Supporting Transgender Youth in U.S. Public High Schools

Syed Menebhi

University of Rhode Island, United States

Education Thinking, ISSN 2778-777X – Volume 3, Issue 1 – 2023, pp. 3–18. Date of publication: 10th February 2023.

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Cite: Menebhi, S. (2023). Supporting Transgender Youth in U.S. Public High Schools. Education Thinking, 3(1), 3–18.

Declaration of interests: The author declares to have no conflicts of interest.

Authors note: Syed Menebhi is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rhode Island. He earned his B.A. in History from Rhode Island College and his M.A. in Teaching from Brown University. He is also a high school gender studies teacher in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. His research interests include how to best support transgender students in education.  

Copyright notice: The author of this article retain all his rights as protected by copyright laws.

Journal’s areas of research addressed by this article: 28-Gender & Education; 70-Education & Social Inclusion, Equity, Cohesion; 58-Secondary Education.


Transgender youth in the United States need support in public schools (Kosciw et al., 2020). This growing population experiences bullying, discrimination, and violence at higher rates than their cisgender counterparts, and this has negative impacts on their educational success and mental health (Garthe et al., 2022; GLSEN, 2021; Goldblum et al., 2012; Johns et al., 2019; Jones, 2018; Sausa, 2005). State and federal non-discrimination policies affect the degree to which transgender students feel safe (Fields & Wotipka, 2022). Yet, research shows that non-discrimination laws are ultimately limited in their impact, and schools need to establish their own policies and practices to support transgender youth (Meyer & Keenan, 2018; Roberts & Marx, 2018; Spade, 2015).

A total of 42 peer-reviewed journal articles were identified that address how to best support transgender students in secondary public schools. These articles were analyzed, and four major themes emerged as successful interventions: professional development for teachers, transgender-inclusive school policies, gay-straight alliances, and trans visibility in the curriculum. Drawing on Meyer’s (2003) and Testa et al.’s (2015) adaptation of minority stress theory, this review shows how schools have the potential to act as a buffer against minority stress for transgender youth. Suggestions for further studies based on gaps include a push for more intersectional research and research centered on school practices that currently work for transgender students.


Transgender students, LGBTQ youth

Each day, transgender students experience discrimination, bullying, and a lack of support in public high schools across the United States (Kosciw et al., 2020). The severity of this maltreatment varies due to differences in state and institutional policies, but regardless, research has determined that this is a widespread problem.

The term “transgender” can be defined as any individual whose assigned sex at birth differs from their gender identity (internal, personal sense of being). To identify as transgender, an individual is not required to have undergone any type of medical procedure or be “out” as transgender to their teachers, peers, or family. This term is simply used to describe someone who feels a disconnect between their natal sex and gender identity. The most common transgender identities include transgender male (assigned female at birth), transgender female (assigned male at birth), and non-binary or gender non-conforming (GNC; assigned either male or female at birth, but don’t identify as either). Not all non-binary persons identify as transgender, and each individual is the determinant of their own identity (GLAAD, 2021)

The transgender student community is growing because youth feel more empowered than ever to explore their identities. Pew Research Center reports that five percent of young adults (ages 18–29) in the United States identify as transgender or gender non-conforming (Brown, 2022), and with more visibility in the media, we can expect that number to continue to rise. Transgender youth are especially vulnerable in a society where policy-makers throughout the United States are writing laws that target this population for political gain. For instance, Ron DeSantis’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill (Florida House of Representatives, 2022) prohibits any mention of gender identity or sexuality in grades K-3 (Diaz, 2022), and there is proposed legislation in many other states that suggests expanding this type of policy to higher grade levels. It is crucial that educators learn from the current research and adopt practices that help support transgender youth.

This paper will provide a comprehensive review of the literature and offer suggestions for supporting transgender high school students. I will discuss the history of trans-related policy and its limitations. I will review the current research on transgender student experiences, including how schools can best protect transgender students. In addition, I will use Meyer (2003) and Testa et al. (2015) and their work on minority stress related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community to suggest how schools can provide a supportive community to mitigate minority stress and foster coping and resilience in trans youth. Lastly, I provide my own commentary on where I believe the research in this field should be headed, calling for more research on the effects of best practices and drawing upon the work of Kimberly Crenshaw (1991) to argue for an intersectional lens to future studies.

