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U.S. transgender youth: ‘Forced outing’ bills make schools unsafe

Wave of legislation raising debate over student needs, school responsibility, parents’ right to know

Al Stone-Gebhardt worked hard in school to make sure he graduates in May, and he spent hundreds of dollars on commencement regalia, but he is fully prepared not to participate in the ceremony.

The 17-year-old, who is transgender, said he fears his high school, Tulsa Union, might use his deadname — the name he was given at birth but no longer uses — on his diploma and during the ceremony instead of his legally changed name. He has had teachers call him by his birth name, sometimes inadvertently, and said he finds the experience traumatizing.

“Being deadnamed just immediately makes you feel belittled, weak and insignificant,” Stone-Gebhardt said. “I didn’t want to be in the classroom. I didn’t trust the teacher.”

After The Associated Press contacted the school about Stone-Gebhardt’s concerns, a spokesperson said the school will work with his parents to make sure his correct name is used.

As hundreds of bills nationwide take aim at nearly every facet of transgender existence, from health care to athletics to bathroom access, trans kids and their families say certain proposals could eliminate one of the last remaining safe havens to explore their identities: K-12 public schools.

Several “ parental rights ” proposals, which aim to give parents greater control over their children’s education, would formally allow or require schools to deadname trans students or out them to their parents without consent. While some parents and teachers argue they have a right to know, others warn it could jeopardize the mental health and physical safety of gender-nonconforming children and place educators in the crosshairs.

More than 25 proposals introduced across 14 states include provisions permitting teachers or fellow students not to honour the name and pronouns that align with a student’s gender identity. Some of those proposals and other standalone measures, including at least two at the federal level, would require parental permission to use different identifiers. At least a dozen would also require schools to alert parents of gender identity changes in most circumstances, which trans students like Stone-Gebhardt say would strip them of their privacy and autonomy.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education proposed new rules this year that would require parental notification if a child begins expressing gender identity questions. A similar proposal in the North Carolina legislature, where Republicans are just one seat shy of the supermajority they need to override any veto from the Democratic governor, passed the Senate last month and is now in the House.

They mirror laws enacted last year in Florida and Alabama, and guidelines in Virginia, that prohibit schools from withholding gender identity information. Florida Republicans advanced legislation this week that would expand the law critics dubbed “ Don’t Say Gay ” to prohibit schools from addressing students with pronouns that don’t align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Some education officials support the idea of notifying parents about identity changes. Education guidelines on social transitioning, including when to involve parents, vary widely across states and school districts. Such proposals would provide uniformity that some educators say is currently lacking.

“As a parent, I’d absolutely want to know that, and I think most parents do,” said Ginger Tinney, executive director of Professional Oklahoma Educators, a nonpartisan association that represents educators from across the state. “When it comes to serious stuff like this, this tells me the child is struggling with some major issues, and they need their mom and dad to know.”

But others, like Emilly Osterling, a high school special education teacher in Wake County, North Carolina, say the reporting requirements force teachers to betray their students’ trust or risk losing their job. While collaboration with parents is essential to her work as a special educator, she said, it cannot come at the expense of any student’s safety or scare teachers away from building bonds with their students.

“Students wouldn’t trust teachers anymore,” Osterling said. “You’re putting educators in a very, very bad position. It’s kind of taking pieces of our job to a different level. A job is your source of income, I mean, it’s your livelihood.”

When Renee Sekel’s nonbinary teenager first requested a different name on their Christmas stocking, she responded with “absolutely not” in what she now considers “the wrong reaction.” The mother of three and local activist in Cary, North Carolina, said she took about six months to accept the new name.

After hearing her child’s teacher call them by that name in a parent-teacher meeting, Sekel said, she realized her child was already happily out at school. In time, she grew thankful that the public school had been a safe and affirming place for her child to express their identity before it was fully accepted at home — and that they were able to tell family on their own terms.

“I failed as a parent in not giving them the freedom and the safety they needed at home,” Sekel said. “But they were able to find it at school.”

Now, Sekel said, it’s worth sharing her own shortcomings to preserve that safe space for other kids. Proposals with forced-outing provisions could create life-threatening situations for those with unsupportive families, she said.

“I’m not LGBTQ or anything, but I was abused as a child, and school was the place where people didn’t call me names or didn’t hit me. School was safe for me,” she said. “Forcing teachers to call home and tell the parent things that those children have told them in confidence is going to hurt kids, it’s going to get kids beat.”

Supporters of the North Carolina bill have repeatedly pointed to an exception that would prevent parents from accessing school records if there’s reason to believe it would lead to abuse or neglect. But Osterling said teachers are not always able to spot signs of abuse and cannot predict how every parent will react. Her concerns echo those of several psychologists who have testified against the bill.

Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, said bills that explicitly mention gender identity are not the only ones that could out an LGBTQ student. Broad language in parental rights proposals in states like Idaho, which would require that parents be informed of any change in their child’s emotional health or well-being, could be interpreted to apply to sexual orientation or gender identity, she said.

Idaho parent Kris Huntting consoled their teenage son, who is trans, after most of his teachers deadnamed him on the first day of school, in accordance with a new policy. Huntting said he had spent the day terrified for his closeted trans friends with disapproving parents who had been told they needed parental permission be called a name other than the one they were assigned at birth.

The Nampa high school rolled back the policy after Huntting raised concerns. But Huntting still worries the bill, which passed both chambers and was sent last week to the Republican governor, could be broadly interpreted to make it a statewide standard.

“Your child is a whole human,” Huntting said. “If they want you to know this thing about their existence, they’ll tell you. But using the ‘I have a right to know’ … it’s based on the assumption that being trans is harmful and something to be helped.”

—Hannah Schoenbaum and Sean Murphy, The Associated Press

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