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Beyond the Binary and Before the Bathroom: Transgender Rights and Recognition in Schools

by Anna Montana Cirell & Joseph D. Sweet - October 31, 2016

In this commentary, the authors discuss how gender inequality becomes manifest in deeper sociopolitical issues of proper schooling and proper education. They also show how regulation is far from recognition, as policing others’ identity and purpose exposes a whole other layer of intentionality.

What began as a legislative measure to outright discredit the rights of transgender individuals and default them into an at-birth sexual binary has evolved into an elaborate social scheme to regulate gender and sexual identity. While the transgender bathroom bill in North Carolina continues to draw controversy over public restroom use on the basis of sex assigned at birth, the newest draft of House Bill 2 calls for a unique orchestration of discipline and surveillance in demanding permission slips to enter bathrooms (Allen, 2016). Added to the mix are “certificates of sexual reassignment” that will legally dictate the right for transgender individuals to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity (Phillips, 2016).

Amid this confusing controversy, we search around for the deeper message. Is this even about bathroom use? Playing semantics and dancing around the politics of language can only momentarily deflect our focus from the underlying issue fueling this campaign. By reducing the issue to sexual documentation that reifies the gender binary, we see the attempt to police a line based on genitalia. Discrimination is being practiced with near surgical precision. But more alarming is the unspoken rhetoric negating how many human beings view themselves and live their lives in an authentic way. If one can judge the fairness of a society by assessing the treatment of its most marginalized (Marx, 1972), then we have much to think about.

Here, legislators are explicitly taking the human out of the human rights campaign. Discrediting the existence of an already marginalized population is the most violent act of discrimination as its soul-crushing means can only lead to soul-destroying ends. This is not to say that unrecognized populations cannot be physically present, only that their status as human will go unclaimed as the drive for recognition comprises the core of human identity. According to Honneth (1996, 2012), acts of recognition through loving, social, and legal relationships produce subject’s autonomy, self-worth, and identity formation. Additionally, the process of recognition creates social reproduction. Given recognition is such a powerful part of social change, we see this political debate as an exercise of moral and ethical violence extending deeper than surface-level civil rights to grate at the human dignity of a population existing outside the binary. Further, this kind of authoritarian neoliberal logic that seeks to surveil and stomp out difference in favor of moral unity and conformity does little to end patterns of social denigration or encourage new forms of identity and practices of personhood.

Situating this commentary amid bathroom bill controversies helps us bring to light larger societal implications and locate other violent acts of discriminatory regulation over how gender identity is to be practiced within public spaces like classrooms. In what follows, we briefly discuss how gender inequality becomes manifest in deeper sociopolitical issues of proper schooling and proper education. We also show how regulation is far from recognition, as policing others’ identity and purpose exposes a whole other layer of intentionality. We conclude our argument with curricular practices that open spaces for critical knowledge production.

Trans* identities have been “put into discourse” (Foucault, 1978/1990, p. 11) in the school environment and continue to be disciplined and surveilled. In fact, recent scholarship reveals that schools reproduce heterosexist discourse to regulate gender normativity and compel gender variant children into conformity (Blackburn, 2006; Connell, 2005; Halberstam, 1998; Kimmel, 2012). These practices perpetuate a master narrative of proclaimed truths dictating and regulating what kind of knowledge is deemed good, moral, and safe. These entrenched truth regimes leave no space for reflection and prohibit the recognition of students with alternative expressions of self.

Knowledge production currently being practiced in school is concerned with upholding gender norms, which disregards the existence of difference within school communities. According to Butler (2004), when people’s genders are unintelligible to others they are regarded as threats to normative ontologies and thus at risk of being destroyed. Accordingly, the disturbing statistics regarding trans* youth indicate a pervasive culture of fear and mistrust. A recent study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA’s School of Law (Biegel & Kuehl, 2011), concludes that 75% of trans* youth report being harassed in school (K–12), 35% report being physically assaulted in school, 12% report being sexually assaulted, and 14% report dropping out of school as a result of prolonged harassment. Additionally, a whopping “90 percent of transgender students reported hearing fellow students comment about someone not being masculine enough or feminine enough on a regular basis” (Teich 2012, p. 105). The culture of fear that schools repeatedly reproduce will continue to negatively affect its most marginalized members until school practices work to counter heterosexist discourse.

