Transcription of the episode “Gender and sexually diverse students: Creating comfortable schools”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi. I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:16] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Our guest today is Dr. Elizabeth J. Meyer, associate professor, Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice and affiliate faculty, Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dr. Meyer’s research and writing focuses on issues related to gender and sexual diversity in K-12 schools. Welcome, Liz! 

[00:00:38]  Elizabeth M: Thanks so much for having me. 

[00:00:40] Jon M: You’ve studied the experiences of Title IX coordinators in school districts in California and Colorado and elsewhere. What do Title IX coordinators do in elementary and secondary schools? 

[00:00:52]  Elizabeth M: Title IX coordinators are tasked with implementing and upholding the federal law that prevents sex discrimination in public schools. And so every school district across the country is required to have somebody appointed in that role.

[00:01:06] Jon M: What are some of the obstacles these coordinators face? 

[00:01:11]  Elizabeth M: The challenges that Title IX coordinators face in K-12 schools are many. Oftentimes, this is something that is added on to an already large position, whether it be director of athletics or director of human resources or superintendent of the entire school district. Because somebody needs to have this title, it often just gets slapped onto somebody else’s administrative duties. And as a result, that means they already have a very large job, so they have minimal time to be able to dedicate to the prevention of and response to sex discrimination in schools. And then they often are under-prepared for the role. They aren’t necessarily educated about the issues of sex discrimination in schools, what it looks like, how to prevent them, how to educate their staff and school communities to be aware of it when it happens. And oftentimes they just deal with it in a very kind of reactive manner. If a complaint rolls in, then they pick up the phone and call the district lawyer and be like, “okay, I’ve got this thing. What do I do now?” As opposed to really having a thoughtful, proactive, systematic approach in place to thinking about “how is our school district working to reduce sex discrimination and inequalities on the basis of gender in our schools.”

[00:02:23] Amy H-L: And what about equity directors? What do they do and what are their challenges?

[00:02:28]  Elizabeth M: Well, my interviews with the Title IX coordinators led me to wonder, well, who else is going to be in the school district doing this work? Who else should be responsible for education and prevention around sex discrimination and gender diversity. And I kept coming back to this role that many school districts have, which is either equity director or senior diversity director. There’s all kinds of different titles, but they’re generally the person at the school district who is the primary party responsible for initiatives around educational equity and primarily around addressing racial inequality through disparities in discipline or educational outcomes, and many of them have expanded their role beyond racial and class-based disparities to include all kinds of issues of diversity, equity, and justice, whether it be religion, gender, sexuality, disability, those kinds of things. 

[00:03:22] Jon M: I’m just curious. I’m glad you mentioned class because so often it doesn’t get mentioned. What are some of the kinds of things that an equity director would do around class? Would it be whether schools are offering similar courses in low-income communities as in higher income communities, but how does class get dealt with? 

[00:03:42]  Elizabeth M: Most of the equity directors did not talk about work trying to restructure the systems in their school districts. They were primarily tasked with doing things related to professional learning of the staff in their school district. So oftentimes they were in charge of developing a diversity policy and educational curriculum, whether it be a series of workshops that they offered to teachers or a series of lessons around new policies, like a trans inclusive policy, for example, was one of our equity directors’ focuses. So they didn’t really mention class, quite honestly, even though it is often an issue when we’re talking about addressing educational disparities. For them, top of mind was race. For about half of them, gender and sexuality was listed and was part of their main priorities. But for half of them, gender and sexuality was not even mentioned. Most of them didn’t really talk much about disability or language or immigration either because there were other offices in their district that had funding that were tasked with special education, that were tasked with English language acquisition. So they really primarily focused on race. 

[00:04:51] Amy H-L: And I assume that means that there’s not a lot of focus on intersectionality.

[00:04:55]  Elizabeth M: That’s exactly right. And that was one of the frustrations that many of them articulated in our discussions, as we wanted to learn about their jobs, is they really felt limited with the amount of time that they had to interact with teachers and administrators around issues of equity and race in particular. And then, because that time was limited, they felt they had to really just cram it in and focus on one single element of diversity. And then maybe once they had conversations about race and anti-racism and whiteness and how that works, then they could maybe move into talking about homophobia or sexism and use the language of privilege and oppression and systemic inequalities to help people understand how that also played out for other marginalized groups in their school community. They had their own richly developed understandings of intersectionality, but they didn’t really feel like it was something they were able to enact or apply in the context of their job. 

