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Elijah Thornburg looked out at a room filled with girls in white Polos and pleated skirts for the start of the 2014-2015 school year at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. Holding back tears, he announced for the first time that he would like his classmates to call him “Eli” and to refer to him with masculine pronouns. Thornburg was sixteen when he came out as transgender—a boy in an all-girls school.

“Seeing 66 of my classmates sitting there, looking at me and clapping and cheering for me for something that I had been scared to say for years, that was pretty extraordinary,” Thornburg said in an interview with HPR.

Thornburg is among an increasing number of students bringing transgender issues to the fore at single-sex schools, at the same time as those issues are receiving more attention nationally.  Much of the focus of the national LGBTQ+ dialogue has even turned toward the high school level as LGBTQ+ students start to come out at younger ages.

“The age of students coming out [is getting] lower and lower,” says Jenny Betz, former Director of Education and Youth Programs at the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network. “Part of it is absolutely because in our society, in the media, in the broader sort of cultural understanding, there is much more visibility for the LGBT community, and young people pick up on that.”

National awareness of the transgender community at large has surged in recent years with the growing prominence of transgender celebrities including Olympian and reality star Caitlyn Jenner and Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox. Improved LGBT demographic research has led to better estimates of the size of the American transgender population. UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute estimated in June 2016 that 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender, double the Institute’s previous estimate. In January of 2017, the Institute reported that 150,000 youth ages 13 to 17 in the United States identify as transgender.

Many advocates for transgender high school students were shaken in February when the Trump administration repealed Obama-era guidelines that maintained transgender students’ right to use the bathroom that matches their self-identified gender.

The Obama administration issued these guidelines in May of 2016, positioning the Justice Department in opposition to many state legislatures considering “bathroom bills.” North Carolina had become the first state to sign such legislation into law two months prior, requiring that individuals use public bathrooms that correspond with the gender listed on their birth certificates, not with the gender with which they identify. North Carolina repealed much of its controversial law in March, but the Trump administration’s move to withdraw protections for transgender high school students reverses the federal government’s position in a national debate that has roiled state and classroom politics.

Girls’ schools and the gender spectrum

Most girls’ high schools are private schools and are thus exempt from guidelines about public restrooms. Yet an examination of the growing dialogue about transgender issues on these campuses reveals the rapid acceleration in recent years of the national conversation.

The increasing presence of openly transgender students at girls’ schools has led those schools to begin evaluating how they should adapt their single-gender practices to accommodate students who don’t conform to traditional gender identities. Schools at the forefront of the dialogue about supporting transgender students must reconcile their mission of educating girls with their growing recognition of the gender spectrum.

“We’re looking at a cultural shift in how gender is considered,” Sandra Luna, head of Julia Morgan School for Girls in Oakland, Calif., told the HPR. “It’s so much bigger than a policy or a protocol or what you could put in a handbook.”

The heightening national debate about transgender issues presents unique challenges to girls’ high schools. Girls’ schools exclusively admit women and thus are premised on the concept of the gender binary, a system in which people are either classified as men or women with no fluidity between the two categories.

But defining a female student body has become more complex with increasing awareness of transgender students, who feel that their gender does not match their body’s sex. Not all girls were born with female bodies, and not all students with female bodies identify as girls. Recognition of gender as a spectrum, meaning that people can identify with genders along a continuum from male to female, has upended the most basic assumption about girls’ schools—that their student body consists of a single gender.

For these schools, examining issues facing transgender students begins with the question of who—or, more specifically, which gender identities—should make up the student body. This question of enrollment is two-pronged: how should girls’ schools define “girls” in their admissions policies, and how should schools handle a student’s decision to transition to a gender identity that is not female?

Policy changes

The enrollment debate at girls’ schools has followed on the heels of the decisions by many prominent women’s colleges, such as Mount Holyoke College in 2014 and Smith College in 2015, to open their doors to transgender women applicants. “It’s only happening now,” Luna said in 2015 of the dialogue on the secondary school level. “This is it.”

Luna says Julia Morgan School received its first application from a self-identified transgender girl in the fall of 2011. When Luna looked for information about the gender spectrum with respect to girls’ education, she found a gap in research. Julia Morgan’s admissions panel, which did not know that the girl was transgender, chose not to admit the applicant, but Luna says the application caused her to want to learn as much as possible about transgender issues. She assembled a think tank of educators, psychologists and attorneys in the fall of 2012 that launched a dialogue about gender non-conforming students in an all-girls setting.

