Isaac Barnett took a bold step last year: He told teachers and classmates at his Kansas high school that the student they had known as a girl wanted to be accepted as a boy.
His close childhood friend, who also identified as transgender, was ready to come out as well.
With the administration’s blessing, a segment featuring the two friends talking about their transitions aired in the school’s classrooms, alongside a basketball team promotion and a feature on the importance of the arts.
“I didn’t get any questions or hate or put-downs or anything like that,” said Barnett, now 18, adding that they called him Isaac immediately — a drama-free coming-out that would have been extraordinary in schools a decade ago.
Surveys show that schools in districts large and small, conservative and liberal, are working to help transitioning youth fit in without a fuss.
California this year became the first state with a law spelling out the transgender student rights in public schools, including the ability to use restrooms and to play on sports teams that match their expressed genders.
Another 13 states prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in schools. Dozens of districts, from Salt Lake City and Kansas City to Knoxville, Tennessee, and Decatur, Georgia, to Shorewood, Wisconsin, have adopted similar protections.
Parents are increasingly seeking a comfortable learning environment for their transgender children, according to Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund executive director Michael Silverman.
His group represented the parents of a transgender Colorado grade school girl who was prevented from using the girls’ restroom until state civil rights officials ruled in her favor last year.
There’s “a new generation of parents who grew up in the age of the gay rights movement and are saying, ‘We want to do what is best for our children,’” he said.
The trend is likely to accelerate with help from the federal government.
Last month, the U.S. Education Department alerted districts in a memo on sexual violence that it would investigate civil rights complaints from transgender students under Title IX, the 1972 law that bans gender discrimination at schools.
The guidance gives families new leverage to negotiate access to locker rooms, sports teams and other kinds of accommodations covered under California’s law, said Mark Blom, a National School Boards Association attorney.
He said the memo surprised him, because courts have said Title IX doesn’t provide protections for sexual orientation or gender identity.
“It’s going to create a real problem for school districts because the department has the right to go in and attempt to require the district under threat of losing federal funding to meet the standard the department articulates,” Blom said.
School officials in states without anti-discrimination provisions for transgender residents are also grappling with how to serve students whose needs conflict with traditional views about when and why boys and girls are separated.
The ACLU of Mississippi got involved last year when a high school senior wanted to dress in clothing to match his gender identity. The principal balked, saying the dress code required clothing to conform to his official birth gender, which is female.
The school board relented and stood by its decision, even after some parents and students complained, said Bear Atwood, then the state ACLU’s executive director.
“For a long time they would have told you we don’t have any trans kids here,” Atwood said. “But as more and more kids are coming out everywhere else in the country, that is true in Mississippi as well.
“There is this sense of, ‘We have to start figuring out how to deal with this,’” Atwood said.
Earlier in May, a Christian legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom, asked the Louisville, Kentucky, school board to overrule a high school principal who allowed a transgender freshman to start using the girls’ bathrooms.
The principal has since limited the student to using a specific girls’ restroom but said treating her like other female students adhered to the recent Title IX guidance.
“When the issue of gender identity was brought to my attention, I had to educate myself on the issue and what this means in terms of fair and just treatment of transgender people,” Atherton High School principal Thomas Aberli said.
Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jeremy Tedesco said schools should instead give transgender students the option of using staff or unisex facilities, as many do.
“The fact that we are in a position culturally where schools are just caving to these demands is very concerning,” he said.
Kim Pearson, training director of Trans Youth Family Allies, estimates that for every case that makes headlines there are dozens that are resolved quietly and easily.
Since she co-founded the support and advocacy group in 2007, Pearson has worked with parents and educators in half of the states. “If a school wants to get it, they will,” Pearson said.
The White House announced in May private-public funding — more than $17 million — to help turn around low-performing schools and narrow the achievement gap. Money will be used to hire arts and music teachers, bring teaching artists, art supplies and music instruments into schools and integrate the arts into other core subjects. “Turnaround artists” include Elton John, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Marc Anthony, Rashida Jones, Tim Robbins, Trombone Shorty, Forest Whitaker and Alfre Woodard.