Ohio’s children and youth who are transgender, gender diverse or questioning their gender identities should be able to go to school to learn, just like every other student.
Decades of research teaches us that all students need understanding, support and acceptance in order to thrive and grow into healthy and productive adults. Legislation introduced in the Ohio House, House Bill 658, would limit the ability of school teachers and school-based mental health professionals, such as counselors, social workers and school psychologists, to do what is in the best interests of their students, specifically those students who identify as transgender or gender diverse or who are still questioning their gender identities.
Due to the stigma, discrimination and prejudice that these students face in their families, schools and other community settings, research has shown that transgender and gender-diverse children and youth are more likely to consider suicide and experience anxiety and depressive symptoms than their non-transgender peers. The proposed legislation would likely introduce additional harm to a population of young people who are already at heightened risk for adverse outcomes. It also would limit the ability of school personnel to provide supportive school environments where transgender and gender-diverse students can succeed academically and socially.
HB 658 would make it more difficult for transgender, gender-diverse and questioning youth to get the support they need in schools and from mental health professionals, medical professionals and other social service providers. As the bill states, any “government agent or entity” (e.g., public school teacher, counselor, social worker) who provides “treatment” to a child or adolescent who exhibits gender dysphoria (i.e., discomfort with their sex assigned at birth), without the notification and consent of parents or guardians, can be charged with a felony. As noted in the text of the bill, “treatment” includes education, such as providing a student with information about what it means to be transgender or where to find help.
The text of the bill referencing “treatment for gender dysphoria” may lead people to conflate medical interventions with psychosocial support. Indeed, for many transgender, gender-diverse, and questioning youth, treatment under the age of 18 involves social transitioning (for example, use of preferred pronouns and name) or reversible medical interventions (e.g., prescriptions that delay puberty). Research has revealed that these types of reversible interventions help transgender youth thrive; indeed, when provided with these treatments, most of the differences previously documented between transgender and cisgender (those not transgender) youth disappear (for example, depression, suicide risk). Ohio parental consent is already required by law for a minor to receive gender-affirming medical and mental health treatment. Therefore, this bill is not necessary and instead would likely further the isolation and stigma experienced by transgender and gender-diverse youth.
I believe that most Ohioans would not support a law that would keep a school-based mental health professional from talking to a child or adolescent about possible gender-related distress that student might be experiencing. Beyond public disagreement, the ethical principles of school counselors, school psychologists and social workers, among others would be compromised by this potential law.
Karla Anhalt, a licensed psychologist, noted that the National Association of School Psychologists’ Principles for Professional Ethics specifically states that ”[School psychologists] do not share information about the sexual orientation, gender identity, or transgender status of a student (including minors) ... without that individual’s permission.” Acceptance and support play a critical role in reducing negative health outcomes for transgender and gender-diverse youth. HB 658 would make it more difficult for public school employees to do their jobs, and indeed, threatens them with criminal prosecution for doing so.