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After New York City cleared the way for families to list their child’s gender as “X” instead of “M” or “F,” officials released statistics for the first time on how many families selected that designation for their child’s school records.
The numbers are small for now: Just 108 nonbinary, gender fluid, or gender expansive students used the “X” designation last school year out of more than a million children in the city’s public schools, including charters.
But advocates say the new statistics represent an important milestone, given the increase in reported gender nonconformity among young people, and as Republicans are ramping up attacks on schools’ support of LGBTQ students and gender diversity.
“The first step to making sure a school is meeting the needs of its student body is knowing who is in the student body,” said Allie Bohm, an attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union who focuses on LGBTQ issues. “It’s really important that they’re collecting these data.”
City and state officials have recently ramped up their efforts to make schools more welcoming for transgender, nonbinary, intersex, and gender expansive children — populations that often experience an outsized share of bullying, harassment, and mental health challenges.
Beginning last fall, city officials began allowing families to select the “X” designation on official school records in lieu of “female” or “male” — an option already available on city birth certificates. The state education department requires districts across New York to report the number of nonbinary students who are enrolled and now lists those statistics publicly. The federal education department is also beginning to collect similar data.
The number of city public school children who don’t identify as male or female may be an undercount, as changing a student’s gender on official paperwork generally requires parental consent and students may not be comfortable broaching the topic with their family. Some caregivers also may not know they can request a change to their child’s gender on official paperwork to the “X” marker.
In New York City, student- and school-facing records — such as transcripts, report cards, and attendance rosters — generally do not include a student’s gender. And education department policy requires teachers to call students by the names and pronouns they assert at school, even without explicit parental consent or changes to legal documents.
“New York City Public Schools is committed to providing a safe, equitable and affirming school environment for every student in our school building,” education department spokesperson Jenna Lyle wrote in a statement. “Affirming students’ gender identities is of paramount importance.”
School to school, experiences may vary
The degree to which a school is welcoming to LGBTQ students may also affect how comfortable families feel changing their students’ records. At Brooklyn Collaborative Studies in Cobble Hill, educators were not surprised that their school reported enrolling four nonbinary or gender expansive students — the most of any public school in the city.
“We do work really hard to have an open, welcoming, communicatory school space,” said Diana Roffman, a sixth grade English teacher and co-advisor of the school’s joint gender and sexuality alliance and Black Lives Matter club (known as the GSA BLM Collective).
Students and staff at the grades 6-12 school have access to all-gender bathrooms, the GSA BLM Collective has invited LGBTQ authors to speak with students, and teachers often help review each other’s lessons to make sure they are culturally responsive — including diversity in religious experiences, racial identities, and family structures. The school previously set up its own processes to track students’ preferred pronouns and names.
“Within our electronic gradebook there were notes so that students didn’t have to come out to like seven different teachers,” said Devon Shanley, a seventh grade English teacher and co-advisor of the GSA BLM Collective.
But even as city and state officials are making efforts to be more inclusive, students’ actual experiences may vary significantly from campus to campus — and gaps in policy can emerge.
When schools pivoted to remote instruction during the pandemic, for instance, some nonbinary students said their online learning platforms automatically displayed their names assigned at birth, often referred to as deadnames, and which may not match their gender identity. That led to anguish for those who already used chosen names in their daily interactions with their teachers and peers.
“For all the Zoom meetings, I see my dead name,” one city high school sophomore told the news organization THE CITY in 2020. “It’s distressing.”
Facing pressure from the city comptroller, the education department made it easier for families to alter their children’s school records with a chosen name — which can be displayed on report cards, attendance rosters, and other records — even if it differs from what appears on legal documents.
But schools do not always swiftly adhere to the policy.
Brooklyn mom Eliza Hittman said it took months for her child’s elementary school to process a name change request last year, with school officials using the student’s deadname in the meantime. The experience was emotionally fraught for her child, a rising fourth grader who identifies as gender diverse, and contributed to the family’s decision to transfer them to a different public school.
“Schools aren’t necessarily aware of the importance of things like a name change form and the level of distress it can cause a student who is transitioning to have a legal name called out,” Hittman said. “There are DOE guidelines that are clear but they’re not implemented unless you have families who are fighting for them.”
Bohm, the New York Civil Liberties Union attorney, said swiftly processing requests to change students’ names and genders is essential, noting that feelings of discrimination can affect school performance. Adapting to new policies and norms may require culture shifts at some schools, which can take time, Bohm added.
“I wish I could say guidance comes out or regulations come out and everything is great now,” she said. “There’s no silver bullet.”
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at email@example.com.