Schools must educate youth on gender identity, inclusivity

Profound conversations about gender inclusivity are occurring in every corner of society. As transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse individuals seek to have their own unique experiences recognized and affirmed, many people and institutions are trying to understand and account for the wholly unfamiliar realities of others. At the same time, a concerted effort to erase the existence of these individuals who do not conform to a strictly binary model of gender is taking place at every level of governance in our country.

In creating environments for young people that are truly gender inclusive, one strategy that has proven to be quite effective in bridging this gap is education. Starting at a young age, our work in schools across the country has found that open discussions and a focus on gender inclusivity lead students to a much deeper understanding of the complexity of gender. As a primary socializing agent, schools have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to be inclusive of all students, including transgender and other gender-diverse students. In this role, educational institutions can significantly impact the degree to which gender diversity is viewed — either positively or negatively.

To avoid this discourse is to miss a golden opportunity that could have profound consequences for all youth. Studies show that the gender stereotypes girls experience in childhood affect their work and earnings throughout adulthood, while the ways boys internalize traditional gender norms often confine them to a narrow set of emotions, interests and ways of relating to others.

For transgender and gender-diverse youth, the consequences of rigid gender norms can be even more troubling. Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, data shows that 35 percent of transgender teens faced bullying at school and 27 percent felt unsafe going to or from school. The CDC also found that transgender youth face higher risks than cisgender teens for violence victimization, substance use and suicide.

Ideas about gender are evolving as never before; the very nature of this fundamental aspect of identity is being questioned. Most adults, however, still lack even a basic understanding of gender, leading to ongoing and often tragic discrimination against transgender and gender-diverse people. Without an intentional focus on respecting all forms of gender identity and expression, schools not only miss the opportunity to create better learning environments but they also become unsafe. It’s beyond question that gender-based bullying is commonplace. Research indicates that 80 percent of students will face some kind of gender-based bullying during their K-12 experience.

Gender impacts a child’s experience at school across all grades: It is one of the factors that greatly impacts perceptions of safety, and the relationship between a students’ sense of safety and their ability to succeed in school is unquestionable. For transgender and gender-diverse students, mistreatment at school is not only difficult as it is occurring but also has lasting negative effects: Studies show that students who experienced higher levels of victimization based on their gender expression face long-term effects on their mental health and life satisfaction as young adults and are twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue postsecondary education.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Schools can significantly impact how gender diversity is viewed, either positively or negatively. By educating students on various gender identities and making education more gender-inclusive for all students, schools create better learning climates in which every child can more fully focus on learning. Embarking on a path to expand students’ understanding of gender diversity sets a tone in which the examination of other differences is accepted and encouraged.

UC Berkeley has a strong role to play in promoting gender inclusivity. Last fall, in the wake of a Trump administration announcement suggesting that transgender students could be denied civil rights protections, UC Berkeley came out strongly in support of transgender and nonbinary students. But more needs to be done: A report last month on rising anxiety among UC Berkeley students found that rates of anxiety disorder for transgender students were growing at higher rates than for the general student population.

Coming to fully recognize all gender identities in all of its diversity at a young age normalizes inclusive practices for children — everything from asking for people’s pronouns to noticing problems in their curriculum. In building students’ perspectives about gender and gender diversity, schools are helping create a more inclusive generation of people.

In puberty and health education as well, there is an important opportunity for schools to lead in gender understanding. Unfortunately, to date, gender receives little to no attention in even most “comprehensive” puberty ed curricula. But more and more schools are finding that they must address gender to account for their students’ lived experiences: According to recent surveys, 56 percent of 13- to 20-year-olds said they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and 74 percent said they are more accepting of people with “nontraditional” gender identities.

Gender-inclusive puberty and health education reflects this reality of gender in students’ lives and leads to greater health and safety for young people. Without such education, numerous studies have found that beliefs in narrowly defined constructs of masculinity are associated with decreased well-being in intimate relationships and result in sexual harassment and dating violence. Gender-inclusive health education helps students develop a broader understanding of gender diversity, can lead to healthier romantic and sexual relationships and reduce the incidence of sexual risk behaviors, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

Regardless of where the work begins, all schools can approach the work of creating gender-inclusive spaces for students. The simple truth is that all educators must first be committed to and responsible for the safety and well-being of their students. As such, every educator should see themselves as part of a collection of caring adults charged with making sure all students feel seen, supported and safe.

When it comes to gender, creating affirming environments is more critical now than ever. As so beautifully expressed by Eric Hoffer, “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” That future is upon us.

Joel Baum is the senior director of professional development at Gender Spectrum, a Bay Area-based national nonprofit working to create gender-inclusive environments for all children and youth.