(Guest Blogger: Beckett Broh , October 2021)
While there are many important aspects of an individual’s identity, gender is arguably at the core for most, if not all, of us. How we think of ourselves, how we communicate, how we present ourselves through clothing and gestures, and even how we relate with others is deeply infused with gender. Binary gender assumptions and stereotypes are pervasive in and out of schools, which creates significant challenges for students, particularly those whose gender identity and/or expression do not fit the assumptions. To be sure, transgender and non-binary youth are far more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and suicide.
As the Director of Diversity in a PK-12 school for the last 10 years, much of my attention has focused on issues of gender and supporting students’ gender identity and expression. While schools have been working to unravel gender stereotypes for decades, the number of students identifying as transgender and non-binary has grown exponentially in recent years. Indeed, you probably have students in your own school pressing against binary cultural assumptions. Schools have been challenged to respond quickly and evolve their cultures and practices.
To support well-being and our school’s commitment to belonging for all students, we have made many changes to our practices regarding gender. Looking back, it has become clear that the priorities we identified revolved around meeting students’ basic psychological needs of autonomy, belonging, and competence. Some examples include changing our dress code to allow students choices from options not separated by gender, ensuring the availability of private bathroom and locker room spaces, supporting a student GSA and LGBTQ affinity space, and providing professional development to enhance faculty awareness, knowledge, and skills regarding gender (e.g., understanding gendered school experiences, replacing gendered language with non-gendered terms, not separating students by gender for learning activities, etc.). During this time, the number of students expressing themselves outside the gender binary grew, but we had not yet had a student publicly transition their gender identity. Michael was our first, and his story is a testimony to the power of the ABCs of self-determination theory to guide this challenging work.
I remember the day I met Michael. He was away from classes, sitting alone and crying on a bench near the parking lot. I introduced myself and asked if he was waiting on someone, hoping to open a conversation. He looked up with a red face and swollen eyes, stood up, and took off running toward the middle school. His intense response took me by surprise, and after pausing for a minute to take in what just happened, I headed for the middle school to get people who knew him involved.
Our middle school counselor and other staff later shared with me their concerns about his mental health and gender identity. At the time, we knew Michael by a different name and as a girl. And, his gender expression was fairly conventional for middle school girls (e.g., long hair and clothing made for girls). His body language indicated a deeply unhappy kid – head down, didn’t smile or engage with others, and was often alone.
About a year after that day in the parking lot, and after on-going work by our counselor with Michael and his parents, he chose to cut his hair short in a style popular among boys. It was an immediate and significant transformation in both affect and engagement. He walked with his head up, made eye contact, smiled a lot, and began connecting with other kids. Many of us were surprised at how immediately and intensely he changed. But it is likely that cutting his hair made such a difference because he had been empowered by his parents and adults at school to choose how he wanted to look.
It would take a few more years and a lot of support from adults and peers before Michael made his male identity public. But the haircut—his exercise of some autonomy in creating better cohesion between his gender identity (who he knew himself to be) and expression (how others saw him)—was a powerful first step.
As he moved from middle to high school, Michael exercised increasing control over how he presented himself, making other changes to his expression that felt authentic to him. Importantly, he allowed some trusted peers and adults to know his preferred name and that he identified as male. I’m confident that the sense of belonging he felt in this small group of people eventually empowered him to ask me for support to publicly transition his identity at school. I was excited, knowing how important this was to him. And I was confident the work our school had been doing to evolve our practices on gender had readied our community to support him.
I worked closely with our high school counselor (who had worked with him in middle school) and a local organization that supports LGBTQ youth to prepare a plan with Michael and his parents. Key to the plan was a carefully drawn timeline (i.e., when and how administrators, faculty/staff, and other students would learn) and a script for Michael to help him talk to his peers. The plan provided Michael significant autonomy regarding how this would unfold, and in hindsight, also increased his sense of competence in facing the challenges of this process.
In addition to his trusted peers and the adults around him, the culture of belonging we had been building at school was also vital for empowering Michael to publicly transition his identity. As Lee Dieck recently stated in her September post entitled, The Challenge of Autonomy, “The power of autonomy is greatly magnified when choice is granted within a community of belonging.” Indeed, although he was of course worried, Michael trusted that his school community would accept and support him. As teachers and school leaders, we must work to foster a community of belonging in addition to working on individual autonomy and competence.
The work we do every day with students must be grounded in their psychological development and well-being. Autonomy, belonging, and competence are central to student success in work and activities. But our experience with Michael showed us that this framework is even more powerful when applied to students’ identity development. When students feel in control of their identities and how they express themselves, when they feel immersed in a community of belonging, and when they are taught skills that allow them to meet social challenges competently, their confidence and well-being, like Michael’s, can surge.
Dr. Beckett Broh has spent over 25 years as a teacher and administrator in PK-12 and higher education. She has degrees in psychology and sociology, and has focused her work on fostering equity, justice, and belonging in schools and communities. She currently lives in Columbus, OH with her two teenage children.