Transgender Teens Navigate High School
Evan Kulczynski usually stays quiet when another student calls him by the wrong pronouns.
“I don't like correcting them and potentially leading to something, like someone saying ‘No you sound like a girl, so you are a girl. I’m going to call you she/her,’” said Kulczynski, a senior at the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central, a local high school program also known as ITC.
Kulczynski, 17, first realized he was nonbinary four years ago and said that luckily, his school has been accepting – including with changing his former name in the school’s system this past academic year. Students under 18 need parental permission to change their names on school documents.
After receiving his parents’ permission, Kulczynski feels more comfortable looking at his grades and school ID, which are no longer painful reminders of the disconnect he felt with his female identity.
ITC social worker Melissa Mendez, who works with about 580 students, helps notify teachers about changes in students’ preferred names and pronouns.
“If you're one of the only students who is using a one-person bathroom, not changing for gym, or teachers are constantly getting your pronouns wrong, it can be very isolating to be trans or nonbinary,” Mendez said.
Last summer, theU.S. Department of Education confirmed that Title IX protects students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Title IX guidelines apply to organizational employees like teachers, staff, and administrators, along with students. The protections, though, haven’t stopped states, most notably Texas, from pursuing policies targeting non-binary and trans students. They also don’t protect transgender students from gender role conflict on a daily basis inside and outside of school.
Gender role conflict is defined as the devaluation, restriction, or violation of oneself or another person when trying to adhere to rigid gender role expectations, according to Dr. Daniel Miller, a mental health counselor at Dr. Spiegelhoff & Associates in Camillus, a suburb of Syracuse. Devaluation can be internal — restricting oneself because of societal standards — or external when someone demeans someone else who embraces their gender expression.
“Oftentimes, the early 20s is when we start to figure out a little bit more about who we are, with going to college or entering the workforce,” Miller said. “There's more freedom to find the people who are supportive of your gender identity and your gender expression. What I've noticed is, with my adolescent clients, they're much more aware and willing to talk about the gender spectrum and embracing nonbinary and androgynous forms of gender expression and identity.”
A Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from 2019 found that less than 2% of high school students identify as transgender, and they are more likely than other students to report violence victimization and suicide risk. The report advises schools to create and enforce anti-bullying policies, as well as provide related staff training like the Syracuse City School District offers.
A student’s home life can also affect struggles with gender identity — something that Jeffrey Newell, a media communications teacher at ITC, has witnessed at some parent-teacher conferences.
Newell, who received mandatory district-wide training on LGBT issues, said that he tries to be attentive to language in parent meetings, avoiding gender-specific pronouns because he knows some parents are not accepting of their child’s transition.
Jasper Cotroneo, 16, is a junior in Newell’s media communications class who began transitioning about two years ago during quarantine. In December, Cotroneo drew a comic strip, for their media course entitled The Issue on Gender in American Schools. The comic follows the story of a transmasculine high school student named Milo, who was constantly called the wrong name and pronouns by classmates and teachers.
“It feels kind of lonely,” Cotroneo said.
Little to none of Cotroneo’s school friends are transgender, meaning they don’t face similar obstacles.
“Over quarantine, I was able to surround myself with people that were more like me, especially over the internet,” Cotroneo said. “It really just opened my eyes; like, I don't really need to hide myself. If somebody doesn't accept me for me, then that's their problem, I guess.”