The governor of South Carolina says parents should have been asked for permission before their middle school children were given a classroom assignment about a transgender teenager, according to an official letter from his office.
But advocates say educating young students about gender identity is critical to promote understanding and prevent bullying of transgender youth, who experience bullying and harassment in school settings at higher rates than their peers, according to the U.S. Transgender Survey.
The governor’s letter stemmed from an assignment at Camp Road Middle School, where students in at least one PE/health class were given an article called “I am Leo” to read.
The article, which was written by Leo Lipson and ran in Scholastic Choices magazine’s December 2019/January 2020 edition, talks about Lipson’s experience as a transgender 16-year-old, his transition and how other youth can be allies for trans people. Students were asked to read the article and answer questions about it in class, but they weren’t graded on the assignment, according to the Charleston County School District.
In a letter sent on Sept. 20, Gov. Henry McMaster said he heard complaints from “understandably upset” parents who felt they should have known about the material before it was given out.
“Parents know what is best for their children, and that includes whether, when, or how to address topics like those raised in the article,” said the letter addressed to the chairman of the district’s board of trustees. “If parents decide to introduce their children to the ideas discussed in this article, then it is in their sole discretion to do so, at the time (or age) and in the way they deem appropriate.”
McMaster also included a copy of a letter from a parent who described being “shocked” to learn about the assignment.
“Not only does it talk about taking hormone blockers and physically changing your body ... it encourages children to seek help and advice from social media and the internet!” says the letter from the parent, whose name is redacted. “It is completely dismantling family values!”
The article’s final page suggests that readers questioning their gender identity can visit the website for The Trevor Project, a national organization that helps connect LGBTQ youth with counselors and support networks.
Advocates for LGBTQ rights say that these types of materials are important to include in school curricula so that young people who may identify as LGBTQ feel supported.
“Transgender youth exist, and it’s critical that they receive the support and respect that they deserve both at school and in their communities,” Alexis Rangel, policy counsel for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement. “Censoring access to age-appropriate information about trans people can lead to dangerous mental health impacts, feelings of isolation, and bullying in schools.”
According to the U.S. Transgender Survey, the country’s largest survey of transgender people last taken in 2015, about 77% of students who were out or perceived as transgender between kindergarten and 12th grade said they experienced “some form of mistreatment,” such as harassment, being prohibited from dressing according to their gender identity or physical or sexual assault.
LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience depression and suicidal ideation than their peers, not because of their sexual orientation or gender identities, but because of how they are stigmatized in society, according to the Trevor Project.
Andrew Pruitt, a spokesman for the Charleston County School District, said in a statement that district officials had learned about the “I am Leo” assignment on Sept. 14 and soon determined that it violated the state’s “Comprehensive Health Education Act.”
The act states that parents must be notified and given the option to exempt their students of of instruction featuring “materials concerning reproductive health, family life, pregnancy prevention” as well as on sexually transmitted diseases.
Camp Road Middle School Principal Jaclyn Rowehl sent a letter to parents on Sept. 15 telling them that they will be able to opt out of having their children participate in similar assignments in the future.
“We want to be sure you know that if you choose for your child not to participate in the growth and development portion of the Health class, Parent Opt Out forms can be completed,” the letter says. “Parents can expect that opt-out forms are sent out before the material is covered in the course.”
For Rangel, of the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender youth need to have access to materials about other trans people so that they know they are not alone. An estimated 300,000 youth between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as transgender, according to a study by the University of California Los Angeles Williams Institute released in June.
“They need to have access to information, including stories that talk about what it’s like to be trans,” Rangel said in a statement. “Erasing or ignoring the existence of transgender people will never change the fact that we are here and just want to live our lives as our true selves.”
If you are struggling or thinking of harming yourself, you can reach out to a counselor with the Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning) young people. Text ‘START’ to 678-678 or call 1-866-488-7386.