In the summer of 2012, the Massachusetts' Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted interpretive regulations for the school setting to comply with a new state law prohibiting gender identity discrimination. This well-intended action was designed to ensure that students "whose gender identity or gender expression is different from that traditionally associated with the assigned sex at birth" did not face obstacles to enjoying equal educational opportunities.
This uncontroversial goal respects the inherent dignity of all human persons: any bullying, ostracism, or violence directed towards children who experience gender confusion or gender non-conformity is tragic and must be corrected. These students are at risk for a range of physical and mental health issues that are at times related to discrimination, but they are also impacted by developmental and emotional issues similar to those that occur in the emergence of same-sex attractions. In any event, such additional artificial barriers to their educational growth and development should be addressed. However, it remains unclear whether the Massachusetts regulations actually accomplish their explicit intention of "creating a safe and supportive school environment."
In this first of a two-part essay series, I will examine whether the regulations in fact help gender-questioning children to flourish. A forthcoming essay will address the impact of the regulations on others in the school and community.
The very label "transgender" (or "gender nonconforming") presents several definitional problems. First, even when setting aside rare cases of biological anomalies at birth that result in indeterminate sexual features (the "intersex" condition), the meaning of terms such as "gender identity" has not reached a scientific and universal consensus in the professional literature. The surprising lack of consistency and stability tends to mirror that found in discussions of "sexual orientation" or "homophobia" in social sciences, law, and policy journals. However, bearing in mind the ideology behind much of this literature (for example, see the "Aims and Scope" of the International Journal of Transgenderism), such confusion over terminology is not unexpected. Unfortunately, in such publications any article that suggests such a lifestyle is disordered, that suggests other explanations for problems beyond victim discrimination, prejudice, or hiding one's "real" self would never be considered for publication, regardless of scientific merit.
Second, there is significant fluidity in the status of these labels by students who adopt or receive them. The Board regulation requires schools to train students and teachers that gender is assigned, not innate, and that children must "discover" their gender identity (consistent with gender or queer theory) as early as age four or five. The regulation places "the responsibility for determining a student's gender identity … with the student or, in the case of [younger] students, with the parent." However, Dr. Kenneth Zucker of the Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health contends that "the majority of children followed longitudinally appear to lose the diagnosis of [gender identity disorder] [by] late adolescence or young adulthood, and appear to have … a gender identity that matches their natal sex." Therefore, the regulation potentially introduces confusion into the thoughts of many children who have no reason to question their sex or gender. The high degree of risk that the regulation will conflict with the best interests of the child would seem to make it premature at best. Furthermore, the benefits of being encouraged to explore at young ages are highly questionable, even for those who show signs of suffering gender confusion. Research shows with increasing certitude that the human brain continues to develop and change through a person's early 20s, so that clarity about such issues as identity (whether gender, sexual, or vocational) is doubtful.
Third, research on the more complicated circumstance of intersex children, where anomalous physical characteristics hinder determination of a child's sex, underscores the potential tragedy of exploring "gender identity" at a tender age. Efforts to "reassign" sex to infants have not produced the anticipated nor desired results. Adolescents who were reassigned at birth predominantly identify with their genetic sex, in some cases even despite being unaware of the reassignment. This often leads to parental guilt for having authorized the surgery. This affliction holds true even for sex-change operations among adults who had presumably made this decision after much reflection. They believed that this operation would ameliorate their psychological difficulties, yet their emotional distress and relationship problems almost always persisted. Although these cases are admittedly more extreme, the psychological dynamic and emotional processes are similar enough to suggest that the Board should have exercised more caution.
In addition to the social science considerations, other questions regarding the purpose of the regulation have been raised. One contention concerns the extent (or even the existence) of the problem. Mary Hasson, fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., has asserted that the Board's policy "manufactures 'solutions' to an imaginary problem" and "offers no evidence that any [students] actually have been excluded from 'educational opportunities' such as chemistry, math, or English classes because of their gender identity." Still, even those who maintain the problem exists have not clearly explained how extant tutoring, anti-bullying rules, and disability accommodations fail to meet the gender-questioner's educational needs.
Finally, the peak of the regulation's imagined success might well produce its worst failures. Regulations that create an insulated utopia for transgenderism cannot extend beyond the schoolyard gates. Students who naively self-identify in the neighborhood, in cyberspace, or in the workplace, or whose status becomes known there, may experience a more challenging (or even hostile) treatment, possibly leading to fresh confusion, angst, and even bullying. Therefore, the Board's reckless encouragement of gender exploration may harm students who would flourish better with support for their genetic sex identity, including treatment, patience, and even prayer.
The Massachusetts regulations reflect the two-fold myth that a person's gender identity can be self-determined in their youth, and that the "social transition" into transgenderism (involving name or pronoun changes, etc.) is beneficial. Notwithstanding any temporary relief produced by the regulation (and this may not be uncommon), the tragic reality is that the failure to address the underlying psychological and emotional issues will result in wasted time and greater risk of long-term negative consequences.