The Intersection

Race and Education | The Intersections Between Racism and Gender in Education Policy

February 18, 2021

Currently, there is no federal law stating that one cannot discriminate against someone on basis of their sex or gender identity. The Equality Act, federal legislation that would provide permanent protections for those who identify as LGBTQ, has recently been reintroduced to Congress. The panelists in this webinar provided tools and approaches for supporting students, regardless of race, gender expression, and gender identity. Carlos Velazquez, chief program officer of Boys’ Club New York moderated this discussion.

Impact by Response on Gender Identity

“For trans students and students figuring out their identity, getting dressed in the morning becomes a minefield, they are already unsafe before their first class.”

-Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, Deputy Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality

Cherrah Giles shared that it’s difficult for Indigenous people to figure out their true identity because they don’t see people who look like them on their education journey. The challenges students face during the COVID-19 pandemic and remote schooling are compounding factors of an already stressed system.

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen shared that educational institutions are carrying out research and analyses to support transgender children. For trans youth of color, navigating education can be a unique, challenging experience. Education systems are built around the assumption that every student has two supportive parents, but there are many students who do not have a strong support system and as a result, do not feel safe, even at home. Trans youth in general and in particular, those of color, do not always have familial support – families may say things like, “It is not our culture to be transgender.”

Sophia Arredondo shared how she was undocumented for a time and has navigated the education system with a queer son. She encourages schools to look at policies through an intersectional lens.  Schools should think about how they do equity work and strive to avoid compartmentalizing work for trans students or students of color. Looking at practice and professional development, schools should ensure that anti-racism includes LGBTQ issues and students with disabilities.

Breaking with Tradition

 “It should be through a multi-layer approach to consider all of the identities that are at play and not just the identities but the systemic oppression that impacts students’ lives.”

-Sophia Arredondo, Director of Education and Youth Programs, GLSEN

Heng-Lehtinen suggested that when looking at current policies where gender is referenced, dress codes are a good place to start. He suggested that there shouldn’t be a separation between dress codes for boys and girls. Dress codes are usually boxed in by gender and enforced in a radicalized way. Students of color are penalized for dress code violations more often than white students who commit the same infractions.

Arredondo added that clothes in general are a form of expression, which is especially important for young people working to develop their identity. It’s important to reflect and see if there is a positive reason why gender is being referenced in policies – if there isn’t, the policies should be dismissed.

There are additional school policies grounded in tradition that can be triggering for LGBTQ students of color. Sophia explained that some schools have different color graduation gowns for the two genders. However, many trans and non-binary students choose not to participate in graduation because they’d be forced to choose a color on the basis of their gender.

Lastly, traditional policies for proms and dances should be changed and made more inclusive, Sophia said. Students should have the opportunity to bring whoever they like to a dance, not necessarily the opposite gender. In addition, referring to students as “scholars” or “students” and not “boys and girls” can be a great change.

Creating a Safe Learning Environment

“If you are in a school district, develop an affirmative policy. Don’t think that because there are no ‘anti-trans policies’, you don’t need to.  We need to set affirmative policies that support transgender youth.”

-Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, Deputy Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality

Heng-Lehtinen shared that this is a complicated moment with a dual reality for principals, institutions, and stakeholders. Unfortunately, there are also some anti-transgender groups who are weaponizing youth. Some of these groups target children as young as elementary school and threatening our youngest learners.

Sophia talked about what can be done to improve the hostile environment that targets trans youth. Education leaders need to pass anti-discrimination policies and introduce protections, with implementation at the school level. If there is no existing policy, schools should ask for guidance in introducing policies. Every other year, GLESN completes a school climate survey, which helps inform inclusive education and anti-bullying policies. As schools teach Black History Month, schools should include history about LGBTQ students of color. In addition to the development of policies, educators need to be made of what the school is doing to create a better environment.

A Focus on Violence Toward Indigenous Women of Color

“They need to have their conversation in their own voice. We don’t want to sit back and say we know what is best. We may not.”

-Cherrah Giles, National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center

Indigenous people are now receiving more attention by elected officials. Elected officials that represent any of the 574 federally recognized tribes should work to carry conversations around race and inclusion forward. Because Tribal nations have different policies, rules, and elections, and some members live on the reservation whereas others live off, there can be a disconnect between nations and elected leaders. The new administration is putting people in office who are representative of those in the US, and this represents an opportunity to move forward.

In terms of children entering school, there is a lot of grassroots work to be done. Community leaders need to make sure that young people entering school have access to the information they need. An NIWRC has a resource center where young ambassadors are selected to lead and provide information to the community. In particular, the organization has recently focused on teen dating advice.

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