• by Susan Shaffer and Phyllis Lerner • IDRA Newsletter • October 2017 •

Editor’s Note: The IDRA EAC-South provides technical assistance and training to build capacity of local educators to serve their diverse student populations. The IDRA EAC-South is one of four regional equity assistance centers and serves Region II, which covers Washington, D.C., and 11 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. IDRA is working with staff at the Southern Education Foundation and the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium to develop local capacity in the region among the 2,341 school districts and 29,632 schools with over 1 million educators and 16 million students. More information is available at http://www.idra.org/eac-south/.

In 1966, The Barbarians, a rock band, released a song that climbed up the U.S. music charts. Titled, “Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?” the lyrics pushed on a premise that long hair, being popularized by British (White and male) music groups, was a gender marker.

Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?

With your long blond hair you look like a girl

Yeah, you look like a girl

You may be a boy, hey, you look like a girl.

Now a half-century later, gender markers are fluid across the full spectrum of racial and ethnic communities. Yet some young people, especially LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning) kids, are being pushed out of their homes and also pushed out of safe and secure learning environments in schools.

Now 45 years old, Title IX legislation prohibiting sex-discrimination in federally-funded education programs protects male and female teachers, school staff and students. This includes LGBTQ harassment and assault based on gender stereotypes or gender identity (NCWGE, 2017).

Gender Diversities

In order to effectively protect LGBTQ students, who remain particularly vulnerable, educators must eliminate hostile environments that undermines learning for everyone. We now know that not every child fits easily into a specific male and female category. Because gender is on a spectrum, other descriptors are used across child and adolescent development. Those children who do not fit into a single, discrete category are often referred to as sexual or gender nonconforming.

Today’s young people, across the gender spectrum, are often aware of their own and their peers’ sexual identity, expression and orientation. Their acceptance is aligned with a national, cultural shift for LGBTQ individuals, due in part to the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage (64 percent of poll participants) (McCaskill, 2017).

Despite increased awareness of and more positive media attention to gender diversities, LGBTQ youth continue to face many challenges. These challenges include feeling different from peers, feeling shame about sexual orientation, worrying about parents’ and other adults’ responses, and being rejected and harassed. Many teenagers keep their questions and sexual orientation a secret because coming out in an unwelcome climate can be fatal (Greytak, et al., 2009). Teachers and school leaders, who seek to build important relationships with their students, must adopt the following strategies.

Listen to our Classnotes Podcast Episode “Supporting LGBTQ Students Faced with Harassment”

Words That Matter

Language about gender continues to evolve as we gain more awareness and understanding (ODI, n.d.). To comply with Title IX, the educator’s initial strategy should be to integrate accurate language with LGBTQ issues. According to the American Psychological Association, awareness about sexual identity starts very young. Gender identity refers to one’s sense of self as male, female, some combination of male and female, neither male or female or both. When a child’s gender identity and biological sex are not congruent, the person may identify as transsexual or as another transgender category (APA, 2011).

Sexual orientation is different from sexual identity. Sexual orientation refers to whom one is sexually and romantically attracted. Categories typically include gay or lesbian (homosexuals), straight (heterosexuals) and bisexual. Research suggests that sexual orientation doesn’t always appear in such definable categories and, instead, occurs on a continuum and even changes, over time (APA, 2011).

Gender expression refers to the way a person acts to communicate gender within a given culture, through clothing, school behaviors and activities, and social interests (APA, 2011). Some high school seniors have taken self-expression to new gender edges as they dress for their proms. Some children call themselves gender queer, and some professionals refer to transgender teens as gender variant. Girls and boys who realize they are gender variant often are aware, early on, that they don’t fit in, and they’re not sure why.

Catherine Hyde, transgender coordinator for PFLAG Columbia–Howard County, Maryland, and regional director of Mid-Atlantic, PFLAG National, asks that we keep the definitions as broad and positive as possible (Shaffer & Gordon, 2015).

Some people are very gender fluid and will move back and forth across the male-to-female spectrum. Trans girls are children who were born with male genitals yet identify as girls, and trans boys are children who were born with female parts yet identify as boys. Often young boys who enjoy stereotypically girl activities get extra pushback, which creates a greater disconnect for them, whereas we tolerate a little more gender fluidity with girls. So, if girls want to be superheroes and play sports, we are more likely to accept their behavior.

In her article “When Kids Play Across Gender Lines,” Emanuella Grinberg says, “Boys are more likely to get picked on for stepping outside of the box to play with dolls or wear a pink backpack than girls are for playing with cars or wearing jeans” (2012). Because of these stereotypes, girls don’t run into opposition as early as boys; they often experience this push-back beginning in puberty.

