For transgender kids, home is not always a safe place to be out of the closet.
According to an online resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), most kids “have a stable sense of their gender identity” by age 4. But they don’t reach the legal age of majority until at least 14 years later—sometimes longer, depending on the state.
That means many transgender children spend over a decade in the custody of someone who may not support them, and who may try to enroll them in harmful conversion therapy programs to try to change their gender identity.
Which is why a rash of new proposals that would effectively require schools to out transgender children to their parents is such a colossally bad trend.
In Ohio, as ABC News reported, Republican lawmakers recently proposed a bill that, according to its text, would require any “government agent or entity,” including schools, to “immediately notify, in writing, each of [a] child’s parents” if the child shows “symptoms of gender dysphoria or otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner opposite of the child’s biological sex.”
In Delaware, as Rewire reported on July 5, the state Department of Education added proposed language to an anti-discrimination guideline.
The new language would require that schools “request permission from the parent” before processing any “request by a minor student” to “recognize a change in any Protected Characteristic,” such as gender.
That language is certainly more euphemistic than the Ohio bill but the net effect would be the same. Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow referred to the Delaware regulation in a statement as “forced outing,” adding that it would “undermine the health, safety and dignity of kids who deserve our support.”
Such bills could indeed pose a potential threat to transgender health.
Researchers have found that social support plays a significant role in reducing the risk of suicide among the marginalized population.
One 2015 study published in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, for example, found further evidence that “individuals who are accepted and supported in their gender identity show better mental health and quality of life outcomes.”
A 2016 study in AAP journal Pediatrics, as The Daily Beast previously reported, found that “socially transitioned transgender children who are supported in their gender identity have developmentally normative levels of depression and only minimal elevations in anxiety.”
The converse is obvious: Transgender people who aren’t supported are at higher risk for mental health problems. Although some parents do support their transgender children, one 2017 study conducted by Harris Poll found that, out of a sample of over two thousand U.S. adults, only about half would allow a teenage child to transition.
Consider, too, that 30 percent of respondents to GLAAD’s most recent Accelerating Acceptance Survey said they would be uncomfortable with their child merely having an LGBT teacher, so imagine how that cohort of parents would respond to finding out they have an LGBT child. It’s no wonder thousands of LGBT youth in the country are still being sent to conversion therapy.
In reality, these parental notification proposals are nothing but a rehash of the same attacks that we have seen on cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual students—especially those who want to get involved in Gay-Straight Alliances.
In the 2000s, a wave of U.S. schools adopted policies requiring students to get permission before participating in clubs—policies that might have seemed “evenhanded” at first glance, as lawyer Ian Vandewalker noted in a 2008 paper on the subject, but that were, in fact, “uniquely directed at the gay-positive groups” when the “context of their adoption” became clear.
In other words, these parental permission policies often suspiciously sprang up right after GSAs were founded.
One example Vandewalker cites took place in Utah, after a Republican state senator learned of the formation of a GSA at a Provo high school. As The New York Times reported in 2007, that discovery led to the drafting of a bill that would tighten control over student clubs, requiring parental consent for participation. It passed in 2007–one of a small handful of similar bills, as Vandewalker noted, that successfully made it through a state legislature in the late 2000s.
As the LGBT legal advocacy group Lambda Legal makes clear, such laws and policies are a clever way of working around the Equal Access Act, a 1984 federal law that effectively requires all extracurricular clubs to be treated the same. Schools cannot, as Lambda Legal notes, “single out GSAs for parental permission requirements.” But they can apply parental permission requirements across the board.
In effect, that means some LGBT students who would otherwise seek out social support from GSAs—which have been shown to have a positive impact on the mental health of LGBT youth—might abstain because they don’t want an unsupportive parent or guardian to discover their involvement.
These new policies on transgender youth are even more pernicious because they are so specific in their targeting and yet so broad in their application.
The Ohio bill, for example, simply notes that a parent needs to be notified if a state government “agent or entity”—already very broad language—“has knowledge that a child under its care or supervision has exhibited [signs of gender dysphoria].” As written, that means teachers and guidance counselors to whom transgender students come out would be required to inform their parents.
As Charles P. Pierce wrote for Esquire, such a bill, if passed, would essentially require teachers to be “gender cops,” scanning their classes for pronoun changes and gender non-conformity to ensure that they remain in compliance with state law—because the bill does, in fact, give permission to parents to “bring an action for damages and equitable relief against the government agent or entity” if the provisions are violated.
The proposed Delaware regulation is worded more mildly, specifying that “to safeguard the health, safety and well-being of the student,” the school will first approach the student, who can then decide whether or not to continue with their gender change request.
But there is a cruel irony to the invocation of “health” in this proposed regulation, because one could easily argue that putting a student in this precarious position—having to choose between living authentically at school or potentially being punished at home—isn’t exactly great for a child’s “well-being.”
At the heart of these anti-transgender policies is the issue of child autonomy. In a world where transgender people face a high risk of suicide due to discrimination and a lack of support, outing is clearly a violent act. And yet, because transgender youth are not yet adults, the violence of these “parental notification” proposals is blunted by the weight of our cultural belief that a parent always knows best.
In fact, many children have a strong and persistent sense of their own gender by the time they’re in kindergarten. They shouldn’t have to wait until high school graduation to be themselves without fear of reprisal.