COVID-19 Creates More Back-to-School Uncertainty for Trans and Nonbinary Students

Add possible infections, misgendering, and bullying to the concerns trans and nonbinary students may face while learning this fall.

[PHOTO: Young trans person]
Trans and nonbinary students who are returning for in-person classes face the risk of infection in addition to misgendering and bullying. Shutterstock

Ray, a 17-year-old in western South Dakota, just wants to be called by the correct name when they go back to school in September for their senior year of high school. They and their mother asked the school to make sure teachers are aware that Ray doesn’t go by their legal name, but they haven’t received a response.

“We don’t know how the school’s reacting,” Ray, who plans to change their legal name when they turn 18, said. “They’re very much sending us mixed signals, and, because of the pandemic, they’re all scrambled.”

September 8 will be Ray’s first day back at school since the start of the pandemic—and their first day at a new high school after transferring due to bullying and transphobia at their previous school.

They want to go back to school because their ADHD makes it easier for them to focus and learn in person. But they’re worried about the virus and a potentially unsupportive school environment.

“It’s quite a mixed situation for me,” Ray said. “They’re really more focused on the pandemic, which, yeah, that’s important, but you also have to keep in mind the mental health and safety of your students,” they added, noting that the school has just one gender nonspecific restroom that is restricted to teachers.

Ray and other trans and nonbinary students across the country spoke to Rewire.News about the barriers they face as they head back to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Their names, unless otherwise noted, have been changed to protect their identities. Already, students and teachers in some schools that resumed face-to-face instruction have tested positive for COVID-19. Trans and nonbinary students who are returning for in-person classes face the risk of infection in addition to misgendering and bullying. Students who request all-online instruction will be safer from the virus—but for some, that also means hiding who they are.

Ale, a senior at Yale University, had to choose between returning to campus and staying at home with their parents, to whom they’re not out as nonbinary. “It’s really one of the hardest decisions that I’ve had to make,” they said. “I don’t like navigating the health-care system, especially as a Black person.”

They had planned to resume their job as a resident adviser remotely off campus in New Haven, but then, Ale said, the university changed course—only allowing RAs to do their jobs remotely if they have an underlying medical condition.

“I reached out to the dean’s office, like doing this whole trauma outpouring,” Ale said. They begged the dean’s office to allow them to do their job remotely, but they said they were directed to the Office of LGBTQ Resources. “That’s all you’re going to give me?” Ale said of the experience. “It was just so evident that the dean’s office was putting their concerns over student safety and well-being. I know that everyone’s kind of like building the plane as we’re flying it [during the pandemic], but I think that the kind of intangible aspects of student well-being are slipping through the cracks right now in ways that providing housing stipends [or] more accommodations could have accounted for.”

Denver, a 15-year-old about to enter tenth grade at a North Carolina private school, said they’re stressed about heading back to school because of the virus—and because they aren’t out as nonbinary. At home, their parents are supportive and use gender-neutral pronouns for them, but at school they go by binary pronouns.

“I enjoy online learning a bit more, and I feel online there’s less of an expectation to present cisnormative,” they said. At home, “I’m able to present more androgynous than I would feel comfortable doing so at school.”

Denver’s sibling Riley is 12 and out as nonbinary, but they worry the school isn’t informing teachers of their pronouns or improving access to gender nonspecific restrooms because of its focus on safety preparations for the virus. “We are getting new teachers this year since a lot of them left last year,” Riley said, and some are planning to use formal titles for students, like ma’am or sir. “I am a little nervous about pronoun usage in class and what my formal title is going to be.”

At Central High School in South Dakota, AJ, a junior, is looking forward to no longer having to scratch out his legal name on his student ID card. Every time, “the teachers would always tell me that I had to go get a new ID, and so I would end up with a lot of fines for new IDs,” he said. His court hearing to have his legal name changed was scheduled for the first day of school, August 18.

“For the first day of school … my teachers are going to be seeing my legal name,” AJ, whose last name has been omitted to protect his privacy, said before school started. “Then they’ll be in the process of changing my name throughout the first week of school.”

The process will be tricky, AJ said, because it will overlap with major scheduling changes at the school due to the pandemic. Students were able to choose whether they wanted to learn in person or online. AJ will only go back to school for face-to-face instruction for band and choir and will be taking the rest of his classes entirely online. Though that might add to the confusion for the administration, AJ is looking forward to it. “The music department at my school is definitely known for being a lot more accepting,” he said. “So being able to go to school and being in only those spaces, instead of all my core classes too, will definitely be nice.”

For Ale, learning at home means struggling to both hide and celebrate who they are. When they use Zoom for class, they’ll often put their pronouns alongside their name. “But my parents sometimes use my Zoom account, and I’m always really paranoid that it’s going to save like that. … I’m just always so scared that I’ll leave something lying around that my parents could stumble upon.”

For now, until they’re no longer dependent on their parents to finish school, Ale is trying to validate themself in small ways. “I live for my very small moments of gender euphoria,” they said, like having their boss use their pronouns on a call or in a work email. “I’m still the person that I am, even if that looks a little different right now.”