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Gender Identity, Pronouns, and the National Sex Education Standards

The subject of gender identity and pronouns can be complex. The questions outlined below and more need to be contemplated by school administrators when discussing how gender identity is approached in the classroom.

  • Does your school system or state have policies or laws in place for how to handle name and pronoun changes?

  • What if Jody, a student in the class, asks you to use “they” and “them” as pronouns? Should you use them?

  • Should you consult Jody's parents before making any decisions?

  • Are there different answers if Judy is a second grader or in middle school? What if the student's parents insist that a student's preferred name or pronouns are not to be used?

  • Is it wrong for a teacher or administrator to refuse to use them? What implications does the use of new names and pronouns have in the classroom? Can this be seen as “grooming” or teaching young children that they can choose to be a different gender if they want?

  • At what age is it suitable to talk about gender pronouns in the classroom? If a student is not “out” at home, should teachers use their preferred name or pronouns with parents?

  • What are the consequences for the teacher or school district if and when parents find out that they were not informed?

  • Additionally, what could be the potential consequences for the student if their wishes are violated by an educator speaking to the parents?

Gender Identity and Pronouns

When it comes to schools teaching gender identity in the classroom, there is not one answer to these questions. Educators need to look first and foremost to their state laws for guidance. If no clear direction is given, school boards may adopt their own district policies about when gender identity and alternative pronouns can be discussed in class and how they should be used. Back in the classroom, of course, educators must still figure out what pronouns to use for their students. In one case, a student may wish to be called by feminine pronouns such as she/hers that is different from their biological sex. Others will want to use non-binary pronouns (they, them, their), which can be more difficult for educators and their peers to understand.

Federal Regulations

On January 20, 2021, Executive Order No. 13988, titled “Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation" stated that "all persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation." On June 16, 2021, The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights issued a notice of interpretation explaining that it will enforce Title IX's prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex to include: (1) discrimination based on sexual orientation; and (2) discrimination based on gender identity. The Department's interpretation stemmed from the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, in which the Supreme Court held that the firing of two individuals (one on the basis of sexual orientation and one on the basis of gender identity) violated the prohibition of sex discrimination under Title VII. In other words, the Supreme Court held that the term “sex” includes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity." However, 20 states have sued to halt its enforcement. Lower courts across the country have issued potentially contradictory rulings and we await a Supreme Court ruling. Check out the Dear Educator Letter produced by the Department on June 23, 2021, in response to the battle against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2022, a set of proposed Title IX regulations were issued and included provisions applying the definition of “sex discrimination” to gender identity. Those regulations have not become finalized and the Department is currently summarizing and responding to the comments received. The resulting final regulations will include an effective date. The last comment period took the Department 15 months to prepare. Thus, the proposed regulations are unlikely to be finalized until 2023. Until the final regulations are released, the May 2020 regulations will remain in effect.

State Laws

Seven states now require LGBTQ topics to be included in curriculums, and the National Sex Education Standards name gender identity as one of seven essential topics. The federal government also recommends that schools include gender identity in their sex education programs. As the number of transgender students and gender nonbinary students rises, more teachers are embracing the topic in states without restrictive laws. Resources and lesson plans are becoming more available. Here are some Educator Guides and Resources for Teachers:

Other states have banned LGBTQ topics from the curriculum. The Washington Post reported a Florida law was passed in July 2022 that prohibited teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity before the third grade. In March 2022, similar laws were introduced in Ohio and Tennessee, but none have been enacted yet. Mississippi and Missouri both have laws/pending legislation that restricts what can/will be taught in sex education classes regarding homosexual activity.

South Dakota has passed legislation that prevents public colleges and universities from requiring students or staff to participate in any training on "divisive concepts". Meanwhile, Texas is attempting to initiate investigations into parents whose children undergo gender transition therapy.

Why Do Pronouns Matter?

Researchers have found that respect for others' sexual orientation and gender identity is beneficial to all, according to years of research. This improves the school environment for everyone, says Kathleen Ethier, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's division of adolescent and School Health. Understanding that gender identities go beyond traditional binary roles is essential in creating an inclusive learning environment. Research indicates that it helps students feel comfortable if they are able to express their preferences openly, shows respect for transgender students and staff, and can make a big difference for students or staff who feel vulnerable or scared.

Is mister a pronoun? What are feminine pronouns?

Perhaps some Training will help.

While Title IX regulations may not currently require teaching about gender identity, the number of gender fluid/non-conforming students is growing. Therefore, districts should be prepared to address this issue when it arises in classrooms. It is important to provide guidance to teachers on how best to handle these conversations and ensure a respectful learning environment for all students. Taking proactive steps now can help ensure that your district is well-equipped to handle issues of gender identity in the future. The proposed Title IX regulations suggest that schools should include gender identity and sexual orientation in their sex education curriculum. Learning about gender identity and pronouns can help create a more inclusive classroom environment and teach respect and empathy. If permitted in your state or district, discussing these topics at an age-appropriate level is a great way to start. On the contrary, many states have imposed restrictions on teaching gender identity in classrooms, especially those for kindergarten through grade 3. Here are a few suggestions for inclusive language that is gender neutral to get the conversation started with your staff:

  • say “good morning” or “good morning, everyone;”

  • use students’ preferred names (no more Mr. Jones or Miss Smith);

  • do not assign gender where it is unknown; and

  • do not segregate your class by gender by having them line up in boys and girls lines.

The Politics of Gender Identity

You are likely already aware of the political debates surrounding gender identity and schools teaching gender identity in schools. It is important to be considerate of parents' views on this sensitive issue. Before implementing a policy on this matter, districts should become familiar with their state laws and discuss them openly with their board, teachers, and staff. On the contrary, many states have imposed restrictions on teaching gender identity in classrooms, especially those for kindergarten through grade 3. In addition, there have been multiple cases of school board members being recalled or terminated from their positions due to their stances on gendered language and gender identity. It is therefore crucial to be up-to-date on the laws and regulations surrounding gender and sexual orientation education, to make sure it is being taught accurately and responsibly to your younger and high school students. New polling suggests that the vast majority of registered voters in both parties oppose transgender lessons in school and support parents’ rights to opt their kids out of any such classes. Many also oppose transgender “treatments” for kids. A majority of registered voters said that schools should not teach children that they can change their gender and that it is never appropriate. Requiring parental buy-in on the issues is also extremely popular. 80% of registered voters said that parents should be given advance notice and the choice to opt-out of their children from a gender curriculum (most Republicans (88%), independents (74%), and Democrats (71%)).

In conclusion, school districts need to be mindful and proactive when it comes to addressing gender identity in the classroom. Instead of leaving the answers to the questions posed in this blog up to each educator and each administrator to tackle, taking time to think through your district's policy on gender identity and pronouns will help create a consistent implementation. As always, McGrath Training Solutions provides Title IX training for schools and our blog posts will keep you updated on changes in the laws, regulations, and policies in this sensitive area. Our consulting services are also available to assist you in developing an age-appropriate plan for addressing these issues before they become problems.

Give us a call at 800.733.1638.


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