Trans-Related Policy

At the federal level, support for trans teens has been inconsistent. Barack Obama’s administration publicly interpreted Title IX of the Higher Education Act (1972) to include protections for transgender students, expanding the definition of “gender” to “gender identity” in a guidance letter to educational administrations (Miller et al., 2018). However, these mere suggestions led to backlash from 12 state attorney generals who created litigation to challenge them, and by February 2017, Trump’s administration wrote a letter rescinding Obama’s interpretation (Jones, 2018). On the annual Day of Trans Visibility in March of 2022, the Biden Administration published a page on the White House website that outlined their support for the transgender community, and linked guidelines written by different departments (The White House, 2022). It appears that federal support for transgender people is entirely reliant upon the political views of the administration, and there are no concrete national laws that hold people accountable for maltreatment. The fickleness of guidance at the federal level has allowed states to create their own rules around supporting transgender students in schools. However, many states have written malicious policies targeting transgender youth or adopted policies that ignore the existence of this community altogether.

Although Florida and Alabama gained mainstream news coverage in 2022 after signing “Don’t Say Gay” laws related to education, this type of legislation is not new (Sosin, 2022). From 1987 to 2001, nine states passed some version of this law, although many have rescinded these policies since. This wave of anti-LGBTQ educational policies for two decades was a direct legacy of the AIDS crisis hysteria, as well as Anita Bryant’s “Save the Children” campaign in the 1970s (Sosin, 2022). By 2018, eight states still had some version of this law in place, and a study conducted by GLSEN that year found that students in these states faced a more hostile school climate, reported less access to LGBTQ-inclusive curricular resources, and were less likely to feel supported by adults in their schools than LGBTQ identifying students in states without these laws (GLSEN, 2018). Yet, there seems to be a major difference between these laws and the recently renewed efforts to discriminate against the LGBTQ community in schools. Namely, the newest proposed legislations have an explicit focus on gender identities, and are driven by widespread transphobia and misconceptions about the transgender community. Like previous laws, their arguments draw upon the fear-inducing notion of “protecting our children” from “indoctrination.” These proposals to push the existence of trans students completely out of school language and rhetoric are being suggested in over a dozen U.S. states (Jones & Franklin, 2022) and have severe consequences on the well-being of trans kids.

Transgender Student Safety

An abundance of studies has shown that trans students do not feel safe in our nation’s schools, even in states without these policies. GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey concluded that transgender teens (ages 13+) were more likely than their cisgender peers to report discriminatory policies and practices: 77.3% of transgender teens compared to 46.1% of their cisgender counterparts (Kosciw et al., 2020). GLSEN’s 2021 survey indicated that over half of the transgender student participants experienced policies in their schools that required them to use the bathroom and locker room of their natal sex and almost half (44.5%) were prevented from using their chosen names and pronouns. In addition, only six in ten students who took the survey reported that they had access to a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at their school (GLSEN, 2021).

This contributes to trans students feeling unsafe in their educational environments and has dire consequences. In a qualitative study of 24 trans youth in Philadelphia public high schools, 75% reported that schools did not provide a safe environment for them to learn, and told stories of bullying, lack of teacher and staff respect for their identities, and outright transphobia from administrators (Sausa, 2005). GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey showed that transgender students were much more likely than their cisgender peers to report missing days of school or changing schools based on feeling unsafe (Kosciw et al., 2020). In a 2012 study in Virginia, Goldblum et al. (2012) found that 6.6% of the 290 participants reported that severe gender-based victimization was the main reason they did not complete high school. Additionally, in a 2022 comparative study of over 4,000 youth grades 8–12, researchers concluded that transgender youth report higher levels of verbal, physical, and cyber peer victimization than their cisgender counterparts (Garthe et al., 2022).

The effects of this treatment on the mental health of transgender students cannot be overlooked. A 2018 study of 1,635 transgender and gender non-conforming youth found that over half (51.6%) of these students in grades nine through eleven reported past-year self-harm behavior (Jones, 2018). According to the Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) from 2017, which comprises data from ten states and nine large urban school districts, transgender high school students were at a higher risk for substance use and suicide risk (with 34.6% attempting suicide in the 12 months prior to taking the survey) than cisgender students (Johns et al., 2019). Goldblum et al. (2012) found that 28.9% of their 290 transgender participants had attempted suicide at least once and students who experienced victimization at school were almost four times as likely to attempt suicide than those who hadn’t. It is clear that many transgender youths feel unsafe at school with dire consequences and many point to policy as a way that we can improve school environments for trans students.

