the GLSEN Phoenix chapter in 2002 and served as its chair or co-chair until 2013, when she became chair of the chapter’s development committee. She was a founding member of GLSEN’s National Advisory Council (2004-2013) and joined GLSEN’s Board of Directors in 2010.