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Articles

Transgender People and Episcopal Schools: An Invitation to Discernment

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D., Executive Director
February 2016

Over the past few months, NAES has been in conversation with a number of our member schools about transgender people—who and what should be involved in determining how best to respond to specific situations that present themselves, what do we as Episcopal schools need to consider, are there proactive measures schools should be contemplating, and what does The Episcopal Church say about the inclusion of transgender people?

In the independent and private school world, the question of how best to respond to people who begin to identify with another gender has become significant; in fact, we are confident these questions will impact all of our schools, including posing unique challenges for single sex schools. We have also discovered that transgender issues apply to people of all ages, from our youngest students to our faculty, staff, and parents. In this article, our references to transgender people reflect the reality that this is not just a student question, but one touching individuals in our school communities of all ages.

To be sure, it is a question that is only likely to become more common in our schools, and we encourage all of our member schools to be well informed and prepared to respond in thoughtful, compassionate ways. 

Through resolutions that have been passed at recent General Conventions, The Episcopal Church has made it very clear that there should be a safe and welcoming place for transgender people in its congregations and in other contexts of ministry. While, admittedly, issues of gender identification and transition from one’s gender that was assigned at birth can be confusing to many people, God’s love has a way of working within our confusions and hesitations, leading us to a fuller and wider notion of what it means to be a Christian community that honors the dignity of each person.

NAES prides itself on its diverse membership, including types of schools, approaches to Episcopal identity, and varied theological or moral perspectives. We do not assume that all of our member schools are prepared—be it on a theological, moral, missional, or practical level—to be able to accommodate all students and families. 

Therefore, as a result of conversations that have taken place with the NAES Governing Board, we have determined that the best way of being of guidance and support to our schools, at this point and time, would be to take a multi-pronged approach in addressing the place of transgender people in our schools, providing a variety of perspectives, and continuing to assess and communicate the direction that this complex issue takes in the months ahead. Hopefully, we will be able to draw upon a number of voices and highlight not only the challenges but the genuine growth that can take place as an individual or a school community grapples with what gender transitioning means.

This Network article is the first step in NAES’ effort to assist our schools in undertaking careful and compassionate responses to both the challenge and the opportunity of welcoming transgender people in Episcopal schools. Above all else, we hope this initial effort will not only be a way in which Episcopal schools are made more aware of some of the issues at stake—and no doubt many are already well ahead in experience and preparation—but will serve as a call to discern, at all levels of school life, the important learning experiences ahead for all of us.

Here are some important things that we believe all of our schools should be considering as they thoughtfully and strategically respond to transgender people in a manner that reflects the best of what it means to be an Episcopal school.

  1. First and most importantly, a school needs to consider its mission and the role of transgender people in the context of that mission. We recommend that a school enter into a serious conversation on that matter of how the mission of that school leads that community in its response to transgender people in that school. The school’s board needs to be involved in crafting a policy and following appropriate communication protocol that gives shape and meaning to a school-wide response
  1. The place of transgender students in a school community raises a host of practical challenges, to be sure—bathrooms and athletic facilities, dress codes, use of pronouns, record keeping, to name a few—and while those practical matters should not overshadow the primary question of how gender expression and identity fits into the context of a school’s mission, the practical concerns should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. For instance, some transgender people prefer to use a private bathroom (single stall, nurse’s office, etc.) while others prefer to use the facilities of their gender identity. However, some of the practical issues can be handled proactively before a school has a transgender person. A school may well need to consider creating gender fluid options for school uniforms and/or dress codes, as well as the place of gender neutral, single staff bathrooms and means by which transgender student athletes can be a part of the school’s athletic program.
  1. It is important for every Episcopal school to have a sense of how their respective diocese stands in respect to transgender people and to keep the diocese fully informed on the direction the school plans to take. We recommend that every school have a conversation with its diocese prior to any decisions on accommodations for transgender people. It is also important for a school to be cognizant of some of the changes in standards regarding the place of transgender people in a school community that are now in place, or soon may be in place, in many regional accrediting associations.
  1. As a school honestly confronts its preparedness to welcome transgender people—be it a matter of the culture of the school or its facilities—it must insure that what the school says about itself as an inclusive community (i.e., in its admissions literature and various handbooks) reflects its understanding of the place of transgender people in that school. Accordingly, we recommend a thorough review of school literature and policies regarding inclusion.
  1. The safety and well-being of all people currently in the school is paramount. There is ample evidence, for example, that students who begin or complete the transitional process to another gender face high degrees of harassment and bullying, inside and outside of school. The care for people currently in the school who find themselves transitioning is vitally important and reflective of the mission of even the most conservative theological positions on this issue.