The Limitations of State Policy

There is evidence to believe that state-level anti-discrimination policies have a positive overall impact on LGBT youth, regardless of whether they directly address educational inequities. A study conducted using data from the Center for Disease Control’s YRBS concluded that in states with more expansive LGBT rights, LGB students faced less harassment in school and achieved higher grades than their counterparts in states without laws that protect this community (Fields & Wotipka, 2022). The researchers who conducted this study reasoned that changing the laws sways public opinion by legitimizing LGBT issues and that impact is felt by lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. The study only drew this conclusion about LGB-identifying students due to a lack of data on transgender students, but one might predict that these ideas would be transferable to the transgender student populations in states with trans-inclusive policies.

However, as several authors have pointed out, policy has limitations in providing safety and support for trans youth and we should be cautious about assigning too much weight to legislation as the primary vector of change. Even in states that have established policies that are meant to protect transgender students, these protections don’t always translate to the school or district level. In Massachusetts for example, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education amended anti-discrimination statutes in 2012 to include discrimination based on gender identity (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 2021). Yet, a study conducted in Massachusetts schools in 2017–2018 revealed that trans students reported a lack of safe spaces, unfeasible bathroom accommodations, and uneducated teachers and staff on trans issues (Sava et al., 2021). Likewise, in California, some of the most comprehensive state legislation has been passed to protect LGBTQ-identifying students. Yet, a 2017 study analyzing ten of California’s largest school districts concluded that only half of them have policies in place that explicitly address the needs of transgender youth (Meyer & Keenan, 2018).

In addition, policies – especially those focused on single identities – can be exclusionary. Roberts and Marx (2018) draw on Foucault’s theory of power to examine how the push for anti-discrimination laws, though good-natured, is problematic in that the resulting policies ignore the unique experiences of trans youth. This inevitably leads to a focus on those who identify as white, middle-class, able-bodied, and gender-conforming (Roberts & Marx, 2018). As is often the case with anti-discrimination policies, they are written in a way that isolates and names a single identity category without considering the experiences of individuals that have multiple, intersecting marginalized identities and thus, are not fully protected. Consider, for instance, the marriage-based visa policy for undocumented people in the United States, which has been a widely used pathway to permanent residence for millions of immigrants. Although this policy provides great support for married couples in which one partner is undocumented in the U.S., it was exclusionary to same-sex couples prior to the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that led to the federal recognition and legalization of gay marriage in 2015 (Howard University School of Law, 2023). Policies that name transgender individuals and do not consider other possible overlapping identities fall short in the same way.

For instance, Dean Spade, a leader in the field of transgender rights and law, points out that if laws are created without an intersectional lens, they can unintentionally cause harm. To demonstrate, he uses the example of hate crime laws, which require collaboration with the criminal justice system and more specifically policing, an institution that has historically targeted transgender people of color. Anti-discrimination laws created through a white, economically privileged perspective cannot be effective in protecting everyone in the transgender community (Spade, 2015). And although Spade’s work isn’t solely focused on students, many scholars have applied his framework of Critical Trans Politics to the education field (Farley & Leonardi, 2021; Kean, 2021; Keenan, 2017; Meyer & Keenan, 2018; Nicolazzo, 2021).

Spade’s Critical Trans Politics framework argues for an interrogation of the gendered systems within our society that perpetuate transphobia rather than creating exceptional solutions within the constructs of these systems. For example, he argues that legislation such as hate crime laws focus too much on the individual as a wrong-doer and fails to address underlying systemic issues such as heteronormativity and cisnormativity that are the true causes of trans persons’ struggles (Spade, 2015). Heteronormativity is the belief held in both individuals and institutions that heterosexuality is the normative way of being, and cisnormativity is the assumed belief that every individual’s sex assigned at birth aligns with their gender identity. In schools, these beliefs are ubiquitous and can be observed with gendered spaces (bathrooms, sports leagues, health classes, etc.) and school traditions (like the king and queen of prom, seating arrangements determined by gender identity, etc.) (Lewis, 2019). Spade argues for an interrogation of society’s gendered spaces and advocates for an exploration of gender meanings within our classrooms (Spade, 2015).

