In this guest feature, young researchers with our Youth Action Institute take a close look at New York City's school policies regarding queer and trans youth, and offer up their bold vision for the future of gender education.
Written by Youth Fellows of our Youth Action Institute.
A scorching summer brought a few more pieces of legislation to protect LGBTQIA+ people in New York, an important and much-needed step—but as young queer people, we know that there is a massive gap between legislation and how it is enacted, between policy and practice. And this week, as kids head back to school—with early wake-ups, new teachers, blank notebooks waiting to be filled—we have reviewed NYC public schools' Guidelines for Gender Inclusion, which are well-intentioned, but uneven in their strength, as with many policies intended to serve LGBTQ+ people.
We spent the last academic year taking a closer look at NYC school policies regarding queer and trans youth through text analysis and qualitative interviews. The word “should” is used in many of the guidelines concerning administrative actions, making them recommendations rather than mandates. This wording places the burden on queer and trans youth to make sure that others actually respect these policies. And, perhaps most importantly: students don’t know they exist, or even think to go looking for them.
Even when institutions make good, substantial changes to their policies, publicize these changes, and invest in training for staff, they will still face distrust and suspicion from queer and trans people. For us, the principle is simple: written policy does not stop people from acting on their cultural practice, and in the U.S., all of our cultural practice is queerphobic by default. No written policy will prevent us from being harmed in our daily lives; only a culture shift can do that.
What we wish all people understood is this: no one becomes queer or trans. We discover ourselves at different points in our lives. Our current cultural default dictates that this beautiful experience of self-discovery is a lonely, hidden process, one in which all ages are forced to figure out not only who we are by ourselves, but also how to articulate the difference between who we’ve been assumed to be and who we want the freedom to be. This default is cruel to all of us, but feels especially cruel towards our youngest community members. To place those expectations on first-graders, 8-year-olds, tweens is absurd—but that is what we as a culture do. Through schools, some of our most powerful cultural institutions, we build a world for children in which their own instinct towards self-exploration is ignored or put on ice until, suddenly, they acquire an entire lexicon for their identities at puberty. Then we are ready to talk about gender, attraction, models of love and connection—after these children have lived for years with a creeping sense that they don't quite fit the only story they've been told.
What would it mean to make New York City a genuine stronghold for a culture of affirmation and exploration? Could we start with our youngest community members—give them the space, the supports, the encouragement and affirmation they need to see something beautiful inside of themselves?
That New York would have an identity exploration curriculum that starts in kindergarten and frames gender as an ongoing dialogue between the self and the world, and talks about family structures as strong, flexible networks that grow and contract with time and need. That New York would start consent education at kindergarten. That New York would teach all children that they get to determine how others address them, and that they don’t have to be the same as someone to address them with respect.
In that New York, we all grow up with thoughtful, frequent discussions of how our bodies are read and interpreted—what it means to be BIPOC, disabled, fat, trans, othered. We all have networks of trusted adult mentors who are invested in our growth as people, as humans in community with other humans. In that New York, we go to Rainbow Club or GSA to watch She-Ra or do neighborhood beautification projects without having to reset after trauma or advocate for our basic human rights. In that New York, young queer and trans people get to be young; they get to be instead of fight.
Inclusion is the lowest bar. To take the familiar metaphor of a seat at the table—inclusion means a seat at the table, but it doesn’t mean we get served. It doesn’t mean we’re comfortable. It doesn’t mean we get to choose what to put on our plate. It doesn’t mean we ever get to feel full. Too many of the policies across the city concerning queer and trans people, and especially queer and trans youth, hold inclusion as the end goal: a couple chairs for the alphabet kids. Inclusion must be the starting point—metaphorically punching in to our shift to do the work of deep transformation in our culture. When that is our framework, LGBTQIA+ young people will actually get to experience the abundance that supports their growth and well-being.