By: Chelsi Tsosie

The National Sex Education Standards name gender identity as an essential topic. Through sex education in schools, students should be able to understand the difference between gender identity and sex assigned at birth as an important part of gender expression. Much of the sex education standards on gender identity work towards changing the narrative of negative stereotypes, respecting gender identities of others, and explaining how gender identity can affect a person’s health and wellbeing.

Research shows that curriculums focusing on respect for sexual orientation and gender identity are effective not just for LGBTQ students, but all students. These kind of curriculums create safe and supportive school environments and even extend into student’s lives outside of school. With an increase in students identifying as trans or gender nonconforming, classes that address gender identity are more critical than ever.

When students understand and respect the diversity of gender, sexuality, and the associated struggles that other students might experience, they’re more likely to be supportive of each other. According to the Centers for Disease Control, research shows that LGBTQ+ students experience high rates of bulling, feel unsafe in schools, report hearing negative language, and often experience gender dysphoria.

Yet, in 2022, 149 bills were proposed in states throughout the country aiming to restrict expression of transgender and non-binary students. Even just one month into 2023, the Human Rights Campaign is tracking more than 210 bills moving through state legislatures that ban gender-affirming care and restrict school curriculum and discussions, trans student participation in school sports, and rights of identity and privacy in classrooms.

Specifically, in Arizona, the Senate Education Committee moved a bill forward that restricts “school employees from using pronouns and names that differ from a student’s biological sex and birth-name” without parental permission. Although students remain free to use preferred pronouns among each other, the bill only prevents school employees from using students’ preferred pronouns and names.

Arguments on the other side of the spectrum hide behind “mental-health concerns.” Senator John Kavanagh, who authored the Arizona bill, says parents need to know if their children are suffering psychologically with gender dysphoria. Yet, while acknowledging that there is no news of issues with teachers using the “wrong” pronouns, Kavanagh and supporters of similar legislation continue framing it from the parental perspective.

However, another issue arises from this argument. What about students who do not have adults in their lives that support their gender nonconforming identity? The reality is that most gender nonconforming students often don’t and seek support from teachers who take on that supportive role. And when teachers are prohibited from doing so, these students are further isolated from society and are likely to suffer more from devastating mental health issues. Specifically, being outed to unsupportive parents by requiring their permission to use a student’s gender affirming pronouns or nicknames through bills like Kavanagh’s are more likely to foster dangerous home situations.

Some states are working to address discrimination against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Fortunately, Governor Katie Hobbs’ Chief of Staff stated that the bill in Arizona would be “dead on arrival” if it made it to her desk. Thus, there may be some hope in changing these projections. In the recent State of the Union address, President Joe Biden called for the passage of the Equality Act. The Equality Act would expand federal civil rights laws to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Paving a path for the advancement of equal treatment, the Act would amend Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to extend to sexual orientation or gender identity. However, in almost one year since its introduction in the House of Representatives, the Equality Act has yet to be passed by the Senate. The impacts on our students are happening now. Effective education curriculums that include gender identity are necessary now more than ever in order to help our students and the future of our country.

Chelsi graduated from Northern Arizona University with a B.S. in Business Administration in Management and Marketing and a M.B.A from the University of New Mexico. She is currently a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. She plans to work within her legal interests centering around tribal economic development or tribal environmental issues.