In this morning’s Hili dialogue I mentioned a NYT article recounting the case of a biological girl, 15, whose school had been facilitating her gender change by letting her use the boys’ bathroom as well as a male name and pronoun. The kicker was that the parents weren’t informed, and found out this only about by accident. They had a fit, but the school told them that they were simply obeying state regulations, which I guess is true. (The child hadn’t yet had any medical intervention.)
This raises a sticky ethical question: should schools do this (or even go further), or should they report it to parents? My own view was that I thought state regulations should be obeyed (and questioned), but NO medical intervention should be promoted by schools without telling the parents. That is the very least that must be done.
But in his article on his substack site “Singal-Minded” (good name!), Jesse Singal shows his usual thoughtfulness about transsexual issues, and raises a point I hadn’t thought of. And that is that a substantial number of children with gender dysphoria have psychological problems that need to be addressed at the very time when schools are “helping” a child transition. The child may be on the autism spectrum, or have a form of gender dysphoria that might resolve into homosexuality rather than full sexual transition, or simply be in mental distress and seeking gender/sex change as a possible cure. Because these issues are very common, they need to be addressed by professionals (i.e., therapists and doctors), for I think we all agree that therapy must precede any medical intervention that involves giving puberty blockers, hormones, or surgery to young people. (Once they’re over a certain age, say 18, I guess the teenager can make their own decision.) In general, then, Singal thinks that at some point the school has to tell the parents.
Click below to read his piece:
Now in some situations schools should NOT “rat a kid out” to their parents. Here are a few:
There are clearly some situations where school should be a safe haven for kids who are experimenting with different ideas or ways of expressing themselves, and where teachers should let them do so without the risk of parental interference. If a male student from a conservative religious household were, within the security of his school walls, dressing in a feminine manner, it would be quite inappropriate for a teacher to rat him out to his parents — for many of the same reasons it would be inappropriate for a student from a conservative religious household to be ratted out for reading Carl Sagan’s and Bertrand Russell’s arguments against Christianity in the school library. Minors do not have full autonomy, and adult supervision and/or permission are required in a host of different settings. But surely they should have some right to pursue their own path without their parents hovering over them every step of the way, even if reasonable people might differ on the specifics, and even if age clearly should be factored in (a 12-year-old and a 6-year-old are both minors, but no one would argue they should be granted exactly the same amount of autonomy).
But as Singal notes, changing one’s sexual identity is very different from examining abstract ideas:
But adopting a whole new identity, as a different gender under a different name, is a bigger deal than experimenting with fashion or atheism. For one thing, if a decision to socially transition that is kept from parents sticks, a young, developing person will then spend months, or maybe even years, living one identity at school and another among their family. That just can’t be psychologically healthy. It fosters distrust between students and parents, and it isn’t sustainable because the parents are inevitably going to find out (if schools think they can keep it a secret in the long term, that’s ridiculous).
For another thing, the teachers and school administrators participating in this agreement might lack certain basic information about the context surrounding the kid’s declaration that he or she is trans — information that could be vital for determining whether a swift social transition is appropriate.
And that basic information is psychological: what exactly is the kid going through. Is it confusion, homosexuality, or a form of mental illness that, they think, can be resolved with a gender or sex change? Singal cites the oft-cited World Professional Association of Transgender Healthcare’s (WPATH) Standards of Care, as well as the Cass Review of the Tavistock Clinic, which note that autism issues or other mental health problems very often accompany a kid’s desire to become transgender or transsexual. Both organizations recommend that healthcare professionals/therapists discuss these issues—and the benefits and risks of transitioning—with a gender dysphoric child.
Singal recommends that this also be done even for purely social transitioning:
In short, the decision even just to socially transition a kid like Jon is potentially fraught and complicated, and in some cases schools might not have all the background necessary to make an informed decision about whether it’s the right move. Jon’s school likely knew about hisautism, but what about his ADHD, his other mental health problems, his shifting identities, and pandemic travails? On what planet is a teacher or school counselor qualified — on the sole basis of a single child’s say-so and in the absence of a fuller picture of who that kid is and what they have experienced — to make this decision?
Finally, there’s one more issue to consider: gender identity and sexual identity are not the same thing, and schools don’t have the ability to separate them and treat children appropriately:
The difficulty here is that there is deep conceptual disagreement and confusion about the nature of the phenomenon. Is it like sexual orientation, or a mental health/medical issue, or a choice about membership in a subculture, etc? Schools vs parents cannot be resolved if there isn’t some agreement about how to conceive of what these kids are doing. And sadly the state of the discussion among those who should be figuring this stuff out is very poor.
. . .Setting aside the many philosophical problems with the concept of gender identity as the term is used at present, all these fuzzy definitions make the situation in schools rather complicated. If a kid doesn’t have diagnosable gender dysphoria that needs to be alleviated, why would a school take it upon themselves to facilitate a social transition, especially one that is kept a secret from their parents? If a kid does have diagnosable gender dysphoria that needs to be alleviated, they might be a good candidate for social transition, but in this case how can you hide from parents that their kid has a mental health condition — one correlated with various negative mental health outcomes? Plus, how can you make sure the kid gets the comprehensive assessment that should precede a decision to socially transition, including a formal diagnosis of GD, if their parentsdon’t even know they feel this way?
It appears that from many schools’ perspectives, the answer to all these questions is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. At this point, as Gorin notes, the way we talk about sex, gender, and gender identity is so confused that it’s hard even to know where to begin.
In much the same way the discourse over sex and gender is plagued by philosophical incoherence, it’s also plagued by the endless invocation of this comparison. Gender identity and sexual orientation are very different things, and they require different approaches. If coming out as gay required name and pronoun changes, and sometimes was the first step on a short path to permanent medical procedures for which the available evidence is lacking, and if experts believed that it was harder to reliably “diagnose” kids as gay if they had autism or other mental health problems or recent trauma or disruptions to their life… well, in this hypothetical universe, yes, you absolutely would need to loop parents into the process of a kid coming out as gay, at least as a general rule. But in the universe we actually inhabit, if a kid is gay, or thinks he’s gay, you don’t have to do anything. There’s no psychosocial intervention, so there’s no justification for notifying parents.
Being trans is different. Especially for younger kids, or even older ones with mental health and other problems that might lead them to be a bit developmentally stalled, coming out is a process that is going to require parents’ input and approval, at least if it’s going to go smoothly. That doesn’t mean parents should be automatically informed about a kid’s gender questions or statements as soon as they crop up — like I said, I can imagine lots of situations where some degree of discretion is warranted, and there’s obviously no reason for teachers to “report” students merely for gender nonconforming behavior.
It does mean we probably need to land somewhere between “Parents should be instantly notified whenever a young kid says they might be trans” and “Young minor kids get to unilaterally determine every aspect of their social transition, including whether their parents are informed at all.” But facile comparisons won’t help us work through these issues.
That seems sensible. I suppose where it’s okay for the school keep gender identity secret from parents might be in using new pronouns and names, but not with respect to other stuff like bathroom or locker room use. And ANYTHING beyond that has to involve the parents. For in all these cases therapy is going to have to be used at some point, and perhaps medical advice tendered as well. I don’t think anybody would disagree that when professional advice is needed, as it always must be, the desire of underage children to change their gender should be brought to the attention of their parents.
Or do you feel that there is no case when the school shouldn’t tell parents? If you have kids, you may be stricter about this than I or Singal are, for I understand the desire of parents to have a part in such an important decision. Leave your comments below.