It is rather common for high schools in any region of the U.S. to be inclusive of clubs such as GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) and/or welcoming to LGBTQ advocacy groups such as PFLAG. High school classrooms can often be found prominently displaying stickers or posters declaring the room a “safe space” for LGBTQ students. Traditionally, because of these markers of a welcoming environment, many LGBTQ youth have waited until high school to come out.
But today’s students are increasingly coming out in earlier years, before entering high school. “Coming Out in Middle School” was published in 2009 by The New York Times Magazine, and the trend has only increased in the eight years since. But middle schools have been reluctant to embrace the kind of organized LGBTQ advocacy found in so many high schools. Some middle school parents and educators express concern that middle school LGBTQ advocacy is equivalent to encouraging 6th, 7th, and 8th grade sexual activity. This misconception is part of heteronormative culture that assumes sexual activity of any young person who expresses any interest outside of the “boys like girls” and “girls like boys” narrative. Students must be allowed to explore the various ways to identify in reference to sexual orientation long before they express interest in any particular sexual activity.
At whatever age it is deemed appropriate for young people to express nonsexual interest in another gender, it must also be appropriate for young people to express nonsexual interest in the same gender, multiple genders, or no gender. This is a critical part of dismantling heteronormativity, of normalizing young LGBTQ experiences. Culturally, this is beginning to take place, but in our school buildings and classrooms there is much work to be done. Middle schools must partner with high schools to provide a sense of continuity for the safety and comfort of LGBTQ students. Middle school must be a safe place for students to come out!
Likewise, at whatever age it is deemed appropriate for cisgender young people to begin to identify with gender and express their gender, it must also be appropriate for transgender and gender nonconforming young people to begin to identify with and express their gender. Gender identity and gender expression are not connected to sexual orientation, and young people should be allowed to identify with and express gender at ages earlier than those typically associated with sexual development. This means that elementary schools in particular must be places where transgender students and gender nonconforming students are allowed to come out in a supportive and nurturing environment, not a place where teachers say, “You are too young to know that!”