Harper Keenan (2017), another lead researcher in this field and elementary school educator, did this exact type of exploration in a workshop with children aged 5–11 years. He asked students to independently draw a picture of a strong person, a pirate, and a ballet dancer. When the results were all remarkably similar, he posed a series of questions about why that might be the case (p. 548). He used this example to demonstrate how young children possess an internalized, cisnormative script about gender and offered that simple activities such as this could help deconstruct these ideas and offer a wider range of possibilities (p. 549). This shows how classrooms can either reinforce strict gender roles or open a conversation to deconstruct them, which will have real impacts on students’ perceptions of themselves and others.

School Policies and Practices: A Step in the Right Direction

Since policies at governmental levels have such limitations, school administrators, leaders, and teachers need to be educated about varying student identities and create school-wide practices with some form of accountability. We have many examples where policy is simply not enough to protect our transgender youth (Farley & Leonardi, 2021; Keenan, 2017; Roberts & Marx, 2018; Spade, 2015), and some research has been done to assess impacts of what could be considered best practices. These include but are not limited to professional development for teachers and staff on transgender-related topics, LGBTQ-focused school policies, gay-straight alliances, and visibility in the curriculum.

Professional Development

A review of the literature suggests that educating administrators, teachers, and staff on trans identities and issues through professional development can make schools safer for trans kids (Farley & Leonardi, 2021; Jarpe-Ratner et al., 2022). Teachers have historically been trained to shut down conversations about LGBTQ topics for fear of upsetting students, parents, and/or their administrators and suffering repercussions (Fredman et al., 2015). But instead of ignoring the queer (LGBTQ+) identities of students, we must consider that schools can provide refuge to trans teens who might not experience support outside their educational contexts. Professional development around gender-diverse identities is a step toward changing the status quo from non-engagement to education. In a 2017 study, Meyer and Leonardi (2018) conducted interviews with twenty-six K-12 educators who worked directly with trans students and wanted to better support them. The authors of this study found two major emerging themes from the teachers interviewed: a desire to be exposed to trans-identifying individuals and how a culture of conversation about gender diversity could shift schools towards affirming policies. While this study did not measure the impacts of professional development, it shows two areas of need that teachers suggest could help support trans students, both of which could be delivered via professional development.

Another study, published by Jarpe-Ratner et al. in 2022, focused on the effects of good practices, including professional development (PD), on LGBTQ students in the Chicago public school system. Jarpe-Ratner et al. (2022) implemented four optional PD sessions that sought to educate teachers and staff about creating a safe environment for LGBTQ-identifying students. One of the PD sessions was four hours long and focused exclusively on transgender and gender-nonconforming students. The goals of this session were to learn strategies for supporting trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) youth, review school policies about trans and GNC students, and develop plans to spread this information to other staff members. The school personnel interviewed after the five-year study reported that they felt much more comfortable and empowered to advocate for their LGBTQ students even with the challenge of dealing with resistant colleagues (Jarpe-Ratner et al., 2022). One factor missing from this study is LGBTQ-identifying students’ voice and whether students felt any impact of the study treatment on their schools. The researchers mentioned this as one of their limitations and suggested that YRBS data be analyzed over time to assess the effects.

Lewis (2019) also sought to assess the impacts of trans-related professional development on teachers in a large school district in the southeastern region of the U.S. In a post-PD survey, teachers expressed that their own perceptions of their role in protecting transgender students had shifted. The results suggested that once teachers have exposure to training, their attitudes and awareness of their role as related to protecting trans kids increases. Similar to the previously mentioned study, this study did not seek out student voices as data points to see if the impacts of PD were felt at a student level. Regardless, the teachers’ more confident feelings around supporting trans students can be seen as having positive impacts.

