Trans Students and Their Teachers Face a School Year Full of Terrifying New Laws

Anita Hatcher, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in the Florida Panhandle, worries what this school year will bring for her transgender students.

She’s not alone.

Trans students and their teachers in Florida, Alabama and Texas — three states where legislators and governors’ offices have been the most vocal in efforts to restrict trans youths’ access to bathrooms and gender-affirming care, on top of education restrictions and sports bans — are worried about what the new school year may bring.

“I’m most worried about the first time I take up a written test and someone’s name doesn’t match what’s on my roster,” said Hatcher, whose classes began August 10. She’s also worried about respecting her trans students’ names and identities — without outing them. “How can I call on a student, show them respect, be equitable, not out them, involve them in class discussion?”

Florida’s law restricting classroom discussion on gender and sexuality, nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” by advocates, went into effect in early July. It faces a lawsuit from Equality Florida backed by attorneys general from 16 states. While the bill’s explicit limitations apply to students through third grade, additional language in the bill mandates “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate” lessons, which advocates say could affect LGBTQ+ students in higher grade levels.

For Hatcher, the fear among teachers in Florida is palpable and is even pushing some educators to leave, exacerbating a teacher shortage. Her school follows guidance set by Leon County, and she’s worried that even policies meant to be inclusive will out her transgender students. If a trans child uses a locker room or restroom that matches their gender identity, which the school district stresses that students are allowed to do, then their peers’ parents may be warned in writing: “A student who is open about their gender identity may be in your child’s Physical Education class or extra/co-curricular activity.”

That note would not be sent if the family has sought privacy about their child’s identity and accepted other accommodations “that will provide privacy for all students.” The guide does not define what such accommodations would be offered. Hatcher said that there hasn’t been training provided to faculty or staff at her school on the guide.

“Not every child is out at home before they’re out at school,” said Hatcher, who was a plaintiff in Equality Florida’s initial Don’t Say Gay lawsuit. With some of her own students, she has known about their LGBTQ+ identity before their parents. The Leon County school district did not respond to a request for comment.

In Alabama, a bathroom bill that also went into effect July 1 prohibits public schools from allowing classroom discussion on sexual orientation or gender identity for kindergarteners up to fifth grade. A separate Alabama law requires school counselors and teachers to tell parents if their child comes out as trans or gender-nonconforming.

Harleigh Walker, a 15-year-old trans girl at Auburn High School, is starting tenth grade this year. She’s worried about her other transgender friends’ mental health and safety, especially those who aren’t out to their parents — and about what could happen if her friends accidentally say the wrong thing near a teacher or counselor.

“I just don’t want to see a whole bunch of these trans kids going through possibly being outed to their parents,” she said.

Walker started classes August 9. So far, she hasn’t seen any incidents around bathroom or locker room access and is feeling optimistic. But, she also expects her school and others to get more strict as the year progresses.

When asked what policies have been put in place in response to recent anti-trans laws, Auburn High School principal Shannon Pignato said in a statement that “educators are not required to initiate contact with parents,” but “if a student discloses information, open communication among stakeholders is considered a priority especially in matters of mental health and safety.” Pignato did not respond when asked what information or stakeholders she was referring to.

In Alabama and Florida, individual teachers are being tasked with finding where to draw the line in response to new state laws as their school districts update policies and grapple with what those laws mean in practice.

A 13-year-old nonbinary transmasculine student in Birmingham, Alabama, who asked to be anonymous because he’s afraid that speaking publicly would make current bullying worse, said that his physical education teacher is not letting any students use the locker rooms during class right now — because he wants to use the boys’ locker rooms.

“It’s just really stupid and they’re making a giant deal out of it,” he said, adding that the situation has made him feel singled out by a teacher who has otherwise been supportive and who has tried to use his correct name and pronouns. The decision was explained to him privately during their second PE class, he said. When he went to see his counselor to address the issue, she explained that the school, which is privately run, planned to have further discussions on what to do.

