Julie Mencher, MSW, is a psychotherapist, consultant, educator, and trainer in private practice.
All students need a welcoming, safe, and supportive school environment to best develop academically and socially. School administrators, faculty, staff, and fellow students all play an important role in helping to create and maintain such an environment. The Yield spoke with Julie Mencher, MSW, a pioneer in LGBTQ education, psychotherapy, and advocacy, to find out more about ways schools can ensure transparency, understanding, and sensitivity with gender-questioning and transgender applicants and current students.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
For years, I was a therapist and educator of other therapists, with a specialty in working with LGBTQ clients. And then in 2001 Smith College, my alma mater and the college where I taught, hired me to be their transgender specialist, which at that time was a pioneering role among colleges and universities. When that position ended, I began consulting to colleges across the country about transgender inclusion. And then, about eight years ago, as kids started coming out as trans at younger and younger ages, I moved on to working with independent schools. Although I work with all types of schools, my experience with women’s colleges made it a natural fit for me to develop a sub-specialty in working with single-sex schools.
What steps can schools take to create a culture in which transgender and gender nonconforming students can feel safe and supported?
There are so many steps to take, from the admission process through graduation and beyond. But the very first step is to educate your school community. As my school clients and many parents know, the grown-ups are playing catch-up with the kids on this one. With gender—as sorted into male and female—as the bedrock of how we view the world, this is bound to be an uncomfortable or provocative topic for the adults in our school communities. The current gender revolution is rocking our age-old assumptions that gender is a salient, static, and binary dimension of human life. Nowadays, with over 50 gender categories on Facebook, pop music stars like Miley Cyrus identifying themselves as “gender fluid,” and the Common App offering high school seniors the opportunity to name a different gender identity than the sex they were assigned at birth, it can seem like the kids are speaking another language where gender is concerned.
Providing education and training on the transgender topic to faculty and staff, leadership teams, the board of trustees, and parents engages everyone in a process of learning that puts everyone on the same page. I’ve worked with schools of all stripes, from the most traditional to the most progressive. And I’ve been so moved to watch how people’s attitudes change over the course of a training workshop. It shouldn’t be any surprise to us as educators—learning really does lead to growth and change!
How can schools take a proactive approach to educating their various communities (faculty, staff, current students, trustees)?
Definitely not by just giving them stuff to read! I recommend an experiential, group-focused training program that works with all the relevant stakeholders in their cohort groups. Ideally, the training is a mix of didactic learning and working together in relevant cohort groups to ponder particular dilemmas or scenarios that might be encountered. For example, when I visit a school, I often do a board training, a workshop with the faculty and staff, and a meeting with the leadership team to dive deeper and chart policy directions. Often I meet separately with students (without any adults around) to get the real scoop on what’s going on around gender diversity at their school. In the past year or so, as media attention to this topic has exploded, more and more schools are bringing me in to talk with their parents. Administrators often view parents as the stakeholders who are most likely to have trouble with transgender inclusion (particularly at single-sex schools). So, in my gender literacy talks, I stress the need to learn about the changing gender landscape as a crucial part of parenting these days—both to keep up with our kids in how they view the world and to prepare them to be launched into the world as it is today, not as it was when we grew up. Once training is in place, the school can then move on to consider whether and how to implement policies and practices which address transgender students. The head of school can map out a process for policy consideration with careful attention to all stakeholders, as well as a communication strategy for ultimate policy roll-out. Strategic involvement of the board is often important.
What kinds of policies must different types of schools consider implementing?
In thinking about what policies are best for the trans student, that’s an easy question to answer—and there are great generic documents (http://www.doe.mass.edu/sfs/lgbtq/GenderIdentity.html) out there for how to best support the student. What’s more complicated is charting a course that’s best for both the trans students and the school community, and that, I believe, should be the goal here. I feel very strongly that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for all independent schools. Each school has to consider trans inclusion in the context of their own institution’s mission, history, stakeholders, and values or priorities. With independent schools, it’s more complicated than just supporting the student, so I get a school to focus on how the culture of their specific community determines how to best support these students while also paying attention to the needs of all their stakeholders.
