Indianapolis High School Senior Faces Challenges with Pronoun Usage
Caston Peters, an 18-year-old high school senior from Indianapolis, recently encountered a troubling situation at school. For the past three years, Peters, who identifies as nonbinary, had been using they/them or he/him pronouns without any issues. However, at the beginning of the current school year, Peters learned from a teacher that a new state law would require explicit permission from a parent in order to continue using their preferred pronouns and first name.
Upon hearing this news, Peters immediately informed their mother, Kim Michaelis-Peters, who took swift action by contacting the school staff via email. Fortunately, the school complied with Caston’s wishes and respected their pronoun usage. However, Michaelis-Peters expressed deep concerns about the potential consequences of Indiana’s law for other students who may not have understanding parents. She worries that students who come from unsupportive households may face the risk of being exposed by the school for expressing their desire to be called by a different name or pronouns.
Indiana is one of at least 10 states that have implemented laws restricting or prohibiting students from using pronouns or names that do not align with their assigned sex at birth. Critics argue that these laws further marginalize transgender and nonbinary students. Most of these laws were enacted this year as part of a larger wave of restrictions on transgender youth approved by Republican-led states.
These laws have generated fear among transgender students and confusion among teachers who strive to create inclusive and welcoming environments for all students. Cheryl Greene, the senior director of the Welcoming Schools Program for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, expressed concerns about the vague and unclear nature of these laws, leaving educators unsure about how to navigate them.
Supporters of these laws argue that parents should have a say when it comes to their children using pronouns or names different from their assigned gender at birth. They frame it as a parental rights issue and part of broader efforts to regulate how gender identity is addressed in educational settings.
However, mental health experts and advocates believe that requiring parental consent or notification for pronoun usage can potentially harm transgender students, who already face a higher risk of bullying and abuse. Similar restrictions in Virginia have sparked opposition, with some school boards adopting policies consistent with the guidelines set by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, while others have resisted.
In other states, some teachers are finding ways to work around these restrictions or openly defying them to protect their students. However, due to limited job protection in these states, few teachers are willing to speak publicly about their actions.
Jillian Spain, a social studies teacher in Yanceyville, North Carolina, emphasized that she will never out a child and believes that schools should be a safe space where students can truly be themselves. Spain recognizes the additional pressure that students face, particularly after the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teachers’ groups argue that educators have received little to no guidance on how to comply with these new restrictions. They lack clarity on issues such as obtaining parental permission for students who use pronouns or names not listed on their birth certificates. Each school district in Indiana, as well as in other states, is responsible for determining the specifics of implementation.
The Indiana State Teachers Association believes that the new parental notification law in Indiana, which also prohibits instruction on human sexuality for pre-K through third-grade students, is addressing a problem that doesn’t exist. The association expresses concerns about the confusion and administrative burden these laws impose on an already demanding educational environment.
Kentucky’s new law states that teachers and school staff cannot be compelled to use pronouns that do not align with a student’s biological sex. This law has caused confusion among educators, according to Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group in the state. Hartman highlights the mental health impact on transgender students when adults deliberately misgender them, emphasizing the importance of supportive adults in preventing depression and suicide among transgender students.
In Kentucky’s largest school district, Jefferson County Schools, the school board struggled to comply with the new state law. After multiple attempts, they adopted a policy that allows exceptions for students with gender dysphoria in terms of bathroom accommodations and imposes potential consequences for teachers and staff who repeatedly misgender students.
Parents and students in Lexington have filed a lawsuit challenging Kentucky’s new law. One family alleges that a school office employee intentionally refused to use their child’s name and pronouns during a conversation in April. In response, the parents legally changed their child’s name. The lawsuit, filed in late September, seeks a declaration that Kentucky’s new law is unconstitutional.
Caston Peters, reflecting on their own experience, expressed concern about the impact of Indiana’s law on other students. They believe that school should be a safe space where students can be themselves without fear of being called out or bullied. Peters worries that if they cannot receive support at home, the school may now be taking away their only safe place to be called by their preferred name and pronouns.
In conclusion, the implementation of laws in various states restricting or prohibiting pronoun usage that does not align with a student’s assigned sex at birth has raised concerns among advocates, educators, and students. The lack of clear guidelines, fear of outing students, and potential negative impact on mental health have complicated the situation. The debate continues between those advocating for parental rights and those emphasizing the importance of supporting and protecting transgender and nonbinary students in educational settings.