Bathroom Laws and International Schools

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United States President from 2009-2017, Barak Obama, issued a statement last year reminding schools of their responsibility to protect the rights of all students, regardless of gender[1]. Specifically, his guidelines clarified the right of transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room consistent with their gender identity. The directive sparked controversial conversations around the nation, as some contend that people should be forced to use facilities that correspond with their sex assignment from birth. (A reminder that transgender people do not conform to the gender identity and/or expression that is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth). Earlier this week, current President Donald Trump, rescinded Obama’s recommendations[2], renewing debate on the rights of transgender students.

Legal issues
Under Title IX, schools accepting federal funds in the U.S. are legally obligated to comply with this nondiscrimination act, regardless of the political/moral values held by the district. International schools, however, even those following an American curriculum, are generally not bound by this mandate. So, where does that leave transgender students around the world before and after Trump’s actions? Most countries do not protect transgender rights, so policy decisions are left up to individual schools’ leadership teams, many of whom have not been in a position to address these concerns previously, and may not fully understand the issues. Some schools might choose to ignore the issue altogether, which essentially preserves the status quo of leaving their trans kids without protection and equal rights. (Gender Spectrum offers an excellent FAQ[3], as well as sample policies for schools’ reference[4].)

Cultural concerns
Outside of legal obligations, international schools have the unique distinction of managing a dazzling tangle of cultural influences. In many places, gender non-conformity is taboo, even forbidden. There are notable exceptions, such as the Hijra in India and Pakistan, or the Kratoy in Thailand. Still, it is not uncommon for transgender people to face hostility, even violence, for their gender expression. Many trans children do not have the support of their own family members. This can make it difficult for schools to offer appropriate protections, as they find themselves balancing local expectations for gender norms with the well-being of their students. As professional educators, many of us will encourage erring on the side of the child’s best interest, but that does not mean that doing so is without complication. Cultural sensitivity is a valid and important element of working in an international school community.

Transgender risks
Keep in mind that transgender children are among the most vulnerable in our care. From a mental health perspective, trans youth are more likely than their cisgender peers to experience depression, anxiety, and suicidality[5]. Indeed, in one study of transgender youth, nearly half of the participants reported that they have seriously considered taking their lives, and a quarter reported actual suicide attempts[6]. These results are consistent with other studies in the field. The good news is that protective factors and inclusive policies, like the right to choose which bathroom to use, can bear a significant impact on the educational experience of transgender children[7]. As international educators, we are in a powerful position to improve the well-being of trans students around the world.

Does your school offer protection for transgender students’ rights? If so, what was the process like to get to that point? If not yet, what do you think the next steps are? Who advocates for the gender non-conforming children at your school?

[1] Emma, C. (2015, May 12). Obama administration releases directive on transgender rights to school bathrooms. Politico.

[2] Peters, J. W., Becker, J., Davis, J. H. (2017, February 22). Trump Rescinds Rules on Bathroom for Transgender Students. The New York Times.

[3] Transgender students and school bathrooms: Frequently asked questions. (n.d.) Gender Spectrum.

[4] Sample district and statewide policies that provide protection for transgender students. (n.d.) Gender Spectrum.

[5] Institute of Medicine. (2011). The health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender peole: Building a foundation for better understanding. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[6] Grossman, A.H. & D’Augelli, A.R. (2007). Transgender youth and life-threatening behaviors. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 37(5), 527-537.

[7] The 2013 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. (2014). The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

About Emily Meadows

Emily Meadows is an alumni of international schools and has worked as a professional educator and counselor across the world, serving children and families in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. She holds master’s degrees in the fields of Counseling and Sexual Health, and is a PhD candidate researching inclusive policy and practice for LGBTQ+ students. Emily is a consultant on gender and sexual diversity and inclusion in international schools: www.emilymeadows.org
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One Response to Bathroom Laws and International Schools

  1. Pingback: The Invisible Knapsack of Privilege Part II: Heterosexual & Cisgender Privilege | Teaching Your Way Around the World

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