HB 658 perpetuates the dangerous belief that if we forbid children from receiving therapy, then their gender identities will just go away.
“This is just between us, right?” one of my students asked, her voice trailing off as she adjusted her navy blue backpack and got up to leave.
I reassured her that this was a confidential, safe space to share any feelings, experiences, or questions that she may have. “Ok” she replied, looking relieved, her shoulders relaxing, “see you next week.”
As a mental health clinician practicing in a large school setting, students talk to me about many issues, including their gender identity, gender dysphoria (defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify), and sexual orientation. And they talk to me because they trust that I will keep what they share confidential.
There are certain legal exceptions to student/provider confidentiality. If school clinicians suspect a student is being abused or neglected, or if a student expresses suicidal ideation, we must follow a clear intervention plan to protect the student.
However, with the overwhelming majority of issues and experiences that students come to talk about, it is the privacy of the space that prompts them to come and seek support in the first place. It is the understanding that they can speak freely and those words do not go beyond the walls of this office.
But if Republicans in many states get their way, this guarantee of confidentiality will be destroyed.
Ohio Republican Representatives Tom Brinkman and Paul Zeltwanger recently introduced legislation, House Bill 658, which, if passed, would require school therapists and teachers to “out” transgender students to their parents.
HB 658 states, “If a government agent or entity has knowledge that a child under its care or supervision has exhibited symptoms of gender dysphoria or otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner opposite of the child’s biological sex, the government agent or entity with knowledge of that circumstance shall immediately notify, in writing, each of the child’s parents and the child’s guardian or custodian.”
The law would also punish therapists with felony charges if they do not comply with outing children.
HB 658 perpetuates the dangerous belief that if we forbid children from receiving therapy, if we scare them with the threat of being outed by a trusted therapist and we impede their ability to gain any validation and gender-affirming support, then their gender identification isn’t real. Then all of this will just go away.
Republicans claim the reason for this proposed bill is a supposed concern for “parents rights.” The belief is that parents should have to consent to any form of treatment, including just speaking to a school therapist, regarding a child’s gender identity or gender dysphoria.
Yet despite the pretext for this law, the fact remains that parents rights are not being impeded; their rights are still overwhelmingly protected by state law.
State law already requires that parents give consent for a transgender child to begin hormone blockers, take testosterone or estrogen, or have gender reassignment surgery. But now Ohio is trying to infringe on whether or not a student can even talk to a school therapist or teacher about their gender identity, effectively turning school providers into gender informants.
And Ohio isn’t the only state trying to violate transgender student rights. There has been a startling increase in legislation targeting transgender children. In the last three years 44 anti-transgender pieces of legislation have been introduced in various states, with 23 of those targeting transgender children in schools and in playing school sports.
These types of legislation are particularly dangerous given that transgender students are already at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and becoming homeless due to parents kicking them out (after discovering their gender identity).
A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, led by Sari Reisner and Mathew Mimiaga, research scientists at the Fenway Institute and Harvard University, found that transgender youth are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and self harm than non-transgender adolescents, and that the need for gender-affirming mental health treatment and other support services is essential to their well-being.
In addition, 46% of homeless LGBTQ youth left the home because of their family’s refusal to accept their sexual orientation or gender identity; 43% were kicked out by parents, and 32% reported enduring sexual, emotional, or physical abuse in their family home.
How many more will be abused or become homeless after they are forcibly outed by their schools?
Jenn Burleton, executive director of the TransActive Gender Center, reports that “Many transgender kids living with unsupportive parents may be able to hold on, emotionally, because of support through school counselors or Gay-Straight Alliances. But in one fell swoop, this bill would eliminate any support system at their schools…their goal is Draconian.”
In many ways HB 658 creates a state-sanctioned witch hunt. Where does it end? The proposed law says that any student who “exhibited symptoms of gender dysphoria or otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner opposite of the child’s biological sex” must be reported to their parents.
Are schools now supposed to be spies for any possible non-conforming gender expression?
“Who is the judge of which gender is allowed to do what? If Jane signs up for shop class, will her parents receive a government letter? If Jordan doesn’t want to play football, do his parents get a letter? What if Alex wants to attend a meeting of the student LGBTQ group–does the school email that to Alex’s parents? Just what stereotypes are they expected to enforce?” states Ohio’s Equality Now in response to this bill.
In addition, forcing clinicians to report non-conforming gender expression or gender dysphoria to parents, even though many of them may react violently, would only cause students further harm and violates our duty to protect children.
Therapists cannot ethically report a child’s gender expression or dysphoria if it is told to us in confidence, and even more so if we know that child will then be at an increased risk for abuse or being thrown out of their house.
The repercussions of the proposed Ohio law (and many other pieces of anti-transgender legislation in other states) would be catastrophic for all transgender students—and those who are the most vulnerable will no longer seek out support if they now have to fear being “outed,” which then elevates their risk for depression and self-harm.
The National Association Of Social Workers (NASW) has condemned HB 658 stating, “We are outraged by the legislation that is so clearly in violation of everything the profession of social work stands for.” The American Counseling Association (ACA) also weighed in on HB 658, stating the bill “negates client rights to confidentiality and attacks the very basis of a key mandate for counselors: to provide counseling to those who need it and have nowhere else to turn.” The risk to students is especially pertinent in Ohio, where abuse of transgender students has already been well documented.
A recent study found that 64%of LGBTQ youth in Ohio have heard disparaging comments about being LGBTQ from family members and only 23% of LGBTQ youth in Ohio have come out to close family members about their sexual orientation. The study also found that 12% of LGBTQ youth in Ohio were sexually assaulted/raped due to their presumed or actual LGBTQ identity, 69%of LGBTQ youth in Ohio are harassed in school, and an alarming 70% of LGBTQ youth in Ohio have received unwanted sexual commentary and inappropriate and lewd jokes in the past year.
While the legal challenges to this law, if it passes, are inevitable, this type of anti-transgender legislation that is exploding around the country, plays into the larger cultural battle of denying transgender students their basic right to exist, to seek support, and to have their own autonomy.
Students will no longer have the ability to come out when they are ready, they will be forced out. And even those who have more support and aren’t at risk for abuse at home will still be forced to come out on someone else’s terms.
Corey Vickman, a 15-year-old transgender student in New York City, shared that “While I have a supportive family and school, coming out can still be terrifying for many transgender students. I can only imagine how devastating it would be to have that option taken away from you, especially by someone you have confided in.”Even those who have more support and aren’t at risk for abuse at home, will still be forced to come out on someone else’s terms. Click To Tweet
You can’t scare a child into not being transgender or non-binary. No amount of threats, rules, or regulations will keep someone from experiencing dysphoria. School clinicians are there to support students, and requiring them to “out” children, to put students at an increased risk for harm and to betray their trust, violates the core principles of what we do.
And we will do everything we can to stop this dangerous legislation.
**Names have been changed to protect the identity of minor children**