Trans Students Should Be Treated With Dignity, Not Outed by Their Schools

Children and adults have a constitutional right not to have intimate facts about their lives disclosed without their consent.

Harper Seldin, He/Him, Staff Attorney, LGBTQ & HIV Project , ACLU

Trans youth are once again under attack in state legislatures across the country. This year, dozens of proposed bills would require schools to out trans students against their will, regardless of any harmful consequences at school or at home. These forced outing bills claim to protect parents’ rights, but they do no such thing. Instead, these bills endanger trans students, who have the right not to be outed and to be treated with dignity and respect at school.

Trans Students Have a Right Not to Be Outed Without Their Consent

People — children and adults — have a constitutional right not to have intimate facts about their lives disclosed without their consent. That includes their sexual orientation, HIV status, or whether they are transgender. Children do not give up their constitutional rights by enrolling in public school. Students also have rights under federal law to keep certain information private, and not to have that information revealed without their consent. But forced outing bills are designed to do exactly that: reveal private information about trans students, regardless of whether the student consents or whether they may suffer negative or harmful consequences at school or at home from that disclosure.

Not All Trans Youth Are Safe at Home

Many parents may hope their children will come to them first with questions about gender and sexuality. But not every child has that option. Youth who are transgender face a real risk of rejection by the adults who are supposed to care for them when they disclose their gender identity. Trans people are much more likely to be abused by their immediate family based on their gender identity, and high risks of abuse and family rejection mean trans youth are overrepresented in foster care homes, juvenile detention centers, and homeless shelters. These high rates of familial rejection and abuse dramatically increase the risks of suicidality, substance abuse, and depression. Not every child can be their true selves at home without risking their physical or emotional well-being.

School May Be the Only Place Where Trans Youth Can Be Themselves

In addition, many supportive parents may want their children to be able to safely explore their identity without being worried that information will be disclosed against their will, and to have a safe space to ask questions they may be uncomfortable asking at home. For trans youth, especially those who cannot be safe at home, school may be one of the few places to be themselves. Trans youth thrive when they are affirmed in their gender identity, which includes being called by a name and pronouns that reflect who they are. When trans youth are supported at home, they can become the happy, confident children their parents hoped they would be. As trans youth themselves report, living as their true selves transforms their lives for the better. Many schools across the country recognize that a supportive learning environment requires treating trans students with dignity and respect, including (at a minimum) calling them by the name and pronouns they want to use.

Forced Outing Endangers Trans Youth; It Does Not Protect Parental Rights

Forced outing bills are not about parents’ rights: they are designed to harm trans students. Parents have a fundamental right to raise their children, including making important choices like whether to homeschool or enroll in public school. And the ACLU vigorously defends parents’ rights to raise their children, including the rights of LGBTQ parents, and parents’ rights to seek necessary and life-saving care for their children.

But none of those fundamental parental rights are protected by forced outing bills. Parents do not have a constitutional right to be told whenever their child uses a name or pronoun that is not typically associated with the child’s assigned sex at birth. Lawmakers know that —that’s why some of these forced outing bills explicitly do not require parental notification when a student asks to be called by their middle name, or a shortened version of their first name. Instead, these bills require schools to notify parents if someone at school thinks a student might be trans, based on gender nonconformity or a request to use a different name or pronoun.

Forced outing bills are meant to harm trans students, and in the process, hurt everyone: Some of these bills require parental notification any time a student acts in a way that doesn’t fit the school’s view of how a boy or a girl should act or dress. These kinds of laws don’t strengthen families; they just hurt kids, and especially trans youth.