I’ve heard too many stories of a well-intentioned head providing extensive support to a transgender student, only to have controversy erupt because the trustees or parents weren’t adequately prepared. And then that hubbub is disastrous for the student, as this child becomes the focal point of community strife or negative media attention. I can identify some of the policy questions, but not dictate the answers. One basic question is, How far does your school want to go in promoting trans inclusion? Does your school simply want to become trans-educated and sensitive to the needs of gender-variant youth, so that you can deal with trans students on a case-by-case basis? Or, do you want to figure out some parameters, protocols, or policies to have in place when you encounter a trans applicant or when a student comes out as trans?
Heads of school want to be nimble, but on the other hand, don’t want to be perceived as treating one trans student differently than another. I work with them to determine whether they’re best served by policy, guidelines, parameters, or practices. Alternatively, do you want to become a “gender-inclusive” school, i.e., a school that states clearly to your community, “We believe that gender is a spectrum, and all genders are welcome here.”? Going even further, does your school strive to create gender-neutral classrooms or a gender-neutral community? Once you decide to welcome and support transgender students, the fundamental question is: Is your school ready to do that?
I suggest that schools consult a checklist that addresses such topics as pronouns and name changes, medical and mental health support, boarding options, bathrooms and locker rooms, sports participation, curriculum around gender diversity, confidentiality and privacy, parent relations, and dress code. Whether coed or single-sex, an independent school is usually a highly-gendered environment. But not all trans students want to transition to be the other gender. Recognizing that the trans population—particularly trans youth—includes both cross-gender- identifying and genderqueer or non-binary students, how far would you like to go to be inclusive of a full spectrum of gender diversity?
For example, are you willing to upend historically gender-divided school practices and customs— such as dress code, sports, social options, and boarding assignments—in order to be inclusive of students who don’t identify as female or male?
The boarding question is very complex, which makes it especially crucial for each school to deal with it individually. The best option for the trans student is to house the student in the dorm which aligns with the student’s gender identity, not the student’s sex assigned at birth. If your school has the facilities to provide trans students with single rooms, that might be ideal—but only insofar as it does not “out” the student as trans if their peer cohort doesn’t have single rooms. Roommate assignments bring up the “to tell or not to tell” question, balancing the trans student’s need for privacy against the cisgender roommate’s (or family thereof) need to know. A few schools have instituted gender-neutral housing, but that’s still quite unusual at this point.
In reference to single-sex schools, there’s a lot to wrestle with, and sensitivity to the needs of multiple stakeholders is especially complex. Trans inclusion may seem to some like a disruption of the very mission and character of a single- sex school. Girls’ schools in particular may face the most challenges. Trans girls (assigned male at birth) are likely to want to attend girls’ schools, and current students who are trans boys (assigned female at birth) are likely to want to remain at these schools. In my research and consulting, I’ve worked with over 100 girls’ schools. I’ve learned that although it’s complicated, these schools are stepping up to learn how to include trans students while also staying true to their single-sex mission.
How can we be sensitive to and support students who transition after enrolling?
In general, believe your students and meet them where they’re at. The best thing we can do for gender-questioning or trans kids is to give them wide berth to figure out their gender journey, without prematurely pigeonholing or labeling them. Apply your customary commitment to protect and support each student in your care, even if it feels controversial or disruptive to your community. Connect them with supportive adults who have expertise in working with gender- variant youth. Be sensitive to the likelihood that their parents may initially fail to support them and may even object to the school’s support of their child’s gender identity.
Recognize that trans students are some of the most at-risk students in our school communities, with a 40% rate of attempted suicide among the trans population in the U.S. If a gender- questioning or trans student never hears the topic discussed in their school or only hears about it through gender-based bullying or harassment, the student is likely to stay silent. The invisibility and isolation of these students isn’t just a high risk for them, it’s a high risk for the school. But the good news is that since parental and school support are the #1 factors in mitigating risk among trans youth, the school response can make a huge impact.
