Jennifer Surridge had gotten used to fighting on behalf of her daughter, and she was expecting another struggle when she met with school officials before sending her 11-year-old off to her first day of classes.
After all, the world could be an unwelcoming place for her transgender child, who, for the first time, would be attending classes openly as a girl, part of her ongoing social transition.
Jennifer told us that she came to the school prepared for a fight, and ready to raise issues on her daughter’s behalf.
But unlike many parents of transgender youth, she happened to luck out.
The administrators at her daughter's small-town school had proactively reached out to other educators who had worked with, taught, and supported transgender students in the past, and they used their experience as a guide. While Surridge doesn’t expect her daughter's experience to be without its bumps along the way, the journey began far better than she anticipated.
They told Jennifer that they were on board and wanted to support her daughter, J. They asked her questions including when she wanted her daughter to start using the girls’ locker room, and when J. wanted to start using her preferred name. It was an experience she described as wonderful.
We believe that parents like Jennifer Surridge shouldn't have to rely on luck or happenstance to assure that their transgender children are learning in safe, affirming, and inclusive schools.
We believe that parents of transgender youth shouldn't have to fight — or expect a fight — when they advocate that their children are treated with respect and kept safe while at school. We hope that all parents of transgender students will follow the lead of Jennifer Surridge, but the ultimate responsibility is with school personnel.
That’s why we at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation have joined with four other major advocacy and civil rights organizations to do something about it. Today, HRC, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Gender Spectrum, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Education Association, are jointly releasing a groundbreaking guide, Schools In Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools, that will help K-12 administrators, teachers, counselors, and parents provide safe and supportive schools for transgender youth.
Educators should have the tools they need to guide them through the process of supporting transgender students, and this first-of-its-kind blueprint covers topics ranging from basic concepts of gender and the importance of affirming gender identity, to best practices for restroom access and working with unsupportive parents.
It might surprise you that here at HRC more than half the calls we get through our Welcoming Schools program are from teachers and administrators asking for guidance on supporting transgender children. And while we applaud schools that are proactively working to support transgender students, we know from our work with educators as well as transgender youth and their families that experiences like Surridge’s are often exceptions to the rule.
Too frequently we hear stories of transgender youth facing family rejection, parents forced into court battles with schools, or transgender youth facing bullying and fighting just to use the bathroom. And even Surridge’s daughter J.’s transition wasn’t without obstacles.
One parent was very vocal and created a fuss, Surridge told us, but, in the end, the attention to the issue and support from so many others gave the mother an opportunity to speak out on behalf of her child and other families with transgender children.
We could not be more proud of the partnership that brought to life the Schools in Transition guide, which fills a gap in the field by providing a much-needed comprehensive approach to creating safe, supportive schools for transgender students. We believe it will be an invaluable resource for school administrators, counselors, teachers, and parents — all of whom are key to ensuring that transgender children can learn and thrive at school.
And not just by luck.
ELLEN KAHN is the director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Children, Youth & Families Program.