Joseph Rawlins, who teaches special education at Atlantic Coast High School, a public school in Jacksonville, Florida, also oversees the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance. The GSA meets regularly virtually on Microsoft Teams and in-person twice a month — with its first meeting this year scheduled for Thursday.

Under the state’s new laws, Rawlins has to figure out how to affirm and protect trans students in his classroom — as well as within a club that is meant to give LGBTQ+ students a place to be themselves and to freely talk about their identities.

“What’s the point of a GSA if I can’t make it a safe space?” he said. It’s difficult to know what is and isn’t safe to share for students who don’t want to be out to their families or to the rest of the school — including their name and pronouns. It’s also unclear when teachers are obligated to call home to report a student, although his district in Duval County has finalized new rules in its student support guide.

In a draft version of the Duval County school rules released in May and reviewed by The 19th, student ID cards can be updated to reflect a student’s name that affirms their gender identity — after the parent has been notified. The same rule applies to class rosters, yearbooks, and school newspapers. Atlantic Coast’s principal declined to comment on the school’s policies over email.

The line that must be crossed to alert a student’s family, in Rawlins’ mind, is if a student asks for a roster change or for their yearbook to be updated with their preferred name — anything that has a digital or paper record. Figuring out the rules of engagement is even harder considering the law went into effect only a month ago, but Rawlins said he feels supported by his school and the district in trying to untangle the mess.

Now, when students send emails to teachers before classes start explaining their name and pronouns — and when that name doesn’t match the legal name on the class roster — they’re potentially incriminating themselves, Rawlins said. Before classes began August 15, one student sent an email to eight teachers alerting them to his name and pronouns — and made it clear that his family does not support addressing him that way, Rawlins said.

“Well, now what do we do? Because a kid has sent through a public school email system, now it’s a matter of public record that they want to go by these pronouns, they want to use this name. But they don’t want parents to find out,” he said.

Those scenarios are prompting teachers like Rawlins to ask their students if they are sure that they want to follow through with what they’re asking for — to be acknowledged and affirmed in their gender identity — and if they understand what Florida’s law says.

“It’s just tough,” he said. “For some of them, it’s fine, because they’ve got supportive families. For those kids, things are actually going pretty well this year. … But for those who don’t have a supportive household, it’s tough right now.”

In Texas, the legislative body is out of session after introducing more than 40 bills targeting transgender youth last year, out of which only one passed into law. And at the local level, efforts to restrict education are making headway. A school district in Grapevine, Texas, recently voted to require students to use bathrooms dictated by their sex assigned at birth and to encourage teachers to ignore students’ requests on using their current pronouns, the Texas Tribune reports.

For one 16-year-old trans girl with a supportive family who’s starting her junior year in Austin’s Independent School District, this year marks feeling more confident — in her sense of style, in having more friends and being more able to express herself after transitioning during pandemic school shutdowns. She asked to be anonymous due to Texas’ attempts to criminalize families that obtain gender-affirming care for trans minors.

She feels safe at her school largely due to supportive teachers and friends — and because not many of the people she knows at school know or care that she is transgender. This year, teachers asked students to fill out a Google doc with their pronouns and preferred name — and if those are the same at home and at school. That helped her feel at ease.

“I am worried about other kids who aren’t as well off or as privileged as me,” she said. “If there’s a kid and they’re trans, but they’re not out to their parents or they haven’t had that gender marker change or the name change … it’s hard to go through school while also being validated and just respected.”

Jason Stanford, spokesperson for the Austin school district, said that the district aims to be welcoming for LGBTQ+ and trans students, who should be able to use bathrooms according to their gender identity, or single-stall facilities if that student is worried about bullying.

“If I have to choose between an angry parent and making a kid feel safe, me and everyone I work with is going to make the same choice,” he said. “I think too often in these discussions, we center the emotional security of adults at the expense of children.”