LGBTQ-Focused School Policies

Although policies at the state and federal levels are limited in their day-to-day impacts of transgender youth, school-level policies are more consequential in creating safe environments for this population. McGuire et al. (2010) suggested that district and school-level policies that support transgender students could help make schools a safer place for trans youth. They conducted a mixed-method study of racially diverse transgender youth and found that relationships with teachers and teacher intervention (such as quick verbal condemnation) when hearing transphobic remarks were two protective factors of their study participants. Teachers might feel more responsibility to intervene when they witness transphobia among students if there is a policy for accountability that they can reference (McGuire et al., 2010). GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey shows that transgender students with comprehensive school policies including anti-bullying policies, respect for student’s chosen name and pronouns, and access to bathrooms corresponding to one’s gender identity were less likely to feel unsafe and less likely to miss school due to feeling unsafe (GLSEN, 2021). In addition, students with more supportive staff had greater levels of school belonging and self-esteem, lower levels of depression, and higher-grade point averages (GLSEN, 2021).

There is an abundance of literature about how transgender students are negatively affected by non-inclusive school policies, but there exists a gap in the research assessing the positive impacts of trans-inclusive school policy. This is partly because many schools have not yet implemented such policies. Kosciw et al. (2020) found that only twenty-four percent of transgender students reported that their school had an anti-harassment policy that named specific protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Stilwill (2022) determined that there are several reasons for the lack of school policies, including the heteronormative gendered spaces such as bathrooms in schools, negative reactions to policy from adults and students, and difficulty creating policies that address the needs of all students. Regardless, we can infer that protective school policies create a safer environment for transgender students based merely on the studies that have been conducted, as well as the research that shows the damaging effects of non-inclusive policies in schools.

Gay-Straight Alliances

The purpose of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) is to help make schools safer for LGBTQ students by providing support and community, educating the larger community about LGBTQ issues, and engaging in awareness activities and celebrations such as Day of Silence and LGBTQ Pride (American Civil Liberties Union, n.d.) Several studies have shown the positive effects of GSAs within school contexts on LGBTQ-identifying students (Day et al., 2020; GLSEN, 2021; McCormick et al., 2015; McGuire et al., 2010; Russell et al., 2009).

In a qualitative study from 2014 assessing the impact of GSAs on thirty-five LGBTQ youth, McCormick et al. (2015) found that there was a normalizing process that occurred for these students being a part of this club. Since youth felt validated as a result of their participation in the GSA, they also felt more confident socially, had a greater sense of belonging in their school community, and had a deeper appreciation for their own differences as well as the differences of others (McCormick et al., 2015). This sense of validation and community can occur by simply creating the GSA space for students to use. The authors mentioned, however, that this study is limited due to the mostly white, geographically similar participants.

A more ethnically diverse study conducted in 2020 revealed that students in schools with both GSAs and LGBTQ-focused policies were less likely to experience frequent gender-based bullying than youth who reported having neither GSA nor these policies in place at their school (Day et al., 2020). The authors noted that these two practices are distinctly and mutually important for creating a safer environment for transgender youth. In an even more recent study, GLSEN found that the presence of GSAs in schools is associated with fewer negative comments about gender expression, less negativity about transgender people, and less gender-targeted harassment and assault (GLSEN, 2021). The community and education that GSAs provide for all students, but particularly transgender youth is invaluable to their safety and support.

Visibility in Curriculum

Studies have also suggested that having transgender identities and history in the curriculum is an inclusive practice that is desired by trans youth and could have positive impacts (Farley & Leonardi, 2021; Kosciw et al., 2020; Miller et al., 2018; Sausa, 2005). While school policies focused on protecting transgender students – such as anti-bullying policies – are helpful, leaders in the field agree that an inclusive curriculum is a more holistic way to address cisnormative and heteronormative climates and practices in schools (Farley & Leonardi, 2021; Meyer & Keenan, 2018; Roberts & Marx, 2018).

Transgender identities are largely left out of school curricula, and yet it is highly desired by transgender students and their families. Farley and Leonardi (2021) collected two years of survey data from sixty-nine parents and/or guardians of transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, which showed that parents recognize the limitations of policy and desire a holistic approach to deconstructing heteronormativity within their children’s schools. Of the sixty-nine participating families, none reported knowledge of any policies that required trans representation in the curriculum. Kosciw et al. (2020) showed that only sixteen percent of transgender student participants in the GLSEN survey reported that LGBT-related topics were included in their textbooks or other assigned readings, and only eleven percent experienced a curriculum that had positive representations of LGBT people, history, or events in their classes.