The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools created its own task force in August 2014. Martha Perry, chairwoman of the taskforce and president of the NCGS board of trustees, told HPR that a growing number of member schools have faced questions about transgender students in the past couple years. The guidelines created by the NCGS taskforce provide general suggestions for schools and definitions of terms concerning the gender spectrum.

“NCGS encourages our schools to consider, at every point, the importance of working in a supportive way with students and families on a case-by-case basis during enrollment processes and as students question and/or define their identity within their school communities,” the most recent position statement from April 2016 states.  “Our schools are also committed to creating a safe and secure environment for all students and protecting each and every student from harassment, bullying, and negative behaviors, based on a student’s gender questioning or transgender identity.”

Perry says the taskforce recommended that schools consider applications “on a case-by-case basis” because it did not believe the NCGS should specify one approach for its member schools to follow. “Our reasoning behind that is very much that the student has to be at the center of all of the work and the focus of each issue,” says Perry, who is the principal of the all-girls St. Clement’s School in Toronto, Canada.

Perry adds that the diversity of NCGS member schools—including public, charter, private, religiously-affiliated, and boarding schools in 15 countries—makes requiring a single protocol impossible, given that all the schools must also comply with local and national laws.

Davey Shlasko, founder of Think Again Training and Consultation, a Vermont-based group that leads training about issues of social justice, told the HPR that women’s colleges have a more inclusive model than many girls’ secondary schools, even with the rise in discussion about transgender issues at the high school level. Shlasko, who spoke on an NCGS panel about transgender students in June 2015, believes girls’ schools should consider the application of any student who identifies as a girl. “To some extent, the saying ‘case-by-case basis’ can often just be an excuse for discrimination,” says Shlasko, who graduated from Smith in 2001, identifies as genderqueer, and uses the pronoun “they.”

Shlasko adds that starting the conversation about trans-inclusive policies is challenging with schools that do not understand the difference between gender identity and sex. GLAAD, an organization that works on LGBT acceptance in the media, defines gender identity as “one’s internal, deeply held sense of one’s gender” while defining sex as “the classification of people as male or female,” usually based on external anatomy at birth. Shlasko says that girls’ schools that conflate gender identity and sex are often less open to admitting transgender students because they insist that their students must have female anatomies. The vast majority of transgender students, however, have not undergone a physical transition, leaving them with a gender identity that does not match their anatomy. Shlasko says that policies that ask for “proof” of a transition to a female identity are uninformed and inappropriate because of their focus on genitalia.

“That is just not an okay way to make that determination,” Shlasko says. “It’s not an okay way at the college level, and it’s even less okay in the K-12 setting because it’s actually not therapeutically appropriate for most trans kids to change their bodies at all because they’re children and it’s not necessary.” According to Shlasko, students can transition socially without transitioning physically.

The student experience

Accommodating transgender students at girls’ schools extends beyond deciding whether to admit transgender students in the first place, because enrolled students’ gender identities may change during their time on campus. Students who no longer identify as female face questions about whether their community will support them if they come out.

Elijah Thornburg says that, when he arrived at Castilleja as a sixth-grade girl, there was no dialogue about gender expression and identity. Thornburg made his perilous personal journey to coming out as a transgender boy in an environment that was silent on transgender issues. “It felt like I was completely alone and that I felt like I was going crazy, that I was experiencing something that made me wrong,” Thornburg says. “I felt like it was inappropriate.”

Thornburg says that he struggled throughout eighth and ninth grade with his mental health and what he believes were physical symptoms of his gender dysphoria, such as dizziness and headaches. His despair drove him to self-harm. “I was in all measures very low, and I was scared,” Thornburg says. “I felt like I was nothing, and that was horrible. It was horrible not only for me, but for all of the people who loved me.” Toward the end of his freshman year, Thornburg entered a 72-hour lockdown in a psychiatric ward of a hospital under suicide watch. Thornburg says that he learned to accept his identity as a transgender boy during his recovery.

Yet Thornburg’s path to coming out did not end with self-acceptance. He says he worried that he would not be allowed to stay at Castilleja. When Thornburg met with Head of School Nanci Kauffman at the end of his sophomore year, Kauffman told him he was welcome to stay at the school. “That was really powerful and really exciting because I didn’t want to leave,” Thornburg says. “Yes, I am even known in my town now as ‘the boy that goes to Castilleja,’ but that’s okay with me, because Castilleja is my home.”

