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School policies could have major health implications for transgender kids, experts say

A report found that about a third of transgender youth between the ages of 13 through 17 are at risk of losing access to care that helps them transition.
A report found that about a third of transgender youth between the ages of 13 through 17 are at risk of losing access to care that helps them transition.

Virginia came under a national spotlight this week as kids marched out of schools across the state, protesting a proposed change in how transgender youth are treated in public schools.

Experts say the proposed policy shift could have health implications.

Using survey data, experts like senior scholar of public policy at UCLA Jody Herman, estimate that 1.2% of Virginia high school-age students, about 6,200 kids, are transgender.

“We also found that nationally youth ages 13-17 and even young adults make up a higher proportion of the trans population,” said Herman in an interview this week.

That means the trans population overall skews younger. Herman says if that shift continues it’s clear…

“The next generation of trans youth is coming,” she says. “And the institutions, schools, government, (they) need to be ready to meet their needs.”

Supporting their needs means supporting mental health. Russ Toomey, professor of family studies at the University of Arizona, says it’s a life or death issue. In one study he and colleagues found that 30 to 50% of transgender adolescents had attempted suicide in their lifetime.

“Compared to about 10-15% of cisgendered adolescents in that same study,” says Toomey.

The good news is that research also shows we can help. For instance, using a kids’ chosen name and pronouns is shown to reduce suicidal thoughts by 60%.

It also helps to let kids use the bathroom without stigma, and participate in sports of their choosing. Suicidal thoughts aren’t the only health issues at stake. For instance, trans kids are also more likely to get urinary tract infections when they’re denied access to a bathroom that corresponds with their identity.

Toomey says school policies that promote caring and respect for trans kids, are actually shown to help all students.

“When the most marginalized are feeling (connection) within the school context, all students are likely to feel that connection,” Toomey says. “And connection is one of the strongest predictors of any health or well being outcome that we have.”

The draft policies Virginia’s administration is currently proposing would require a note of parental approval before a student can change their name or pronouns they go by at school. The policies also wouldn’t allow a student to participate in the gendered sports of their choice or use the gendered facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice, without a legal change of sex. They also state that school divisions can’t force teachers or other students to “refer to students in any manner that would violate their constitutionally protected rights.”

The state is currently accepting public comment on the policies, but in an interview on Fox News this week Governor Glenn Youngkin said he would not be changing the policies based on student protests.

“The children don’t belong to the state,” Youngkin said. “They belong to families.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief.