George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Rights for Transgender Students

Transgender students deserve a safe and equitable education.

July 28, 2011

The driving force behind my work is a commitment to social justice, ensuring that all students get what they need in our public schools regardless of race, class, ethnicity, home language, ability, gender, and sexual orientation. Regardless of who they are or where they come from, all children deserve high quality schools where they are embraced and appreciated.

My commitment to developing equitable schools keeps me in this challenging work.

In Oakland, issues of equity surface primarily related to race, class, ethnicity, and home language. The great majority of our students have been historically denied access to quality schools.

This summer, I'm in Thailand exploring some of the equity issues for children in this southeast Asian country. While there are great inequities amongst ethnic groups -- Burmese refugees are treated very similarly to undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and ethnic minorities in the north of the country struggle for rights over land and identity, in Thailand the most discussed equity issue relates to the rights of transgender teens who are locally called kathoeys, loosely translated as "ladyboys."

The term, which does not have an exact counterpart in English, refers to people who are born physiologically male, but as one Thai saying goes, "have a female heart." Kathoeys include everyone from occasional cross dressing to those who have completed gender-reassignment surgery.

In 2008, a high school in a poor, rural region of Thailand surveyed its 2,600 student body and discovered that about 10 percent of students identified as transgender. One of the big issues that these students cited was their discomfort with using restrooms assigned for boys or girls; neither category fit them they felt.

In response, the school established a third bathroom. The image on the door depicts a human figure split vertically in half: one side wears a red skirt and the other side wears blue pants. Below this sign are the words, "Transvestite Toilet." The school director -- a quiet, unassuming man in his sixties, explained that this decision was taken because, "These students just want to be able to go to the restroom in peace without fear of being watched, laughed at or groped."

This director's attitude seems very much in line with the generally accepting, non-judgmental attitude I find in many aspects of Thai society. However, there are many more battles beyond the bathroom issue to address: the Thai teachers' college refuses to enroll kathoeys, for example.

In addition, there persists in Thailand a generally-accepted stereotype that kathoeys can only expect to excel in the workforce in the areas of the beauty or entertainment/sex industries. I've seen plenty of evidence in TV shows of these attitudes. When I imagine what it must be like for Thai children who might be exploring their gender and sexuality to watch these shows, Thailand feels no different than the U.S.

In Oakland's schools, rights for transgender teens seem to only arise in connection to bullying or violence. In elementary schools, some teachers and principals are making an effort to discuss gender stereotypes with children. Last spring, Redwood Heights Elementary boldly presented workshops on these issues.

For me, one of the reasons to travel is to see my own society and community through a different lens. Observing how some schools in Thailand are addressing the needs of their transgender students has made me think about our own schools and how much more we need to do to make all students feel safe and accepted.

Edutopia community: When do rights for transgender teens come up in your schools or districts? How do the school and community respond? Please share with us.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Bullying Prevention
  • Diversity

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