Transgender Guidelines for Massachusetts School Systems

By Lauren Vaughn

Flickr/Justin Henry

A new set of state guidelines has been issued addressing transgender discrimination in Massachusetts school systems. The guidelines offer schools a clear course of action surrounding issues that can create uncomfortable or even hostile learning environments for transgender students. Many of the guidelines address gendered spaces, such as sports teams, locker rooms and restrooms and aim to provide schools with solutions to practices that are often times offensive to transgender and other LGBQT students.

Many schools are welcoming the new guidelines with open arms, glad to have a course of action around gender identity procedures. Specifically, the Pioneer Valley’s response to an issue that is rarely mentioned has been inspiring.

The State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued the guidelines last month. It stated that a “2011 school climate survey by the National Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network that found three-quarters of transgender students surveyed had been verbally harassed in the previous year, nearly a third had been physically harassed and 16.8 percent had been physically assaulted.”

Suzanne J. Seymour, executive director of the LGBT Coalition of Western Massachusetts noted to the Daily Hampshire Gazette that the “guidelines are bound to be controversial because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about transgender people. But they give people a way to start the conversation. And any conversation that leads to open hearts is good.”

Topics addressed in the guidelines include education for teachers and other faculty about transgender students and anti-bullying, prohibiting discrimination on sports teams based on a student’s identified gender, and calling a student by their preferred name and gender pronoun. The guidelines also suggest supplying unisex restrooms and designated changing areas, such as locker rooms, for all students so students cannot be denied access to restrooms or locker rooms based on their preferred gender.

The guidelines also do a good job of specifying that the power of determining gender identity lies with the student, and in cases of younger students, with the parent or guardian. This means that regardless of what it says on the attendance sheet students, teachers, and other faculty must refer to a student by their preferred name and gender pronoun so that the school environment is conducive to learning for all students.

What is uplifting about the story is the way Amherst and the greater Pioneer Valley have responded to it. Many are applauding Valley schools and their quick uptake to the guidelines, eager to put them in motion and glad to have a prescribed course of action around how to prevent school environments from becoming hostile or otherwise unwelcoming to transgender students. Amherst Middle School recently changed the name of their LGBT group to LGBQT in order to be more inclusive of “queer” members, or members who do not identify strictly as one label or prefer no label at all.

Other solutions to potentially harmful situations for transgender students offered by the guidelines include staying up to date with paperwork (which might prevent scenarios where substitute teachers might give a student a hard time when checking the roster) or in the case of restroom and locker rooms schools must supply a single restroom and/or changing area that is gender neutral for any student to use. Northampton, Amherst and Hampshire Regional High School have all employed this tactic and are currently addressing the bathroom signs marked “handicap” which have been designated “unisex.”

The Easthampton Director of Athletics said in an interview with the Gazette that they are working on a new high school building that will offer twice as many changing areas with more gender-neutral options. “Times change and expectations change and we have to adjust to them,” he said. “Moving into the new building will make it easier for us to follow the state guidelines.”

Overall student and faculty response has been overwhelmingly positive. Students are glad to have an issue come to light that many simply ignore. A senior at Hampshire Regional and a member of LGBQT since the ninth grade commented to the Gazette, “It’s not that people at my school are not accepting about gender issues, they’re just not that aware.” That’s why these guidelines are cause for celebration— because we cannot fix what we don’t know is broken. Now with concrete guidelines in place schools systems, students, and faculty are one step closer to reaching a more inclusive and comfortable learning environment for all.

As Pioneer Valley schools take the guidelines in stride it gives many of us a sense of pride and hope for a more inclusive future fuelled by a generation of students given the opportunity to be more informed and accepting.

Lauren Vaughn is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]