[00:05:55] Jon M: I think you’ve said some of them, where they are interested in talking about sexuality, that they found that starting with conversations about race sometimes helped open up those other discussions, that it was easier to get into them once you’d been talking about race. 

[00:06:12]  Elizabeth M: Exactly, they felt that because, for many reasons, we’ve been having a longer public discourse about race and inequality in our country, especially schools and because their own expertise had usually been largely formulated around issues of race and racism and ethnic diversity in our society, that they had more facility and comfort and confidence in managing conversations around race. And then they use that as a springboard or a starting point to then open up possibilities, to think about how that might impact the understanding of how other marginalized groups, in particular, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer students might experience their school environments differently, but then they often didn’t pull them together because we know that there are as much racial diversity in the LGBTQ community and as much gender and sexual diversity within communities of color, but they often didn’t talk about them together.

[00:07:05] Amy H-L: Liz, you use the term “gender creative” in your writing a lot. What exactly is gender creative and why do you favor that term? 

[00:07:17]  Elizabeth M: Well, we came up with that term, gosh, over a decade ago when I was starting a project with some colleagues in Canada. And it was because it was a term that was introduced by a therapist in the Bay Area who worked with a lot of youth who were expressing their gender in sort of non-normative ways and didn’t necessarily clearly address a trans identity, but they were exploring their gender in ways that they didn’t yet have language for, but didn’t necessarily fit comfortably within the expectations for masculinity or femininity based on their sex assigned at birth. So Diane Ehrensaft has all kinds of interesting, wonderful, playful terms that she uses in her writing that comes from her clients, kids as young as four, and we just thought, because of the questions that we wanted to address in our work, that gender creative was a term that was full of possibility that didn’t sort of foreclose people’s identities and predict if they would become somebody who identified as transgender or might engage in some social or physiological transitional care. It just allowed especially if you’re working with young, young people, parents with young, young kids. It gave the space of possibility, and really positivity as opposed to non-normative or non-conforming. It celebrated the diverse identities and expressions of the kids and the families we wanted to work with. 

[00:08:38] Jon M: In one of your studies in Canadian schools, you were looking at how gender creative and transgender students were doing. What were some of your key findings?

[00:08:48]  Elizabeth M: Well, we weren’t as much focused on the students because we weren’t talking to the students themselves. We wanted to understand the experiences of the educators who worked with those students, particularly educators who worked to try to be affirming and supportive of those students. And we found some interesting things that the educators who worked in non traditional school environments, whether they be Montessori or an arts-based program or a more interdisciplinary justice kind of focus, they talked about their trans and gender creative students as being leaders, as thriving, as being active members of the school community. 

Whereas teachers who worked in more traditional kinds of large comprehensive high schools or typical neighborhood schools that had very strict boundaries between classes and grades and testing and things like that, they really talked about how hard it was to see their kids, their gender creative students struggle in those environments and not being able to be recognized or wear the clothes that they wanted, to use the bathrooms that they wanted to, and how that ongoing challenge really was painful to watch and left them feeling very limited in their ability to create a safe and supportive environment for that kid. And oftentimes those kids would transfer. They talked about losing those children in the middle of the school year, either because the families moved out of the region or they transferred to a different school that might be more affirming. So we found that pretty unexpected, at least from when we started the study.

[00:10:13] Jon M: So you were finding that the structure of the school itself was a key issue in how the school was able to relate to gender creative and transgender students?

[00:10:27]  Elizabeth M: Absolutely. Schools that had really rigid hierarchies, really traditional ways of evaluating and organizing subjects, were really normative spaces in a lot of ways. Whereas schools that allowed expansiveness, interdisciplinarity, arts-based inquiry, student-directed learning, right, they allowed so much more room for creativity and possibility. The youth in those spaces thrived for a whole host of reasons, but the trans and gender creative youth, I expect, thrived because they weren’t constantly reminded that they didn’t fit into the dominant structures of society.

[00:11:01] Amy H-L: You’ve said that schools are very gender policed spaces. Would you expand on that? 

