When Bangor High School freshman Ven Newby was a sixth grader living in Arkansas, they told one person they’re nonbinary — meaning their gender identity is neither male nor female. Instead of expressing acceptance and support, the person outed Newby, who uses they/them pronouns, to the school and peers ridiculed them.
The school principal and guidance counselor became involved. They “contacted my family without any regard to if I was out to them yet,” said Newby, now 15.
“Fortunately, I was,” they said, though the experience left Newby feeling alienated and worried for others who could find themselves in the same situation but with an unsupportive family.
To prevent a similar situation in a Bangor school, Newby and former Bangor High student Landen Michaud, who is also nonbinary, are urging the city’s school committee to adopt a policy they believe would help LGBTQ students feel safe and respected.
Late last year, Michaud, 17, proposed that the school department distribute a written gender support plan to every student each year on the first day of school. A student could fill out the confidential document to list their name and pronouns. They could state whether they’ve come out to family and friends, and if there’s a way the school can support them with their gender transition or coming out. They could indicate whether they’re comfortable with teachers knowing they don’t identify with their assigned sex from birth, or whether they’re comfortable with some school staff, but not others, knowing.
Michaud based the written plan on similar ones public schools in Chicago and New York use.
They see it as a crucial support for a population of students who are at an elevated risk for anxiety, depression, suicide and dropping out of school compared with straight, cisgender peers. Researchers have found that students who can use their names and pronouns in school and other places experience fewer mental health problems, increasing their likelihood of wanting to remain in schools. Making a document such as the one Michaud and Newby are proposing a standard administrative protocol makes acceptance of LGBTQ students a part of school culture, those researchers said.
The Bangor School Department is receptive and could take steps this summer to incorporate the gender support plan into the set of documents available on its online database for students. That move would come on the heels of a new analysis that showed a sharp rise in recent years in the number of teens nationwide who are transgender.
Because it would allow students to say whether they’ve come out to their family, Michaud said the plan’s use could prevent a situation like the one Newby encountered in sixth grade.
That situation would be “one of the worst things that could happen because it could lead to abuse or getting kicked out” if a family isn’t accepting of a student’s identity, Michaud said.
The plan would also allow students to ask a guidance counselor to inform teachers of their name and pronouns. This can be especially helpful for students who are new to Bangor, Newby said.
“It can be daunting to meet a new teacher and have to tell them your preferred pronouns, because you don’t know how they’re going to react,” they said.
Michaud, who earned their GED this year, said they left Bangor High during their junior year in part because of “frequent bullying by students and hearing other students get deadnamed by some teachers.”
A deadname is the legal name someone used before they started using a name that better represents their gender identity.
Dana Carver-Bialer, the Bangor School Department’s diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging coordinator, said she finds value in Michaud’s proposal, though she noted the school department already has many of these policies and practices in place even without a written gender support plan document.
Under current policy, Bangor students approach Carver-Bialer, or they’re referred to her, if they want to start using a new name and pronouns in school, or want other support related to a gender transition. That meeting can range from an informal conversation to a more formal plan that results in changing the school database to include the name and pronouns the student uses and informing relevant staff of the change.
“It happens very organically,” she said. “After that, it’s rare for a student to get misgendered or deadnamed. And when that happens, it’s education. If it’s intentional or malicious, it’s a disciplinary issue, and we take that seriously.”
She recognizes that not every student has come out to their family for any number of reasons. Because of this, Carver-Bialer said she coordinates with students to make sure school staff doesn’t use a student’s name or pronouns that are unfamiliar to the parent– during a parent-teacher conference, for example — if a student isn’t comfortable with that.
“It’s a hard line to walk and it’s imperfect, but our staff try to get it right to do what’s best for our students,” Carver-Bialer said.
This summer, Carver-Bialer said she plans to review Michaud’s gender support plan and “adapt it to what would be the best fit for our student body” to fill gaps in Bangor’s existing policies.
Carver-Bialer said she likes the idea of creating another avenue for students to contact her if they don’t know how to, don’t feel comfortable going to her office or don’t know she exists.
Distributing the gender support plan document would help create a culture of acceptance for LGBTQ students, said Amanda Pollitt, an assistant professor of health sciences at Northern Arizona University, whose research has found that LGBTQ adolescents who can use their names at school or work experience fewer mental health problems.
“If you have to go to an administrator yourself, it can make students feel isolated and like they’re the only ones experiencing something,” Pollitt said. A gender support plan “signals to students that the school is supportive of who they are, and if students experience bullying, they know the school takes it seriously.”
“Just being affirmed for who you are is at the core of a person’s mental health,” said Stephen Russell, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. “For a young person who is coming to terms with their gender expression that might be different from what is typical or what’s expected of them, having their gender expression and identity affirmed is deeply important for their wellbeing.”
As part of a 2018 study, Russell and Pollitt interviewed 129 transgender adolescents ages 15-21 and found that those who could use their name at school, home, work and with friends were substantially less likely to experience severe depression and suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide than peers who couldn’t.
Some 45 percent of LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 across the U.S. have seriously considered suicide in the last year, according to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth. One in five transgender and nonbinary youth have attempted suicide, the group’s research has found.
LGBTQ youth who found their school to be accepting reported fewer suicide attempts, the group’s research has also found.
Beyond a student’s mental health, Russell said consistently using students’ names and pronouns makes “a huge difference on creating a positive climate where kids see themselves, feel supported, and are then more likely to want to be there and do well in school.”
Bullying and discrimination are lower in schools with policies and practices like Michaud’s gender support plan in place, Russell said, improving academic performance and creating a sense of belonging in school.
Russell said honoring students who want to use a different name doesn’t apply only to transgender and nonbinary students. Teachers and administrators have no problem using a student’s nickname, or a name international students adopt that English speakers can more easily pronounce.
“It’s a basic developmental affirmation thing, and we should support kids where they are for who they are,” he said.