Thornburg graduated from Castilleja in 2016 and is now a freshman at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

In the absence of clear policies, transgender students at girls’ schools across the country face similar uncertainty about whether they will be allowed to stay in school. UCLA student Nyala Tringali-Carbado, 21, who identifies as genderqueer and uses the pronoun “they,” did not come out as transgender to the school administration during their time at Marlborough School for Girls in Los Angeles. During that time, Marlborough did not have policies in place concerning the enrollment of transgender students.

Though they came out to family and friends, Tringali-Carbado say they feared being asked to leave if they told the administration that they did not identify as a woman and did not want to be addressed as one. Tringali-Carbado says the emphasis on tradition at Marlborough—which was founded in 1889 and like many girls’ schools across the country has many long-held rituals—caused them to expect that the school would ask them to leave if they came out as transgender.

Tringali-Carbado met on multiple occasions with administrators in order to gain permission to wear pants rather than a skirt to the junior year ring ceremony—a ritual where seniors give juniors class rings—and became the first student in the school’s history to wear slacks rather than the customary long white dress to graduation. “For someone to come out as trans, that seemed way more significant and like they would have an even harsher position on that,” Tringali-Carbado said.

Marlborough School instituted its first transgender student enrollment policies in the fall of 2016. The school will consider the applications of all students who identify as female and will make decisions about the enrollment of current students who no longer identify as female based on the students’ grade levels—those in seventh to tenth grade will be assisted in transferring to new schools. Students who come out as transgender in eleventh grade will have their enrollment considered on a case-by-case basis while all senior students will be allowed to remain through graduation.

“Because we define ourselves by being girls, we now need to ask ourselves what that means by being a transgender girl because that’s an evolution of that definition that we were founded on 125 years ago,” Laura Hotchkiss, Assistant Head of School and member of the NCGS board, told the HPR in 2015.

Thornburg and Tringali-Carbado said that attending a girls’ school has advantages and drawbacks for transgender students’ self-esteem. They said that transgender students may benefit from the emphasis on empowerment in all-girls spaces. Yet being in an environment built on the assumption that all students are girls can lead to more dysphoria and self-doubt for transgender students. “Every day, it’s a little bit of a struggle of wanting to be here,” Thornburg said of his time at Castilleja. “I question it constantly … Even just walking across campus, I see hundreds of women, and I don’t necessarily fit in that group.”

Transgender students and advocates say that much work is left to be done at girls’ schools in order to support students who do not identify as female. Schools face questions about how to adapt many day-to-day aspects of school life, such as sports teams, school uniforms and restrooms, that have long been regulated based on the assumption of a gender binary rather than a gender spectrum.

Thornburg and Tringali-Carbado would like schools to offer gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms to students. Because they did not identify as female, they said they felt uncomfortable changing with their classmates who did.

Thornburg says that he hopes schools adapt their practices not just to accommodate transgender students who have come out but to support those who remain closeted. Thornburg thinks many girls’ school student bodies have transgender students. “Schools all around the country need to know that it’s possible that if you can’t think of anyone on your campus who doesn’t identify as cisgender, your campus is stifling them and you need to work on that,” Thornburg says.

Educating communities

Schools also face the challenge of educating their communities—from board members and teachers to students and parents—about the gender spectrum. Luna says she has found that the cornerstones for building support for transgender students are education and dialogue—importantly, dialogue that is open to disagreement. “You’re asking people to consider something that might be completely foreign to what they have experienced in their own lives,” Luna says. “You can’t force a cultural shift, so all you can do is be open to dialogue and discussion. Keep asking questions, and keep assuring that you have as much information at your fingertips that you possibly can have.”

Shlasko believes schools must work to address their communities’ concerns about students’ biological sex, which may prompt questions like, “What does this mean? Does that mean there will be a girl who has a penis?” “There’s some important work that needs to be done around helping people who make these policy decisions get over their anxiety about that,” Shlasko says. “Girls are girls because they say they are and because that’s the gender identity that they know themselves to be.”

Advocates and students say that, as girls’ schools add language about gender identity and expression to their anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies, they must also foster a community committed to transgender students beyond protocol. “Many parents may be really eager to have their transgirls go to girls’ schools because it seems safer,” Shlasko says. “What that says to me is, first of all, we need to make sure the schools are indeed safe. Just simply changing the policy or making an announcement or making an internal document is not enough.”

Image Credit: Flickr / Mike Gifford Copyright Non-Commercial 2.o

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly read “have” rather than “has” in the fifth paragraph, and “where” rather than “wear” in the 30th paragraph. These errors have since been corrected. We apologize to our readers for these mistakes.

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