[00:11:07]  Elizabeth M: Oh, absolutely. There’s so many ways that when bodies show up in schools, they are reminded that they’re either appropriately or inappropriately masculine or feminine, whether it be with dress codes. There are so many school district dress codes that are highly gendered. This is what girls can wear. This is what boys can wear. Or through rituals of prom and homecoming that are very heteronormative and expect people to wear formal wear that is very gendered as well as the ways in which we celebrate certain forms of masculinity as sort of the ideal, which is like hegemonic masculinity, the tough, strong, dominating kind of jock type or outspoken, which causes a lot of harm in schools because that means there’s not a lot of room and space for kids who want to, for example, be a boy who wears nail polish or be a girl with short hair who wants to be on the football team, right. There’s just not a lot of space for expression of gender beyond very narrowly defined masculinity and femininity.

[00:12:08] Jon M: You mentioned in one of your articles having the idea of having somebody go through a school with, for example, a six year old and having a six year old talk about whether they felt comfortable. Could you talk about that? That sounded fascinating. 

[00:12:23]  Elizabeth M: Yeah, I love the ways in which the school leaders really wanted it to work with this child because it was the first known transgender child in this school community. And they wanted to really find out what they could do to help make this school more affirming for the child. And so I want to say this caveat first. This is a problem. By waiting for the first transgender child to show up and then asking and finding out what’s wrong with your school is a problem, because then it puts the burden and the work on the shoulders of that child and their family. And it was at least a step in the right direction for that child and that family in that moment. But they did basically what they call the gender audit of the school. And they walked around with the child and said, tell me, do you feel comfy in the space or do you feel uncomfy? And it was just a really child-friendly way to go around and identify the places that were causing friction and discomfort in the life of that trans child, which then brings it to the attention of the school and being like, okay, these are structures that are causing barriers for our children, so how can we reorganize our school to reduce the uncomfy spaces? 

Because I talk about queer kids in a lot of my writing as canaries in the coal mine. They’re the ones who are going to be most sensitive to the toxic climates in our school, especially around gender and sexuality. And if we pay attention to where these canaries are being harmed, they can alert us to the toxic nature that is actually impacting all of us. We are all internalizing these negative gender stereotypes and these harmful sexualized norms. It just lands the hardest on the LGBTQ youth most usually. 

[00:13:59] Amy H-L: Sports are among the most gender policed spaces in our society and our schools. Most of the opposition to trans students is framed in terms of opposing girls and women, trans girls and women participating in sports and girls or women’s sports as being unfair. How do you respond to that? 

[00:14:20]  Elizabeth M: Well, I really get frustrated at these kinds of arguments because I really want to help people think about what sports are about in public schools. For the most part, sports are part of the extracurricular opportunities offered to every child in a public school. And for the most part, these extracurricular activities are recreational, they are educational, they’re for health and they’re for belonging. They create team unity and pride of place.. And there are so many benefits that happen from being able to participate in a school’s athletic team. And it’s very rare that the level of competition is so extreme that we have to worry about if somebody has an unfair physiological advantage or not. So that’s generally my big argument is that like 90% of the sports spaces in public schools, we’re not talking about extreme elite athletes having competitive advantages for state scholarships or college admission or NCAA trophies. 

However, if we want to get to that point in the argument, when we’re talking about elite performance and high levels of competition, we’re talking about a small subset of the population who have dedicated large portions of their life to training and preparation for these competitions. And at that point, there are lots of disadvantages and advantages that the athletes carry into those sports with them, whether it be coaching, access to training facilities, availability of time to practice. And so the potential physiological benefit that some trans girls might have should be washed out by the other benefits that other students also experience. We think about the Olympics and people like Michael Phelps that have these incredible physiological advantages because they have abnormalities. They’re extremely tall or they have extremely overdeveloped heart muscles, or some things like that, but we don’t discriminate against their ability to complete and be excellent, right. So why would we care about hormone levels? I think when we’re talking about elite sports, they work hard and they have an opportunity to be excellent. And I don’t think we should really be worried about trans girls taking away opportunities from other girls and women getting trophies and medals.

[00:16:29] Jon M: Are students generally more open to discussions of gender and sexual diversity than their teachers or parents? 

[00:16:37]  Elizabeth M: Oh, 1000%. The youth are so far ahead of us on this topic. And I keep getting stories of teachers and equity directors telling me that when they go and interact with the youth, they are learning because they’re learning new vocabularies, they’re being questioned about things that adults would never even consider. And so oftentimes when we’re talking about trying to. make spaces in schools more affirming and inclusive for gender and sexual diversity, it’s oftentimes let’s get the adults out of the way and let the youth make these spaces the way they want to envision them because they are ready for it. I mean, my 11 year old kid mostly uses gender neutral pronouns, they/them, to refer to his friends because he has a couple non-binary friends. And if he doesn’t know somebody’s gender pronouns, he just naturally defaults to they/them because he doesn’t want to mis-gender somebody. And he’s 11, and granted I’m his mother so he’s in a different kind of environment than many parents, but he’s also in an environment where his peers are okay with lots of gender identities and expressions, and it’s just easier to use the gender neutral they/them than risk mis-gendering somebody.