For pedagogies of hope and justice to flourish, schools would immerse their practices in narratives opposing gender normative privilege. To cultivate this and rework social and classroom norms, teaching practices must recognize and authenticate the lives of students who live outside the gender binary. Some specific examples that school communities can enact include teachers recognizing students through affirming gestures and facial expressions that assume social validity of the student, incorporating representations of queer students in required school literature, revising school policy to specifically recognize trans* identities and bathroom rights, instituting professional development to train teachers about recognition of trans* identities and gender expressions, and acknowledging publically the contributions that trans* students offer the community (Miller, 2015; Sweet & Carlson, in press). In this way, pedagogical practices should be compelled to include a wide array of exalted gender identities where nonconforming students are publicly recognized by curriculum and school communities writ large so that all students’ true gender identity is affirmed.

Adorno (1951), a Jewish exile living and working on the edge of the Nazi regime, pledged that a true existence is not possible in a false system. We take this logic to also follow that only a false system would attempt to stomp out a true existence. However, it is in the struggle to liberate dispossessed individuals that we can create a new and better system (Freire, 1970/2000). Accordingly, this possibility for change lies in the power derived from the weakness of the oppressor's oppressed, as it is the only force strong enough to free both (Freire, 1970/2000). If Kant’s call for enlightenment and rationalization in 1784 (1784/1963) dared the populace to know (Sapere aude!), then in today’s school climate that aims to standardize and collapse difference in the name of hegemonic neoliberalism, wouldn’t a more world shattering cry compel those most marginalized to dare to live (Vivere aude!)? So let this be our call to those on the fringes of a binary struggling to practice their identity. In the face of all odds, while efforts are made to legislate you out of a legitimate existence to preserve heteronormative privilege in an increasingly diverse and shifting America, live a life that commands difference. Our only chance at remaking a world capable of upholding basic principles of human dignity may depend on the raw voice of the dispossessed in addressing silences to challenge views of how fair our system really is.


Adorno, T. W. (1951). Minima moralia: Reflections on a damaged life. (E. F. N. Jephcott, Trans.). London, UK: Verso.

Allen, S. (2016, June 29). North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom bill just got worse. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/06/29/north-carolina-s-anti-transgender-bathroom-law-just-got-worse.html

Biegel, S. & Kuehl S. J. (2010). Safe at school: Addressing the school environment and LGBT safety through policy and legislation. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute. Retrieved from http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Biegel-Kuehl-Safe-At-School-Oct-2011.pdf

Blackburn, M. V. (2006). Risky, generous, gender work. Research in the Teaching of English, 40(3), 262–271.

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. London, UK: Routledge.

Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foucault, M. (1978/1990). The history of sexuality. Volume 1: An introduction. (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage.

Freire, P. (1970/2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum.

Halberstam, J. (1998). Female masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Honneth, A. (1996). The struggle for recognition: The moral grammar of social conflicts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Honneth, A. (2012). The I in we: Studies in the theory of recognition. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Kant, I. (1784/1963). What is enlightenment? In L. W. Beck (Ed.) On History (pp. 3-10). (L. W. Beck, Trans.). New York, NY: Bobbs-Merrill.

Kimmel, M. S. (2012). Manhood in America: A cultural history (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Marx, K. (1972). The Marx-Engels reader (Vol. 4). New York, NY: Norton.

Miller, s. j. (2015). A queer literacy framework promoting (a)gender and (a)sexuality self-determination and justice. English Journal, 104(5), 37–44.

Phillips, A. (2016, May 9). The legal fight over North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law, in 4 questions. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/05/09/the-legal-fight-over-north-carolinas-transgender-bathroom-law-explained-in-4-questions/

Sweet, J. D., & Carlson, D. L. (in press). Teaching trans*: Transparent as a strategy in English language arts classrooms. Bank Street Occasional Paper Series.

Teich, N. M. (2012). Transgender 101: A simple guide to a complex issue. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 31, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21702, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:06:50 PM

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  • Anna Montana Cirell
    Arizona State University
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    Arizona State University
  • Joseph Sweet
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    Arizona State University
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