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November 12, 2021
Despite districtwide and schoolwide progress regarding the inclusion of trans and non-binary students in the classroom, many students experience transphobia regularly.
“It wasn’t until this year when I started noticing people making casually transphobic comments around me,” Polyak said. “Then you just sit there and be like, ‘This is not a good place to address that, so I guess I have to let that slip,’ because people generally don’t listen to the opinions and observations of random strangers.”
Ham believes administrators can do more to address transphobia in the classroom.
“I’ve definitely had experiences where people assume things and are less educated about [trans people] than people who have dealt with them in their personal lives, but I don’t know that the district or West High does a whole lot about things like transphobia,” Ham said.
McNamar thinks the district responds reactively rather than proactively to transphobic events.
“[The ICCSD] addresses it … like all things that aren’t strictly talked about—we don’t really talk about depression until something happens; we don’t really talk about [transphobia] until something happens. It’s something that we know about—it’s in the back of our heads—but it’s not fully presented,” McNamar said.
As the ICCSD Director of Diversity and Cultural Responsiveness, Laura Gray has witnessed transphobia in various forms, most commonly in subtle interactions between trans and cisgender individuals.
“What I’ve seen a lot of [trans students] face is microaggressions—things that aren’t said, nonverbal reactions or [not] using preferred pronouns,” Gray said. “Things like that are harmful.”
On a larger scale, long-lasting institutional discrimination has significantly affected the well-being of trans and non-binary people.
“The LGBTQ+ community has historically been an underserved community that has also been harmed by both medical and mental health professions pathologizing LGBTQ+ identities. Mental health continues to be a pressing issue facing trans and non-binary youth,” Leake said.
According to the Trevor Project, more than half of trans and non-binary youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Additionally, nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth have wanted counseling from a mental health professional but did not receive it.
“Trans and non-binary youth have higher rates of suicide, likely due to the increased minority stress experiences faced by this population,” Leake said. “Unfortunately, much of this minority stress is due to systemic discrimination. For this to get better, there needs to be change and support at societal and structural levels.”
Rachel Maller is a former research assistant on the equity-implemented partnership between the University of Iowa Public Policy Center and the ICCSD. From 2015 through 2020, she helped administer the annual School Climate Survey to ICCSD students in fifth through 12th grade. Administrators use the survey results to address the disparities in the district and work toward promoting equity in the classroom. In 2020, 2% of ICCSD students identified as non-binary, an umbrella term the survey uses for all non-cisgender identities. That number is closer to 1% at West.
“[The School Climate Survey] highlights all these different data that demonstrate the inequities in schools that non-binary and LGB students face,” Maller said. “There’s a lot of bullying and harassment, and these things are connected to your achievement, mental health and future outcomes.”
Throughout her work, Maller has seen little change in how trans and non-binary students feel at school. In 2017, the ICCSD added LGBTQ-specific questions to the School Climate Survey. That year, 70% of non-binary students reported feeling unsafe in their classes, and in 2020, that number was 68%.
“Something that often gets neglected is the urgency of this [issue] and thinking ‘We’ll get to that,’” Maller said. “It’s so urgent because of people’s mental health, and everything is at stake. You’re going to have to put [in] work to be able to change it over time; you can’t just hope it will change, because it will not.”
Social studies teacher Travis Henderson believes that students have the most significant influence on the school culture.
“Little things change a culture, and each student particularly making that decision every day is what shapes the culture because you have to make what feels normal,” Henderson said. “If it feels normal to make transphobic comments, we have to shift the norm to make it unacceptable, and teachers alone can’t do that.”
According to a 2019 study, 71% of adolescents claim they have observed bullying at school. Henderson believes equipping students with bystander intervention strategies will have the most significant impact on school culture.
“If someone hears something, then having the tools to intervene makes a difference, not just for the student who was a target of that particular comment. [It] also provides one small moment that ultimately influences a broader culture,” Henderson said. “If we have students who feel comfortable doing direct or indirect intervention strategies when they hear something problematic or unintentionally hurtful, that starts to shift a culture.”