[00:17:46] Jon M: Texas Governor Greg Abbott is attempting to outlaw gender affirming health care for trans minors. What has the effect of this been on children, their families and health professionals?

[00:17:59]  Elizabeth M: It’s devastating. Although it is currently being challenged in court and the ACLU has been able to stop this initial investigation against the first family that was reported under this executive order, the symbolic nature of drafting this executive order sends an incredibly powerful and harmful message to many, many families with trans youth in the state of Texas. They’re actually looking to move out of the state. They’re scrambling to find access to the hormones or the hormone blockers that their child was normally being provided because they don’t want to show up at the medical provider’s office anymore, for fear of being reported and then investigated, and then having their child taken away from them and possibly then being placed in a family that’s not going to affirm their gender identity. It’s just terrible. And I’m grateful for the lawyers and the district attorneys in Texas who are trying to push back against this executive order. And I feel so deeply for the kids and families and the teachers and the caregivers who care about them, who are being immediately harmed by this act.

[00:19:04] Amy H-L: And then in Florida, we have Senate bill 1834, the parental rights in education. That’s the “don’t say gay” bill. And that prohibits teachers from talking about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels. It also gives parents the right to sue the school district for what they see as violations. Doesn’t that tear communities apart?

[00:19:29]  Elizabeth M: Absolutely. And unfortunately it’s not new law. We still actually have seven or eight states in the country that have what we call “no promo homo” laws, which prevent teachers from talking about LGBTQ people in any kind of positive or affirming way in the curriculum. So it’s not new unfortunately. Florida in the fifties, we had the whole scare against gay teachers in the classroom. But it was really disturbing that they’ve added this element of being able to individually sue teachers who might talk about this. So that means a gay- or lesbian-identified teacher in the classroom, if they have a fifth grade classroom and their kids ask them about their family or their partner or their kids, and they talk about it, that they could then somehow be sued privately by a child’s parents. I mean, the fact that we’re putting up public school teachers for civil complaints from private citizens just terrifies me because we already are having a hard time keeping quality educators in the classroom because of all the attacks that are coming at them and the struggles we’ve been through through COVID. And now we want to make it harder for them to do a great job because there’s a risk that they could be sued by an angry person. It’s bad enough you have to deal with the angry phone calls that are going to your principal that then lead to the uncomfortable conversation. But the fact that it could lead to a lawsuit, which then you need to get a lawyer and take away time from your teaching, it’s just unconscionable. 

[00:20:52] Jon M: Is this particular law a law at this point in Florida? I can imagine that even if it isn’t yet that it would have the same kind of effect that you’ve been talking about in Texas. Is it in effect at this point? 

[00:21:03]  Elizabeth M: No, it has not yet been passed, but the governor has signaled that he’s ready to sign it when it does. And it does appear to have the political support of the Florida legislature, which is why it is so disheartening. I think about the teachers and the students in Florida that are going to have to learn how to live under the realities of this law. And it reminds me of, there was a school district in Minnesota, Anoka Hennepin, Michelle Bachmann’s region, and they had a “don’t say gay” policy on their books. And they ended up having a very clearly documented suicide contagion by LGBTQ youth in their school district. The fear of talking about LGBTQ people kept teachers from saying anything positive, and then it resulted in the loss of several young people’s lives because of the hostile environment that was created. So this is something that’s not new, unfortunately, and we sadly know the harmful long-term impact it has on kids and educators. 

[00:22:00] Amy H-L: Are teacher ed and leadership ed programs preparing students for gender and sexual diversity leadership?

[00:22:10]  Elizabeth M: Not as a whole. There are definitely bright points. There are programs that have faculty who do this research and are able to integrate it into our coursework and convince our colleagues of its importance and then get them to integrate it into their coursework. So I’m very proud of the School of Education at CU Boulder, because we do, I think, do it much better than many. And there have been some systematic analysis of teacher ed textbooks of content and teacher ed syllabi and many of them show that it’s mostly ignored. And if it is mentioned, it’s usually mentioned maybe for one week in one class out of the entire, you know, program. So teachers and administrators are generally coming into the schools under prepared to really think in critical and nuanced ways about how gender and sexual diversity shows up every day in our classrooms and our schools and so they can be prepared to talk about it in healthy and affirming ways that we know are essential to the wellbeing of the youth.