As a part of their study in Chicago, Jarpe-Ratner et al. (2022) added LGBTQ identities into school curriculums in the participating schools, which resulted in positive experiences for both teachers and students. However, students involved in the study reported that this mostly included sex education, and they voiced that they wanted more LGBTQ topics covered in their classes, beyond just the mentioning of queer identities in sex-ed (Jarpe-Ratner et al., 2022). There is a large gap in knowledge about how LGBTQ inclusive curriculum affects transgender students due to the lack of policies requiring this curriculum in the United States. One study conducted in the UK, which focused on twelve primary school teachers, showed how building a community of practice (CoP) that disrupts heteronormativity and cisnormativity can have positive effects on youth (Johnson, 2022). Johnson noted how LGBTQ-inclusive cultures and curricula can create spaces for non-normative gender and sexuality to exist.

Trans Minority Stress and Schools as a Buffer

The previous sections outlined ways in which administrators, teachers, and school staff can provide a safe place for their transgender students. This is crucial, not just because we are obligated to keep children safe in our education systems, but also because schools have an incredible opportunity to combat larger forces of violence and discrimination experienced by these students outside the building.

Transgender youth experience high rates of anxiety and depression, suicidality, and self-harm due to adverse experiences like peer victimization and familial rejection (Connolly et al., 2016; Grossman & D’augelli, 2006; Veale et al., 2017). In a qualitative study of 24 transgender youth, many described verbal harassment and physical abuse from family members due to negative reactions to their trans identities (Grossman & D’augelli, 2006). Some reported being disowned by their parents and experiencing homelessness as a result, and the group overall expressed a lack of access to resources including mental health services (Grossman & D’augelli, 2006).

In addition to the discrimination, harassment, neglect, and abuse that cause poor mental health outcomes in transgender youth, there is a body of research on minority stress as related to higher mental health problems in this community. Minority stress refers to a number of stressful situations that one might experience because of having a marginalized identity (Meyer, 2003). Ilan Meyer (2003) applied the minority stress model in an attempt to understand why lesbians, gays, and bisexuals have a higher prevalence of mental health disorders, substance abuse, and suicide than heterosexuals. He used a “distal-proximal” model to describe the different types of stressors the LGB community experiences. Distal minority stressors are defined as external stressors such as victimization and discrimination, and proximal stressors describe an internal dialogue of somebody who is LGB-identifying such as internalized homophobia and the expectation of victimization (Meyer 2003). Meyer also discussed coping and resilience factors, and suggested that identity pride, community engagement, and social and emotional support could mitigate symptoms of minority stress and improve mental health outcomes.

Testa et al. (2015) took Meyer’s minority stress concept and applied it to transgender individuals, while also recognizing the additional stressors that the trans community might experience such as access to documents due to name changes and feeling unsafe in public restrooms. Testa et al. also added a category of distal stress called “non-affirmation”, which occurs when “one’s internal sense of gender identity is not affirmed by others” (p. 66). Tan et al. (2020) continued this conversation by arguing for more intersectional research on health disparities in relation to minority stress experienced by transgender people with marginalized racial identities. Despite the differences in minority stressors that trans people or trans persons of color might experience, the suggestions for mitigating the effects are similar. Testa et al. (2015) and Meyer (2003) both suggest that a sense of community and belonging can help. When considering transgender youth, schools have an opportunity to act as this community.

For instance, if students feel safe enough to be “out” at school – that is, openly identify as transgender to staff and students – this increases their sense of belonging in the school community (Kosciw et al., 2020). Since school belonging is associated with greater mental health outcomes (Kosciw et al., 2020; McCormick et al., 2015), creating a safe environment in public schools is crucial to the survival of trans students. In fact, there is research that supports this stance. Hatchel et al. (2019) conducted a study in California public schools using the minority stress framework to assess peer victimization and school belonging in transgender students. Using survey data, they found that more school belonging was associated with fewer mental health issues in trans youth. In a study of 33 transgender youth in the southeast U.S., Johns et al. (2021) found that transgender students were able to diminish symptoms of minority stress by advocating with other trans students for more inclusive school policies. The students in this study also reported that building connections with other students, staff, and teachers served as a coping mechanism (p. 890). This is consistent with previous research about transgender student advocacy in schools serving as a protective factor against minority stress (Johns et al., 2021; Singh, 2013).

