We don’t have to choose between supporting trans kids and respecting their parents

We don’t have to choose between supporting trans kids and respecting their parents

Getty Images/Anne-Marie Miller

[Editor’s note: As one of their top priorities in the 2023 legislative session, Republican lawmakers in several states — including North Carolina — are advancing legislation that would require public school teachers to out some LGBTQ students to their parents, even if the student objects or fears harmful repercussions. The following essay was written in response to the Iowa version of this legislation.]

Republicans in the Iowa General Assembly and Gov. Kim Reynolds are determined to earn their culture war medals this winter with multiple bills attacking the phantom menace of transgender indoctrination.

But perhaps the thorniest and most dangerous of these mean-spirited proposals is House File 180 (formerly House File 9). This would, among other things, require schools to obtain a parent’s permission before “facilitating any accommodation that is intended to affirm a student’s gender identity” if that identity is different from the one on the student’s birth certificate. [Click here to read North Carolina Senate Bill 49.]

So, if a student confides in a teacher or school employee that they are or think they might be transgender, either the child or the school must first tell their parents before teachers can address the student by their correct pronouns or administrators can arrange for them to use a restroom aligned with their gender. (In many cases, this means giving the student access to a single-occupancy toilet.)

This law would put both school officials and students in untenable positions. But policymakers can choose a different path that respects both students and parents.

Here’s the problem: Under this proposal, kids will have to decide between coming out to their family before they’re ready – potentially at great personal risk – or suppressing what they believe is their true self. The second option puts their psychological development on hold, as students bury their feelings and delay exploring their identity. No wonder trans youth who lack support are at a significant suicide risk.

Teachers and administrators, meanwhile, face tough ethical decisions when students come out to them. Their primary responsibility – at least at a public school – is to educate every child brought to them, regardless of the student’s situation. Teachers and staff are obligated to create the best learning environment for each pupil – one where each feels safe and supported. Under HF 180, if a student says they are transgender but fear telling their parents, the school district can’t create that environment without potentially putting the student at risk.

(As an aside, one legislator claimed parents would never “abuse and hurt” their trans child because, for one thing, it’s against the law. Besides the fact that some parents do harm their trans children, there’s no law against shunning and kicking them out of the house. These are real issues for some trans youth.)

Just as importantly – and this is a key point – HF 180 would insert the state into the parent-child relationship, the closest and most critical bond in human experience. Do Republicans, who constantly say government must stay out of people’s lives, really favor this intrusion?

Yet, I understand the betrayal some parents may feel when discovering a school has kept their child’s secret. In this New York Times story, even parents who view themselves as  open and accepting were dismayed that their children, with the school’s cooperation, hid this information.

It’s unfortunate that youths feel uncertain of their parents’ reactions and fear for their safety. The kids take what they feel is the safest route, allowing them time to deal with their emotions, test their new identities, and develop plans to come out. The parents, however, are left in the dark.

Parents have rights, but children have rights, too – to a good education based on facts and to a safe environment. They are not their parents’ property. There must be a better course than for the state to intrude in a familial bond or for kids to suffer in silence without supportive adults.

Rather than putting schools, kids and parents in no-win scenarios, legislators should adopt a middle path. Transgender students who come out at school are entitled to privacy, safety and the best environment to learn. But schools also should work with them so they, teachers and administrators can be honest with parents as soon as possible. Transgender students should receive in-school counseling to help resolve their family matters, giving them the confidence and skills to come out to their parents and helping them navigate their gender identity.

Schools also should help ensure trans students whose parents reject them have a safe harbor – a place to go and financial and social support. The school also should facilitate access to family counseling so students and parents can bridge their divide.

This is a nascent plan that requires input and tuning from school administrators, psychiatrists and other experts. It also would require increased state support. Some legislators may oppose the idea because it would confirm a reality they would rather deny: that transgender people exist and are entitled to legal protections. But lawmakers must give schools the space and resources to act compassionately for both children and parents.

Thomas R. O’Donnell is a longtime Iowa reporter, editor and science writer and blogs at IowaScienceInterface.com. This essay was first published by the Iowa Capital Dispatch.