Jessica Bradshaw found out that her 15-year-old identified as transgender at school after she glimpsed a homework assignment with an unfamiliar name scrawled at the top.
When she asked about the name, the teenager acknowledged that, at his request, teachers and administrators at his high school in Southern California had for six months been letting him use the boy’s bathroom and calling him by male pronouns.
Mrs. Bradshaw was confused: Didn’t the school need her permission, or at least need to tell her?
It did not, a counselor later explained, because the student did not want his parents to know. District and state policies instructed the school to respect his wishes.
“There was never any word from anyone to let us know that on paper, and in the classroom, our daughter was our son,” Mrs. Bradshaw said.
The Bradshaws have been startled to find themselves at odds with the school over their right to know about, and weigh in on, such a major development in their child’s life — a dispute that illustrates how school districts, which have long been a battleground in cultural conflicts over gender and sexuality, are now facing wrenching new tensions over how to accommodate transgender children.
The Bradshaws accepted their teenager’s new gender identity, but not without trepidation, especially after he asked for hormones and surgery to remove his breasts. Doctors had previously diagnosed him as being on the autism spectrum, as well as with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, PTSD and anxiety. He had struggled with loneliness during the pandemic, and, to his parents, seemed not to know exactly who he was yet, because he had repeatedly changed his name and sexual orientation.
Given those complexities, Mrs. Bradshaw said she resented the fact that the school had made her feel like a bad parent for wondering whether educators had put her teenager, a minor, on a path the school wasn’t qualified to oversee.
“It felt like a parenting stab in the back from the school system,” she said. “It should have been a decision we made as a family.”
The student, now 16, told The New York Times that his school had provided him with a space to be himself that he otherwise lacked. He had tried to come out to his parents before, he said, but they didn’t take it seriously, which is why he asked his school for support.
“I wish schools didn’t have to hide it from parents or do it without parental permission, but it can be important,” he said. “Schools are just trying to do what’s best to keep students safe and comfortable. When you’re trans, you feel like you are in danger all the time. Even though my parents were accepting, I was still scared, and that’s why the school didn’t tell them.”
Although the number of young people who identify as transgender in the United States remains small, it has nearly doubled in recent years, and schools have come under pressure to address the needs of those young people amid a polarized political environment where both sides warn that one wrong step could result in irreparable harm.
The public school that Mrs. Bradshaw’s son attends is one of many throughout the country that allow students to socially transition — change their name, pronouns, or gender expression — without parental consent. Districts have said they want parents to be involved but must follow federal and, in some cases, state guidance meant to protect students from discrimination and violations of their privacy.
Schools have pointed to research that shows that inclusive policies benefit all students, which is why some education experts advise schools to use students’s preferred names and pronouns. Educators have also said they feel bound by their own morality to affirm students’ gender identities, especially in cases where students don’t feel safe coming out at home.
But dozens of parents whose children have socially transitioned at school told The Times they felt villainized by educators who seemed to think that they — not the parents — knew what was best for their children. They insisted that educators should not intervene without notifying parents unless there is evidence of physical abuse at home. Although some didn’t want their children to transition at all, others said they were open to it, but felt schools forced the process to move too quickly, and that they couldn’t raise concerns without being cut out completely or having their home labeled “unsafe.”
Many advocates for L.G.B.T.Q. youth counter that parents should stop scapegoating schools and instead ask themselves why they don’t believe their children. They said ensuring that schools provide enough support for transgender students is more crucial than ever, given the rise of legislation that blocks their access to bathrooms, sports and gender-affirming care.
These disputes are unfolding as Republicans rally around “parental rights,” a catchall term for the decisions parents get to make about their children’s upbringing. Conservative legal groups have filed a growing number of lawsuits against school districts, accusing them of failing to involve parents in their children’s education and mental health care. Critics say groups like these have long worked to delegitimize public education and eradicate the rights of transgender people.
But how schools should address gender identity cuts through the liberal and conservative divide. Parents of all political persuasions have found themselves unsettled by what schools know and don’t reveal.
Mrs. Bradshaw said she wouldn’t align herself with Republican lawmakers who sought to ban L.G.B.T.Q. rights, but she also felt as though her school’s policy left no room for nuance.
“It is almost impossible to have these discussions,” Mrs. Bradshaw said. “There is no forum for someone like me.”
Other self-described liberal parents said they registered as independents or voted for Republican candidates for the first time as a result of this issue. Although they haven’t sued, some have retained lawyers affiliated with the largest legal organization on the religious right to battle their children’s schools.
