Transgender Justice in Schools: It’s a Life-or-Death Thing

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

The death of Nex Benedict, a 10th-grade student and member of the Choctaw Nation, underscores the life-or-death consequences for nonbinary students when lawmakers play politics with their lives.

Nex’s death exposed the insidious ways state laws and a campaign of hate encourage schools to promote intolerance and violence against LGBTQ+ students. As 2019 Owasso High School graduate Madison Hutton said at an Owasso school board meeting, “Many of us have been Nex Benedict at the hands of Owasso Public Schools. Nex’s story is not an isolated incident. It is a reflection of a larger problem, a problem of systemic bullying, discrimination, and lack of accountability. For far too long you have allowed bullies to roam the hallways — teachers and students alike.”

Even as protests, vigils, and public outrage mount over Nex’s death, new 2024 laws aimed at suppressing the rights of trans students and teachers are on the rise. The Owasso School District and the state of Oklahoma are not the only places that persecute trans students. Often these same repressive anti-trans laws denounce and prohibit anti-racist teaching, inclusion, and diversity as “divisive concepts.” 

Idaho alone has passed seven new bills restricting the rights of trans students and the teaching of anti-racist education. Idaho’s House Bill 421 declares: “In human beings, there are two, and only two, sexes: male and female; 2. Every individual is either male or female; 3. An individual’s sex can be observed or clinically verified at or before birth.” Idaho House Bill 455 states that requiring “students to share restrooms and changing facilities with members of the opposite biological sex generates potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury to students, as well as increasing the likelihood of sexual assault, molestation, rape, voyeurism, and exhibitionism.” 

Reactionary politicians pushing these laws encourage the bullying that Nex and other nonbinary students and teachers face. They also decrease the possibility that students will learn about the historic racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that impact institutions today. 

Rethinking Schools produced our forthcoming book Transgender Justice in Schools as an act of defiance and solidarity. While lawmakers attempt to delete queer people and people of color, their histories, and literature from the curriculum and libraries, deny them access to health care and bathrooms, we resist. We refuse to accept unjust laws. And we encourage others to refuse as well. We must fight alongside students and teachers who have the courage to come out and take up space and demand their chosen names be spoken with the reverence due their rebirth. We must build safe and welcoming harbors within educational spaces. Although we do this work especially for transgender and nonbinary students and teachers, we do this for all of us. We want our schools to nurture better human beings by valuing the children’s voices and encouraging their sense of self. We want schools to reflect the values of justice we hope will characterize every corner of our society.

Therefore, Transgender Justice in Schools is not a statement, it is a demand. We demand that trans students and teachers be given the right to be their full and authentic selves and a curriculum that includes LGBTQ+ experiences. Writing after the suicide of 15-year-old Nigel Shelby in Alabama, Maximillian Matthews, in their article “How We Failed Nigel Shelby and Allowed the Abuse He Endured,” underscores how curricular silence isolates queer students, especially trans students of color.

There was a time when all I wanted was a confirmation I was not alone in my queerness. Despite the few examples that existed as I grew up in the ’90s, the isolation I felt led me to consider suicide. In my mind, death was better than loneliness. Tragically, I was already battling a system that determined conservatism was better than queerness, normalcy better than diversity, conformity better than nonconformity, and whiteness better than Blackness. This was the system that decided what I did and did not see, what received approval and what did not, and whose life had value and whose did not. It was a system constructed to intentionally exclude, oppress, marginalize, and eradicate people like me and Nigel Shelby. 

In addition to illuminating the dire social emergency facing trans students, we also need to move beyond subjects of fear and rejection and demonstrate queer joy. As Ty Marshall, co-editor of Transgender Justice in Schools, wrote in his piece “Becoming Unapologetically Trans”:

I want to show students what steady self-love in the face of fear looks like, because we will all face it. I want to teach my students that being trans means continuing to live into our joy — and express our full selves despite backlash. . . . A teacher in their full humanity and power can recognize the same in their students, and demand better from the education system that dehumanizes all of us.

How can we create a world filled with “steady self-love,” while living in one where legislators encourage others to erase the identity of children, like Nex Benedict, who want nothing more than a chance to live in the “full humanity” Ty Marshall describes?

LGBTQ+ teachers have a crucial role to play. As Julianna Iacovelli writes in “Existing Outside of the Binary in the Classroom,” “Being nonbinary in the classroom is not just a struggle, it’s a superpower. . . . The kids know that they can come to me with any sort of problem or question without judgment. I insert queer joy and education in my classroom and my identity does not stop when I enter the school’s doors. Showing my students that queer people can grow into happy, successful adults is one of the most important forms of normalization.” 

But creating welcoming, safe, and supportive environments for LGBTQ+ youth is a job for all school staff. Staff members need to ask themselves “Whose lives matter in our school? Are we making this a trans-friendly school? Where do students see the lives of trans people in the curriculum and school culture?” In “Teaching Them into Existence,” Mykhiel Deych adds other important questions for teachers who want to challenge “heterocentric, cisnormative curriculum” to consider:

How many LGBTQ authors do you teach about? How often is the intersection and difference of sexuality and gender addressed in your Socratic seminars? Do you discuss transgender history in U.S. history? Do you reveal authors’ struggles with sexuality and how these relate to their art? Has gay culture ever been given the credit it deserves for spurring numerous fashion, music, and art trends? 

When interviewing students for Transgender Justice in Schools (see student responses here), we discovered that even in “liberal” states like Oregon, Washington, New York, and Massachusetts, with no anti-trans laws, students do not learn much about trans lives, history, or literature. As one trans student in Blair Hennessy and Linda Christensen’s class said, “Until this unit, the only thing I learned about trans kids is suicide statistics.” This curricular silence, the omission of LGBTQ+ lives and the work of queer activists, perpetuates a culture of invisibility. That needs to end.

The book provides dozens of examples of teachers who challenge this curricular silence. In “Diversity Is What Makes It Interesting to Study Living Things,” Sam Long demonstrates how he has upended the status quo in his high school biology class by discussing gender diversity, disrupting students’ assumptions about gender. “By talking about gender diversity in our classrooms, we can engage minds, de-pathologize difference, cultivate empathy, and support academic rigor for all.” Long rejects the notion that teachers lack the time to teach about gender diversity: “The biology classroom has more than enough room to include and celebrate all genders.”

In the wake of anti-trans laws, we should remember that queering curriculum is not just a favor teachers do for LGBTQ+ students. A queer curriculum offers a fuller, more comprehensive curriculum for all students. In “Nurturing a Rainbow of Resistance to Anti-LGBTQ+ Laws” on anti-gay laws, Linda Christensen quotes a student in the class she co-taught with Blair Hennessy: “Part of the importance of [the novel Melissa] is getting a trans person’s perspective about what they go through, what they are sometimes forced to hide about themselves. If students don’t have that perspective, cis-gender students get sheltered from trans people’s lives. If you don’t understand something, it makes it hard for you to appreciate someone else’s struggle. We need these stories that are important for trans kids to have, but for non-trans kids too.”

Carter, a nonbinary 8th-grade student interviewed for the book, also underscored the importance of inclusive education: “Exploring gender identity is important for kids. If we hadn’t made those identity boxes in 2nd grade, I might still be suppressing a lot of feelings about myself. I am thankful for that project. . . . If you accept and support us as the humans we are and help to make our middle school years not a living hell, that would be pretty cool.”  

Rethinking Schools urges you to teach — and create schools — for transgender justice. Be defiant. Use your political space to save students’ lives. Queer your curriculum. Push your school and school district to create schools where Nex Benedict and Nigel Shelby thrive. Make schools look like the world we want to live in.