The Smile is the Same, but the Face is Different...Working With Transgender Students

It is the end of the day and I am working on sorting diplomas for graduation when a staff member tells me there is a student in the hallway to see me.  As I arrive in the hall, I almost did not recognize my former student.  The eyes and the smile were familiar, but the face and body had changed.  As I approach the student,  I instantly remember who this person is smiling at me.  As we chat, many staff members walk by us without acknowledging the student. At that point, I am waiting for someone to say something to the student because this person was a tremendous leader in our school. Well, no one ever said a word which made us both a little uncomfortable.  Finally, the two of us look at each other and start laughing hysterically (which broke the tension).  "No one ever recognizes me any more at this school", said the student. "Well, you do look a lot different from when you were here as a student." The student asked, "Since I look so different, how did you know it was me?"  I looked at the student and said, "You can never change your eyes and that great smile."

This was the first time I had seen this student in several years so I had no idea about the gender transition. In high school, the student was openly gay, but decided to have reassignment surgery after going to college.  Truthfully, it was difficult for me not think of this student as the person who was in my peer helper program, but I knew it was important to acknowledge the new identity.  Having seen my student made me realize that many school counselors and staff do not have the appropriate knowledge of how to work with transgender students in the high school setting.  Whether we agree or disagree with transgender identity, it is important that we, as professional school counselors,  provide the needed advocacy and support for all students.

Below is a list of important information for working with transgender youth as a school counselor.  In addition, I have provided some resources from GLSEN, Safe School Coalition, SAMSHA, Lambda Legal, the Trevor Project, and the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.

Important Information for School Counselors When Working With Trans Students

ASCA Position Statement
Be familiar with the ASCA position statement on working with the LGBTQ youth.  
Be familiar with the transgender terminology. Lambda Legal provides appropriate definitions for school professionals.
          Transgender-umbrella term used to describe people whose              gender identity differs from the sex assigned at birth.
          Gender-nonconforming-people whose gender expression,
          outward appearance or behavior, differs from the     
          expectations expected with the sex assigned to them at birth.

Mental Health
Be aware that students who experience incongruity between their internal sense of self and their outward identity may experience depression and severe emotional distress.

Stereotypes and Assumptions
Avoid assumptions about transgender youths' sexual orientation.  According to Lambda Legal, sexual orientation and gender identity. Transgender students may identify as gay, lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, or something else.

 Assist students in finding mentors and healthy role models.


Be aware of suicide rates among transgender youth and how to take action to reduce those rates among youth in school.
                                 LGBTQ Suicide Webinar
    Trevor Project: Trevor Care 

Safe School Zones

Create a safe zone for transgender students where they can go during the day.
GLSEN Safe Space Kit
Put this label on your door indicating a safe space for LGBTQ students


Transition After High School 

Aid students in finding resources about their rights as they transition to college and the world of work. 

Laws Protecting Trans Youth
Know the laws pertaining to transgender students' privacy and rights:
        * All students have the right to discuss their sexuality and gender identity with anyone.
         *Although districts must maintain a mandatory student record with the student's legal name and gender,
         they are not legally required to use a students' legal name and gender on other school documents.
        Students may use their preferred name and gender on these documents.
       * Before identifying a student as transgender to the family, school counselors or staff members must
          work closely with the student and consider the health, well-being, and safety of the student.

Additional Resources