In November, Erica Anderson, a well-known clinical psychologist who has counseled hundreds of children over gender identity-related issues and is transgender herself, filed an amicus brief in a Maryland lawsuit in support of parents represented by a conservative law group. The parents have argued that their district’s policy violates their own decision-making authority.
Transitioning socially, Dr. Anderson wrote, “is a major and potentially life-altering decision that requires parental involvement, for many reasons.”
She told the Times that she had to push aside her qualms about working with conservative lawyers. “I don’t want to be erased as a transgender person, and I don’t want anyone’s prerogatives or identity to be taken away from them,” she said, “but on this one, I’m aligned with people who are willing to advocate for parents.”
The debate reflects how the interests of parents and those of their children do not always align, said Justin Driver, a Yale Law School professor who has written a book about constitutional conflict in public schools. “These cases underscore how those interests can diverge in spectacular ways, even about core issues of identity.”
‘Not All Children in This Area Have Safe Spaces at Home’
Guidelines on social transitioning vary widely among school districts. Some states, such as California, New Jersey, and Maryland, expressly advise schools not to disclose information about students’ gender identity without their permission, while others offer antidiscrimination guidance that is open to interpretation.
The Times interviewed more than 50 people, including parents and their children, public school officials and lawyers for both L.G.T.B.Q. and conservative advocacy groups. In cases where parents asked to remain anonymous to protect the privacy of their children, The Times made extensive efforts to corroborate their claims.
One mother in California shared messages that her teenager’s teacher had sent through the school’s web portal encouraging the student to obtain medical care, housing and legal advice without the parents’ knowledge.
A lawsuit filed against a school district in Wisconsin included a photo of a teacher’s flyer posted at school that stated: “If your parents aren’t accepting of your identity, I’m your mom now.”
At schools in states such as Michigan and New York, parents said that teachers had used a student’s new name in class but the old one with them, so that they wouldn’t be aware of the change.
But other states, such as Florida, Alabama and Virginia, have passed sweeping laws or issued guidance that prohibit schools from withholding information about gender identity from parents.
A recent national survey conducted by the advocacy group GLSEN found that harassment and hostile school environments for L.G.B.T.Q. youth directly harmed their mental health and academic performance, and that there had been a decrease in the availability of school resources for them. Some parents of transgender students said it’s a struggle to ensure a school will offer enough support.
Jeff Walker, a father in Alabama who was aware of his teenager’s transition, said he had learned through her mixed experiences at different schools how crucial it is for teachers to affirm transgender students, and even more so for those whose parents don’t want them to transition.
“Not all children in this area have safe spaces at home,” Mr. Walker said.
Some teachers have been penalized for notifying parents that their children changed names and pronouns at school. One father in Massachusetts, Stephen Foote, said he had only learned that his 11-year-old had done so after the child’s sixth-grade teacher, Bonnie Manchester, confided in him. Ms. Manchester was later fired, in part for disclosing “sensitive confidential information about a student’s expressed gender identity against the wishes of the student,” according to her termination letter.
Mr. Foote sued the school district, accusing it of violating his parental rights. A lawyer for the district said it disagreed with Mr. Foote’s version of events. Ms. Manchester said she didn’t regret her actions.
“I shined a light on something that was in the dark,” Ms. Manchester said. “I was willing to lose my job.”
Other teachers believe they have a moral responsibility to withhold such information.
“My job, which is a public service, is to protect kids,” said Olivia Garrison, a history teacher in Bakersfield, Calif., who is nonbinary, who has helped students socially transition at school without their parents’ knowledge. “Sometimes, they need protection from their own parents.”
One of Ms. Garrison’s former students is Clementine Morales, a 19-year-old who first came out as nonbinary at school because it felt impossible to do so at home.
“I had to look for parental figures in other people who were not my parents,” Mx. Morales said.
‘A Hard Thing to Navigate’
There is a network of internet support groups for “skeptical” parents of transgender children, some with thousands of registered members. Detractors have called the groups transphobic, because some want to ban gender-affirming care for minors, or have amplified the voices of people who call transgender advocates “groomers.”
But members say these groups are some of the only places to ask questions and air their concerns.
One Saturday morning shortly before Christmas, a meeting of one such support group was held in Westchester County, just north of New York City. Sitting in a circle in a member’s living room, 12 mothers and one father spoke of the ways they said they had been sidelined by their children’s schools.
One mother said her middle-schooler had secretly changed names and pronouns without her knowledge, even though she had worked as a teacher at the same school. Another mother shared how high school teachers had hidden her teenager’s social transition from her until graduation because they thought she wouldn’t be supportive enough. A mother of a 14-year-old who had spent time in an inpatient therapy facility said she had sent her school a letter from the student’s psychiatrist outlining concerns that the school had ignored.
Most said they identified as liberal, and that the living room was a rare safe space for them to voice their fears. Some parents didn’t think their teenagers were really transgender. Others thought it was too soon to know for certain. Most said their children had mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, or autism.
Here they could ask: What if their children had been unduly influenced by their classmates to ask for hormone treatments and surgery? What if teachers were encouraging students to see their families as unsafe? And were right-wing partisans their only sympathetic audience?
“It’s just been such a hard thing to navigate, because on the one hand, I’m dealing with my very extreme liberal values of individuality, freedom, expression, sexuality, wanting to support all of this stuff,” said a tearful mother. “At the same time, I’m afraid of medicalization. I’m afraid of long term health. I’m afraid of the fact that my child might change their mind.”
As other parents nodded in agreement, the lone father in the room said: “It’s politically weird to be a very liberal Democrat and find yourself shoved in bed with, like, the governor of Texas. Am I supposed to listen to Tucker Carlson?”
‘We Were Always Available’
Since 2020, at least 11 lawsuits alleging that these policies violate parental rights have been filed against school districts by parents who are represented by conservative legal groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization with a long history of backing cases targeting the rights of gay and transgender people.
Three parents, all self-described liberals, told The Times that support groups had connected them with a legal group affiliated with the Alliance, called the Child and Parental Rights Campaign, which was founded in 2019 with the mission of defending children and parents against “gender identity ideology,” according to its nonprofit disclosure forms. Its president has spoken at conferences about the “existential threat to our culture” posed by the “transgender movement.”
So far, however, the parents who have sued lean Republican, such as Wendell and Maria Perez, who filed a lawsuit in Florida against their child’s elementary school district with the assistance of the Child and Parental Rights Campaign. They claim that only after their child made two suicide attempts did the school tell them that an employee had been counseling their 12-year-old about “gender confusion” for months.
Earlier in the year, Mr. Perez said, the school had notified them that their child had fallen behind academically. So why was this different? “We were always available,” he said. “I don’t know why they decided to hide this from us.”
Mr. Perez said that although he was a Catholic who objected to his child transitioning on religious grounds, he respected the rights of families who disagreed with him because he believed it was up to parents to decide on such matters.
A district representative said it had investigated the matter and determined that the accusations in the lawsuit “are completely false.” In court filings, the district said it had never forced the sixth-grader to speak with a counselor or conceal the meetings from parents.
Courts have ruled that under the Fourteenth Amendment, parents get to make medical and mental health decisions for their children, as well as direct their education and upbringing in other ways, unless they are abusive or unfit. But lawyers for schools have countered that parental rights aren’t absolute. Under the Biden Administration, the Department of Education has said that discriminating against students based on gender identity violates federal policy, although its guidance doesn’t specifically address parental rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also argued that it’s unconstitutional for public schools to reveal a student’s gender identity to others. Angry parents can put their child in private school or home-school them, said an A.C.L.U. lawyer, Jon Davidson, who is co-counsel for a school district that was sued by parents in Wisconsin.
“Parents don’t have a constitutional right to dictate to schools how they should create an optimal learning environment for students,” he said.
This was the same point that Todd Gazda, who at the time was a Massachusetts superintendent, made during a tense school board meeting that took place before he and his district were sued by Mr. Foote, the father of the 11-year-old who said he had learned about his child’s new gender identity from a teacher, who was later fired.
“For many of our students, school is their only safe place,” Mr. Gazda said during that meeting, “and that safety evaporates when they leave the confines of our buildings.” Concerns over parental rights, he added, are in fact thinly veiled “intolerance and prejudice against L.G.B.T.Q. individuals.”
Judges have dismissed many of the lawsuits. In December, a federal judge threw out Mr. Foote’s case, writing that affirming a student’s gender identity was not necessarily a medical intervention or even evidence of social transition, but “simply accords the person the basic level of respect expected in a civil society generally.”
However, the judge acknowledged that “it is disconcerting” that school administrators might “actively hide information from parents about something of importance regarding their child.”
In January, Mr. Foote filed an appeal.
The son of Mrs. Bradshaw, the mother in Southern California, said he has empathy for parents who find it hard to accept that their children are transgender. But he also expressed frustration.
“When parents say they need time or patience it can feel kind of like an excuse for them to keep misgendering you,” he said. “It feels like they are grieving for someone who is not dead, and it makes you feel like you’re not good enough.”
His mother reiterated that she loves her child no matter his gender, but voiced her own frustrations.
“The school is telling me that I have to jump on the bandwagon and be completely supportive,” Mrs. Bradshaw said. “There is only so much and so far that I’m willing to go right now and I would hope that, as a parent, that would be my decision.”
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