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How Will Anti-Trans Laws Impact Transgender and Gender-Diverse Youth Mental Health?

Original article written by Andrew Thurston for The Brink at Boston University

Conservative legislators around the country have found a new flashpoint in their attempt to wage a culture war: transgender rights. A flood of bills—many already signed into law—aim to place limits on access to healthcare, education, entertainment, bathrooms, sports, and more. Those driving the changes claim they are essential for protecting young people, whether from what they say are damaging surgeries, liberal indoctrination, or unfair competition on the sports field.

Of the 430 bills curtailing LGBTQIA+ freedoms currently being tracked by the American Civil Liberties Union—many focused on gender identity—nearly 200 are connected to schools and education, and more than 100 to healthcare, particularly minors’ access to gender-affirming care. “The group of people that we can protect as quick as possible is children,” one of the bills’ advocates, Terry Schilling, of the conservative American Principles Project, told CNN.

But researchers behind the first national, longitudinal study of transgender and non-binary youth say that instead, the new laws could have a destructive impact on young people’s mental health.

Since 2020, Boston University’s Project AVANT (Advancing Voices of Adolescents Identifying as Non-Binary and Transgender) has surveyed hundreds of transgender and gender-diverse (TGD) kids about their experiences and mental health. In a paper published in the Journal of School Psychology, researchers found 69.9 percent of study participants, who represented 44 states, reported clinically significant anxiety.

More than half said they felt clinically depressed, while an equivalent proportion admitted to self-harming. By comparison, the numbers for youth overall are much lower, if still alarming: 15 percent of children aged 12 to 17 reported having at least one major depressive episode in 2022, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America.

“We’ve seen high rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and PTSD,” says Melissa Holt, a Project AVANT codirector and BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development associate professor of counseling psychology. “To me, it feels quite devastating that these are kids who are in states where they feel silenced and harassed, that their identities are somehow a target for discrimination.”

Opponents have blasted anti-trans efforts as misguided, as well as harmful, contesting that surgery is life-saving and that everyone benefits from the inclusion of trans athletes in sports. President Joe Biden told The Daily Show that the push to restrict trans rights, especially those of children, was cruel and “close to sinful.”

“Their identity is essentially being silenced and not valued in the classroom,” says Holt, who’s also a Wheelock associate dean for faculty affairs. “There’s so much research that indicates that inclusive policies, whether at the school or state level, are beneficial.”

In a recent paper in the Journal of Adolescent Research, the Project AVANT team found the most common source of support for TGD youth was their peers: 91 percent said friends and partners were essential to their well-being. Friends were often the first people they discussed their identity with and also key advocates, speaking up on their behalf to teachers, family, and other friends.

Many youth—37 percent—listed family as a key support, with participants specifically calling out female-identified extended family members, like aunts and grandmothers, as being especially helpful, particularly when parents and siblings didn’t accept their identity. A smaller number—only 6 percent—described online communities as a main source of support.

When it came to schools, the researchers concluded teachers and school counselors “played a critical role in creating a safer place for … participants and helping them feel understood and seen.”

“One of the things that came out very clearly is the students talk a lot about whether their school talks about gender and gender identity as a concept, and the importance of that for them,” says Jennifer Greif Green, a project codirector and Wheelock professor of special education. “School policies related to sports and restroom use were important too.”

Green and Holt both encourage schools to adopt inclusive policies that acknowledge a person’s full identity—using their pronouns, having appropriate restrooms, allowing participation in sports, offering books that represent diverse gender identities, and expanding access to counselors.

“Our participants noted they would like people they could talk to and not have to hide parts of their identity,” says Holt.

But many of those best practices are now illegal in some states, soon to be outlawed in many more, and politically tough to implement in others. In Utah, schools were recently given the legal right to out transgender youth to their parents. So, how can teachers balance what the evidence says is best for kids and what the law says is legally right? Some are deciding they can’t.

“But if we just avoid these states, then youth are left with even fewer people advocating for them, so how can our students proactively go into these states and think about how to advocate for change?” says Holt. “Our students may think about, ‘Well, what if I went to that state, like Florida, and worked at a community agency or did outreach and advocacy, can I be part of the movement to have students with diverse gender identities feel more seen?’”

Next up for the researchers is expanding their study: applying for bigger grants, tracking youth as they hit 18 and can make independent choices about surgery, and pulling in a greater diversity of participants, particularly those with intersectional identities. Project AVANT is about to enter its sixth survey cycle, and given the major uptick in anti-trans bills and rhetoric, it seems likely the political and social environment will continue to darken the lives and mental health of many TGD people.

“A key message we would like to convey to gender-diverse youth is that they are not alone. There are adults who are available to support them and resources they can access at any point,” says Holt. “For caregivers of gender-diverse youth, know that your support is essential to the well-being of your children.”

To read the full article and access resources, CLICK HERE.


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