Awareness of Risks Matter

Some LGBTQ teens exhibit signs of depression, manifested by isolating themselves socially and having lower self-esteem and lower school performance. These signs of distress should not be ignored because LGBTQ youth have more than twice the rate of suicide ideation than straight kids (Adelman, et al., 2013). LGBTQ teens who do not have safe spaces to come out risk being teased mercilessly. Lesbian and gay students (often exacerbated by race, ethnicity, religion and geography) are often forced into isolation at a time when they truly need connection and support.

We need to value attachment as the primary task of human growth for all boys and girls, because without community and closeness, we fail to thrive as individuals and as members of society, regardless of our social class, race, culture or gender.

Although we have made progress with LGBTQ acceptance and understanding, we find that boys have significant fear of pushing outside the box. Homophobia remains profound; the concept extends to any appearance, emotion or feeling that is considered to be feminine. Being called gay or fag is not just directed at gays and lesbians; it’s the most common form of harassment of all teenagers (Kosciw, et al., 2012).

This verbal harassment negatively impacts 85 percent of LGBTQ students. And that’s only the beginning, as more than a fourth are physically harassed at school, with 13 percent of LGBTQ kids actually assaulted. And the words and risks follow kids on social media, with almost half (49 percent) being threatened by their peers (NCWGE, 2017).

Providing Safe Supports Matter

A 2010 study by San Francisco State University found that LGBTQ adolescents with accepting parents not only were more confident, but also were at much lower risk of depression and substance abuse (Sadowski, 2010). Teachers can help with this evolution. Allowing children to express their own chosen identity, even at a preschool age, can prevent frustration and anger down the line.

According to Ehrensaft, “It is not a matter of labeling or projecting into the future, but knowing who your child [or student] is right now” (2012). Dr. Lynne Muller, Section Chief of Student Services and School Counseling at the Maryland State Department of Education, confirms this advice: “Go for the ride, just ride with them. It will have ups and downs, like any ride” (Shaffer & Gordon, 2015).

The school community must implement measures to support LGBTQ students:

  • Adopt and implement comprehensive bullying/sexual harassment policies that specifically speak to nonconforming gender youth.
  • Support student activities and clubs that engage LGBTQ students (for example, Gay-Straight Alliance, Safe Schools Coalition, the Trevor Project).
  • Provide professional development for school staff so they have a better understanding of how to support LGBTQ students, increase their accountability when they see students at risk, or students who are engaging in harassing and bullying behaviors.
  • Provide programs and information (e.g., PFLAG [formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays]), for family and community members so that adults and their LGBTQ children are both protected and encouraged to meet (or exceed) educational expectations.

With these measures in place, all students will have a greater opportunity to learn and be successful in school and beyond.

Educators who are rightfully responsible and parents who are rightfully frightened know the world of school is not always a welcoming place for those who are different. Sound school practices and policies will help students develop the grit and perseverance needed to respond early and effectively to bias, bullying and harassment. Educators must also model, with similar grit and perseverance, strategies that include, accept, and hold dearly every variation of the gendered young people under our care.


Adelman, W.P., Braverman, P.K., Breuner, C.C., Levine, D.A., Marcell, A.V., Murray P.J., & O’Brien, R.F. (2013). “Office-Based Care for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth,” Pediatrics, 132(1), 198-203.

American Psychological Association. (2011). Practice Guidelines for LGB Clients: Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association).

Greytak, E., Kosciw, J., & Diaz, E. (2009). Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools (New York, N.Y.: GLSEN).

Grinberg, E. (2012, August 28). “When Kids Play Across Gender Lines,” CNN Living.

Kosciw, J.G., Greytak, E.A., Bartkiewicz, M.J., Boesen, M.J., & Palmer N.A. (2012). The 2011 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools (New York, N.Y.: GLSEN).

McCaskill, N.D. (2017, May). “Poll: 64 Percent of Americans Support Same-Sex Marriage,” Politico.

National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education. (2017). Title IX at 45: Advancing Opportunity through Equity Education (Washington, D.C.: NCWGE).

Office of Diversity & Inclusion. (n.d.). ODI Gender Pronouns 101 (College Park, M.D., University of Maryland).

Sadowski, M. (2010). “Beyond Gay-Straight Alliances: Research Shows Why Family Support is Critical to Helping LGBT Students Succeed,” Harvard Education Letter, 26(2), 3-5.

Shaffer, S., & Gordon, L. (2015). How to Connect with Your iTeen: A Parenting Road Map (New York, N.Y.: McGraw Hill Education).

Susan Shaffer is president of the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, Inc. (MAEC) and executive director of the Center for Education Equity (Region I EAC). Phyllis Lerner is an educational equity consultant and faculty associate, Johns Hopkins University Graduate School of Education.

[©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2017 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the authors.]