Teachers and students grapple with fears and confusion about new laws restricting pronoun use

by Madison Thomas
Pronoun Usage Laws

Teachers and students find themselves grappling with apprehension and uncertainty due to new legislation imposing constraints on pronoun usage.

Caston Peters, an 18-year-old nonbinary high school senior in Indianapolis, had been using they/them or he/him pronouns at school for three years without any issues. However, early this school year, they returned home and informed their mother of a change in the situation.

Peters learned from a teacher that a new state law meant they couldn’t use those pronouns or the first name they’d been using for years without explicit parental permission. The reason cited was that these pronouns and names did not align with their assigned sex at birth.

This revelation came as a surprise to Caston’s mother, Kim Michaelis-Peters, who promptly emailed the teachers, a counselor, and the principal, requesting compliance with Caston’s wishes. Fortunately, the school staff complied. Nevertheless, Michaelis-Peters expressed deep concerns about the potential consequences of Indiana’s law for students whose parents may not be understanding if they discover their child’s transgender or nonbinary identity through school officials.

She remarked, “It makes me feel like there’s going to be a child out there who’s not going to feel safe at home to tell their parents, and the school’s going to rat them out for wanting to be called a different name or different pronouns.”

Indiana is just one of at least 10 states that have enacted laws restricting or prohibiting students from using pronouns or names that do not correspond to their assigned sex at birth. Opponents argue that such restrictions further marginalize transgender and nonbinary students. Most of these laws were passed this year and are part of a broader wave of new restrictions on transgender youth implemented by Republican-led states.

These measures have triggered fear among transgender students and confusion among teachers regarding how to comply while maintaining a welcoming classroom environment for all.

Cheryl Greene, senior director of the Welcoming Schools Program for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, expressed the challenge educators face, saying, “The things that are passing are so vague and so hard to understand that (teachers) don’t know what to do. It just creates this ambiguity and fear with educators because it’s not clear.”

Supporters of these laws argue that parents should have a say when children wish to use pronouns or names different from those assigned at birth. They frame it as a parental rights issue, along with efforts to regulate how gender identity is addressed in classrooms and library materials.

However, mental health experts and advocates argue that requiring parental consent or notification of pronouns can forcibly disclose a student’s transgender identity, increasing their vulnerability to bullying and abuse.

Similar restrictions have faced opposition in Virginia, where Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin introduced new model policies over the summer, including a requirement that minors must be referred to by the names and pronouns in their official records unless a parent approves otherwise.

Some teachers in various states are finding ways to work around these requirements or are defying the restrictions, as they are unwilling to put their students at risk. However, since these laws are being enacted in states with limited teacher job protection, few are willing to speak out publicly.

Jillian Spain, a social studies teacher in Yanceyville, North Carolina, has continued to address her students by the names and pronouns they prefer. She emphasized that outing a child, as these laws would do to transgender and nonbinary students, is not part of her job description.

Spain pointed out that the fear of being outed only adds to the challenges students already face, particularly after the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers’ groups have expressed concern that educators have received minimal guidance on how to comply with these new restrictions, including basic steps like obtaining parental permission for students who use pronouns or names not listed on their birth certificates.

In Indiana, as in other states, the specifics are left to individual school districts to determine. The state’s teachers’ union argues that Indiana’s new parental notification law, which also restricts instruction on human sexuality for students from pre-K through the third grade, addresses a problem that doesn’t exist.

Keith Gambill, President of the Indiana State Teachers Association, stated, “Teachers are worried that it will create confusion and additional administrative burdens in an already demanding educational environment.”

Kentucky’s new law states that teachers and school staff cannot be compelled to use a student’s pronouns if they do not “conform to the student’s biological sex.” This has caused confusion among educators and raised concerns among LGBTQ+ advocacy groups.

Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, Kentucky’s highest-profile LGBTQ+ advocacy group, emphasized that the mental health impact on trans students being willfully misgendered is severe and that supportive adults are crucial to their well-being.

Some school districts, like Jefferson County Schools in Kentucky, have struggled to comply with the new state law. After multiple attempts, the school board in Louisville adopted a policy that allows exceptions for students with gender dysphoria regarding bathroom accommodations and introduces potential consequences for teachers and staff who repeatedly misgender a student.

In Lexington, a group of parents and students has sued over Kentucky’s new law, alleging that a school office employee intentionally refused to use their child’s name and pronouns. The lawsuit seeks to declare the law unconstitutional.

Caston Peters in Indiana believes that this state’s law will negatively impact other students, saying, “School is supposed to be a safe spot for us where we can be ourselves without having to deal with being called out, without being bullied or name-called or anything like that. And I think for some of us being able to be called the name or pronouns that we prefer it’s something we need. And if we can’t get that at home then having it in another safe place like school — if that’s the only place we can get it — well now it’s being taken away from us.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Pronoun Usage Laws

What are the key points of contention surrounding state laws on pronoun usage in schools?

State laws restricting pronoun usage in schools have raised concerns about the rights of transgender and nonbinary students. These laws require students to use pronouns that match their sex assigned at birth or obtain parental permission to use different pronouns or names.

How do these laws impact transgender and nonbinary students?

These laws can potentially “out” transgender students, subjecting them to a higher risk of bullying and abuse. They also create confusion and fear among teachers who are unsure how to comply while maintaining an inclusive classroom environment.

Why do some argue in favor of these laws?

Supporters argue that parents should have a say in their child’s use of pronouns or names different from those assigned at birth, framing it as a parental rights issue.

How are teachers and school districts responding to these laws?

Some teachers are finding ways to work around the requirements or are defying the restrictions, while others are struggling to navigate the new regulations. Many educators feel they lack clear guidance on compliance.

What is the mental health impact on transgender students affected by these laws?

Being willfully misgendered by adults can have a disastrous effect on the mental health of transgender students. Supportive adults are crucial to their well-being, and these laws can undermine that support network.

Are there legal challenges to these laws?

Yes, some states have faced legal challenges to these laws. For example, a group of parents and students in Kentucky has sued over the state’s law, alleging that it’s unconstitutional.

What can be done to address the concerns raised by these laws?

Advocates for LGBTQ+ rights are working to raise awareness about the impact of these laws and push for more inclusive policies. They also emphasize the importance of providing teachers with clear guidance and support in complying with these regulations.

More about Pronoun Usage Laws

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ConcernedTeacher November 24, 2023 - 9:17 am

i agree, its vry sad that some people dont get how important this is, support is needed!

Reader123 November 24, 2023 - 12:15 pm

wowie, these laws seem sooo confusin’ n harmful 4 trans kids, its a real shame!

ParentAdvocate November 24, 2023 - 12:53 pm

im a parent n i support inclusivity, this shudnt b an issue, kids shud feel safe!

IndyResident November 25, 2023 - 12:07 am

im from indiana n im worried abt how these laws affect our students, we need 2 do better!


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