This research has largely focused on transgender students’ self-advocacy in schools and their ability to find a community and foster a safe environment for themselves. This has correlated with resilience and the potential for schools to be a buffer against minority stress (Hatchel et al., 2019; Johns et al., 2021; Singh, 2013;). Although many schools have been receptive enough to encourage and embrace this self-advocacy, the responsibility of creating a safe environment for all students should not be placed on our transgender youth. Schools have an opportunity to support and improve the mental health outcomes of trans kids; there is research on some of the most effective strategies, and more needs to be done to assess the impacts of these practices.

Gaps and Future Research

As stated previously, one major gap is the lack of research on how presumed best practices have a positive effect on the lives of transgender students. Although a few studies have measured good school practices with positive outcomes for transgender youth, (GLSEN, 2021; Hatchel et al., 2019; Johns et al., 2021; McCormick et al., 2015; Russell et al., 2009) the majority have focused on LGBTQ youth as a whole or on poor school practices and negative outcomes. Rather than focus on what isn’t working, there needs to be more research on which school strategies are best in order to fine-tune the way we support our transgender students.

In addition, in order to find solutions that best support all transgender high school students, it is essential that future research takes an intersectional lens. There are only a handful of studies on transgender youth that involve the youth of color (Coulter et al., 2022; Goldblum et al., 2012; Graham, 2014; Gutierrez, 2004; Hatchel et al., 2019; Wernick et al., 2014). Yet, if we do not focus on the most marginalized communities and approach research with an intersectional framework, we are liable to find solutions that do not work for all transgender students (Crenshaw, 1991). Several scholars have pointed out this shortcoming of current literature in their own writing, and have taken steps to address this issue. McBride (2021) noted how institutionalized cisnormativity is experienced differently by different racial groups, which diversifies their experiences – namely, their struggles and successes – within education. Coulter et al. (2022) created a method for research that prioritizes the need for socio-demographically diverse transgender youth and high school staff that can be used by future researchers in order to capture the experiences of marginalized groups. Dean Spade (2015) similarly criticized transgender policies, noting “if formal legal equality at best opens doors to dominant institutions for those who are already closest to inclusion…very few stand to benefit (p. 37).” If we create policies and practices based on a single identity factor, we are bound to exclude many people that need the most support. Likewise, if we conduct research with samples of transgender students that lack diversity, we will draw conclusions that exclude diverse groups as a result.


The literature reviewed in this paper provides suggestions for how practitioners in school communities can offer support for transgender and gender non-conforming students. Four research-based, effective strategies are professional development for teachers educating them about trans identities, school policies that explicitly name protections of transgender students, GSA presence in schools in order to foster feelings of belonging and educate the larger community, and classroom curriculum that gives transgender visibility and representation. As demonstrated in the research, these strategies are much more effective when conversations, language, and practices are consistent throughout an entire high school community. School policies are effective in holding individuals accountable, but the best way we can support transgender youth is by interrogating the very structures within education that uphold heteronormativity and cisnormativity.

Several scholars have touched on this point. Dean Spade (2015) discussed how inclusion strategies are limited if they exist within the current economic and political state, rather than interrogating the state itself. If we don’t consider how to challenge entire institutions in order to improve the lives of all marginalized people, we end up supporting and protecting individuals, rather than groups. Farley and Leonardi’s (2021) research supported this notion; they found that school teachers and staff felt it was their responsibility to accommodate individual transgender students who were struggling, but they were less inclined to spend time unpacking transphobia in the larger community. People do not naturally attempt to conceive of a non-gendered education system – it is no small task to denounce a construct that is integral to the functioning of power structures in every societal domain. Yet, this condemnation is a necessary step toward inclusivity. Harper Keenan (2022) calls for more research in this area, arguing for the use of trans studies as a framework to examine “how gender has been (re)produced as a dominant, stable, and binary category within U.S. K-12 schools and teacher education (p. 311)”.

It may be true that dismantling rigid gendered constructs in education would be most helpful for transgender students, and deserves more attention in research. I imagine that one day, our society will be in a place where administrators, teachers, and teacher education programs are willing and able to confront and disrupt the gendered systems that have been pervasive in our public schools for centuries. However, transgender youth need support right now, and there are more immediate ways that school communities can provide it, as outlined in this paper. We cannot wait to put these interventions into place; the well-being and, frankly, the lives of transgender students are in our hands.


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