[00:23:11] Jon M: You were talking before about gender creative students being the canary in the coal mine, or you’ve used the term of sacrificial lambs, because districts often don’t deal with gender and sexual diversity issues until there’s a crisis around a student. How can principals become more comfortable with being proactive before a crisis?

[00:23:32]  Elizabeth M: Well, they need to really realize that there are toxic structures that exist in the design of our current buildings and our curriculum, and that there are things that we can do right now to make sure that we are taking away the negative impacts as much as possible. There’s an amazing book by Melinda Mangin about transgender students in elementary schools, where she interviewed school administrators and talked about their affirming practices. So that would be a great place to start for school administrators to read and learn whether it be about how to integrate a gender inclusive washroom, or how to teach your teachers to not use gendered language like boys and girls all the time, or how to incorporate more books in your language arts curriculum or your social studies curriculum that talk about people’s lives and stories that are members of the LGBTQ community, as well as leading professional development opportunities for your staff that give them the opportunity to understand the language of gender and sexual diversity and how it shows up every day in our classrooms, our conversations in our school communities. But there are some amazing resources out there for administrators and Dr. Mangin’s book is the first one I would point them to. 

[00:24:42] Amy H-L: Liz, we recently had an interview about the many books that are being banned in schools, many of them dealing with LGBTQ issues. How does that impact these students? 

[00:24:55]  Elizabeth M: Well, it’s hugely impactful because it continues to send them the message that their lives are not appropriate and that they’re not allowed to exist in schools and school libraries. So this really concerted and organized effort to try to ban books, primarily books about racial justice and LGBTQ people’s lives is really, really damaging again in symbolic ways, as well as an immediate ways because it prevents youth from getting access to knowledge and information that is really lifesaving. And in addition to these book bans, we’ve been seeing this rise in what they’re calling curriculum transparency bills.

We actually have one that’s being debated in Colorado legislature right now. And these curriculum transparency bills are actually being advanced by the same guy, Christopher Rufo, who’s been advancing all these critical race theory critiques, and it comes out of this work from the Manhattan Institute. And so these are copy pasted from their proposed legislation and trying to make it seem like very neutral, like, oh, we just want curriculum transparency.

But what they’re asking to do is for the teachers to post a year’s worth of lesson plans and resources onlineSo watchdog groups can then go through it with a fine tooth comb and then try to prevent teachers from talking about issues that these certain groups find objectionable. So these curriculum transparency laws, I think, need to be seen as damaging and as part of this concerted attack, that is, you know, these book bans are also a part of, and that we just really need to continue to stay on our toes and advocating vociferously for the active inclusion of this content in public schools.

[00:26:28] Jon M: Is there anything that we haven’t asked you about that you’d like to talk about? 

[00:26:33]  Elizabeth M: Well, I just appreciate having the time to be able to elevate these topics in this national forum because they continue to be ignored and silenced often actively in education communities. And with these really growing attacks against trans youth and LGBTQ topics in schools and in fact, that is a life or death situation for many kids and the people who care about them. I just really hope your listeners will share this information, and ask, “why aren’t we talking about this in my school?”

[00:27:04] Jon M: And you mentioned a national forum. We actually are international in our audience, although mostly in the United States. What are you finding in other countries? Are there countries that are doing a better job?

[00:27:18]  Elizabeth M: Well, I do feel in many ways the Canadian context is more friendly simply because they have federal human rights protections that are more effectively upheld and they’re not blowing in the wind back and forth between various administrations, like we’ve had recently in our country.

And I do feel like our country is actually one of the better ones globally in terms of LGBTQ people, rights and recognitions, because we’ve been fairly well-organized and persistent and built on the hard, hard work of our ancestors from the twenties, the thirties, the forties, and the fifties who really fought hard to get to where we are today.

But yes, there’s still lessons to be learned from other places. And we have a lot to learn.

[00:28:05] Jon M: Thank you, Dr. Elizabeth J. Meyer, University of Colorado, Boulder. 

[00:28:09]  Elizabeth M: Thank you. 

[00:28:11] Amy H-L: And thank you listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with friends and colleagues, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show,. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs with a focus on ethics for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas .Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

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