Be honest in acknowledging that your school may not be the best environment for a particular trans student, and work collaboratively—not punitively—with the family to determine what is best. As we know, institutional change is slow, so if your school is particularly conservative, it may be best for the student to consider making a change. The sturdiness of the particular student in weathering potential challenges will be key to consider here. Ideally, it should be the family’s decision, but an honest and collaborative approach will be very helpful.
How can schools ensure their applications are friendly and accommodating?
If your school is coed, you likely ask about gender on your application. Include categories that go beyond male or female. You could also just write, “Gender,” followed by a free response text field, or do “male/female/other.” Beginning in 2016, the Common Application for colleges changed the “sex” field to read “sex assigned at birth,” and offered the student an optional free response text field to further describe their gender identity. While you’re at it, make sure that your parent information doesn’t assume a “mother” and a “father,” but instead has space for information from two “parents.”
How can the admission office begin this process? When I began working with admission professionals several years ago, I was under the mistaken impression that admission is ALL you do! I should’ve known better—when my own son applied to independent schools, the admission counselors I met with were basically their schools’ superheroes—they had to know pretty much EVERYTHING about the school AND then communicate it beautifully to perfect strangers. Since then, I’ve learned how much heads of school rely on admission staff to bring the most up-to-date thinking from the world outside the school bubble to the leadership. Regarding transgender students, you are the ones who can push your school to take up this topic and give guidance to your team and other faculty and staff about the school’s approach.
What do you see as particular challenges for admission/enrollment staff?
From where I sit, admission staff are in a very tender, perhaps dicey position vis-à-vis trans students. The stakeholder balancing act requires that you be sensitive to the needs of the families of gender- creative kids, but also to the interests of other families who might have less-than-enthusiastic responses to their kids going to school with trans students. Further, you can’t be cowboys on diversity issues; you have to be ambassadors and liaisons. So if your school hasn’t yet determined a direction on this topic, hasn’t gone through some policy process such as the one I’ve outlined—you may find yourself with your hands tied when you’re confronting gender diversity on the front lines.
Once you have some direction from above, you can develop a marketing strategy: how do you want to sell your school in reference to this topic? Is your school best suited to flying under the radar on trans inclusion? Or, do you want to take a loud, proud stance for trans inclusion and maybe even become a magnet for trans kids? Alternatively, are you ok with being known as not a good fit for trans students? I encourage admission directors to develop talking points for their team (and sometimes, truth be told, I write them myself). If your school wants to change admission forms to include more gender options than two (or one, for single-sex schools), what’s your best prediction about whether doing so will confuse or alienate your more traditional prospective families and how might you respond to those reactions?
What are some legal guidelines that schools must follow with regard to support for students or admission of trans students?
Legal mandates and restrictions vary based on city, state, province, and country, so I always recommend that schools get a consultation from their own attorneys. GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD: https://www.glad.org/issues/transgender- rights/) offers national transgender legal rights information. Very often, independent schools in the U.S. are free from the legal requirements that instruct public schools in many jurisdictions on how to support trans students. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) offers its members legal advisories on this topic.
Julie Mencher’s Go-To Resources For Schools Seeking Guidance
Ehrensaft, D. (2016). The Gender Creative Child. NY: The Experiment Publishing.
Guidance for Massachusetts Public Schools: Creating a Safe and Supportive School Environment (2012).
National Geographic: Gender Revolution [Special Issue, January 2017], [TV Documentary, February 2017].
National Center for Transgender Equality (2016). U.S. Transgender Survey 2015. http://www.ustranssurvey.org/
Glad.org (GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders)
Glsen.org (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) — Lesson Plans
Welcomingschools.org— Lesson Plans
Imatyfa.org - (Trans Youth Family Allies)
NCGS.org (National Coalition of Girls’ Schools)
Transequality.org (National Center for Transgender Equality)