    To that end, we feel it is important that matters of accommodation and inclusion not rest solely on the shoulders of individuals who have made or are in the process of making a transition in gender. We recommend that students, faculty, and parents need to be made aware of the need for compassion and care, as well as a widespread understanding of the struggles and nuances of people in transition.
  1. A school community needs to be well informed about appropriate terminology as well as the wide variety and individualized character of transgender identities. Families need, for example, to be provided resources and opportunities for education and understanding on transgender issues. At the same time, a school should be prepared to say that it is continuing to learn about all of the matters involved in this rapidly evolving arena, to seek to present, in compassionate ways, the challenges to language and pronouns that transgender identity presents, and to emphasize that growth in compassion is lined with growth of knowledge and awareness.

In the midst of these considerations, legal issues often loom high, and NAES—while not offering legal advice here—is happy to attempt to refer schools to legal resources and advice from those who have experience both with Episcopal schools as well as the stories of many communities that have faced and grown through experiences of this kind.

In short, we encourage all of our schools to be fully prepared, informed, compassionate, and thoughtful in their approach to working with and welcoming transgender people—all qualities that are hallmarks of what it means to be an Episcopal school.

Ultimately, issues such as these quickly go from being abstract matters to real human stories that are tied to the specific circumstances and experiences of people or institutions, be they people in transition or schools that have gone through the process of discerning their role in regard to them. Our goal, at NAES, is to highlight those human stories in our future efforts in order to heighten awareness and deepen understanding in our communities. As we enter into this new landscape for our culture and our schools, we are confident that individuals and communities will encounter many blessings, not the least being an enhanced understanding of what it means to be human and to be a part of a community of grace and reconciliation.

Resources

The following resources provide education, guidance, and insights for school leaders, teachers, parents, and students about gender expression, gender identity, and transgender people.

Resolutions of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church

The General Convention is the governing body of The Episcopal Church and meets every three years, most recently in 2015. Here are the recent, relevant resolutions the General Convention has adopted on this subject.

2015-A051. Encourages parishes and dioceses, especially those with companion relationships, to build relationships with and learn from Anglican African scholars offering Biblical interpretations that affirm the dignity and humanity of LGBTI people.

2015-D028. Supports legislation banning conversion and/or reparative therapy.

2012-D019. Amends Canon I.17.5 to include gender identity and expression among reasons why no one shall be denied rights, status, or equal access in the Church.

2012-D022. Calls for a Church-wide response to bullying by encouraging Church-community partnerships to take action to prevent abuse.

2009-C048. Support for federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

2009-D012. Supports laws that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or its expression and treat physical violence associated with gender identity or expression as a hate crime.

2009-D032. Commits the Church to a broad non-discriminatory practice in employment of lay employees.

2009-D090. Encourages all Church bodies to show inclusivity by including options in documents for a legal name and also a preferred name and personal identity preferences.

General Information

Answers to Your Questions about Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression. The American Psychological Society.

Transgender Frequently Asked Questions. GLAAD.

Speculation and Support: A Note on Transitioning. Human Rights Campaign.

Resources for Schools

Transgender Resources. National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. Includes sample policies and guidelines from schools and school associations, suggested speakers, and educational resources.

From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK-12 Schools. A timely book by Jennifer Bryan, a leading national expert on gender identity and expression.

Video – Personal Stories

Transgender at 11: Listening to Jazz Jennings. ABC 20/20 Special. Meet young Jazz Jennings, born biologically male and living as a girl since age 6.

Voices of Witness: Out of the Box. Integrity USA. Transgender adults of faith tell their stories in this 30-minute free, streaming video. Accompanied by discussion guides.

For Families

Frequently Asked Questions. Trans Youth Family Allies. A compilation of questions and answers frequently asked by parents, educators, and practitioners.

Transgender People. Kids Health. A basic primer for parents.

Transgender Friendly Young Children’s Books. Goodreads.