Israeli Health Ministry Shelves Plan for Schools to Deal With Transgender Students

'LGBT rights are trampled daily in the education system and some kids are in danger of their lives,' says CEO of an organization for transgenders' rights

File Photo: LGBT community members block a highway during a protest against a surrogate bill in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 22, 2018.
Oded Balilty / AP

In cooperation with LGBT organizations, the Health Ministry drafted a set of procedures a year ago to help schools deal with pupils undergoing a sex change, but in January it halted the work and ended up issuing no guidelines.

Meanwhile, transgender pupils suffer because there are no such guidelines for schools and each school does as it sees fit – even if that means ignoring the issue.

>> Opinion: Israel's LGBTs Are in No Party’s Pocket for This Election ■ Editorial: A safe space for everyone

The ordeal facing transgender high school students was highlighted in the past week by the case of Osher Band, 15, a transgender girl who stayed out of her school in Ashkelon for six months because of the violence and harassment directed at her, then, ordered by school administrators to return, was assaulted by a student and hospitalized with a concussion.

“Some schools are afraid and repulsed by the issue,” says Nora Greenberg, a transgender activist and former leader of the LGBT Association in Israel. “Out of fear, they want to provide transgender kids separate toilets, neither boys nor girls. Or they try to prevent children coming out, or move them to other schools,” she said.

Transgender students encounter a variety of problems in schools. For example, a schoolgirl from the central region who decided to change her sex told her teachers and principal of her plans. The school’s staff insisted on her parents’ permission to address her as a female, but the parents refused. So the school continued to address her as a male, against her will.

Another student from the central region who had changed her sex was treated by her parents and school staff with understanding, apart from one issue – the toilets. The school insisted she use the staff rest room rather than the students’ girls’ room, claiming it would make the female students uncomfortable if she used theirs. In a third case, the principal recommended psychiatric treatment to a child who had declared a sex change.

About three years ago the Ma’avarim organization for transgender people’s rights demanded that the Health Ministry’s psychological consulting service draft regulations for schools on how to deal with students who undergo a sex change during their studies.

“Before the summer of 2018 we finally agreed on regulations, together with transgender kids’ parents,” says Elisha Alexander, Ma’avarim’s CEO. But since then the work has stopped and no regulations have been issued. “This isn’t about some psychological or consulting issue,” he says. “It’s about enforcing transgender kids’ rights.”

According to the draft regulations obtained by Haaretz, the ministry will instruct schools to address transgender pupils by the gender pronoun he or she prefers and by his or her chosen name, with no legal documents necessary. The teachers must write both the student’s official and chosen name on school documents, such as certificates. Teachers must also enable students to take part in sports lessons and use toilets according to their gender identity and allow them to dress as they choose, in keeping with the school’s dress code.

The regulations require giving teachers and pupils training on sex changes and making sure students receive emotional support from consultants and psychologists.

However, the ministry conditions accepting the student’s chosen gender on his parents’ permission. The draft instructs schools to exercise discretion and consult the ministry in cases of parents’ objection. Parents’ permission is also required for a transgender student to spend nights out together with other students, like during school trips.

However, experts caution that this approach is potentially harmful. “The parents’ refusal to recognize the student’s gender doesn’t oblige the school,” explains Greenberg. “Even if the parents object, the school has a duty to treat the child as he desires. The child’s identity must be respected, and parents who do not respect this must be treated as abusive.

“The damage to a child whose parents and school refuse to respect his identity is far greater than the damage to the parents if their will isn’t respected,” she says.

The ministry responded that “parents are an important component in helping students in the gender transition stage, but each case is treated individually.”

Meanwhile, each school with transgender students deals with the sex change issues as its staff sees fit. Osher Band’s high school, ORT Henry Ronson, said its attempts to place her in a suitable class failed and that her behavior was “provocative.” The school’s staff refused to address her as a female.

“Osher isn’t alone – LGBT rights are trampled daily in the education system and some kids are in danger of their lives,” says Alexander, who will lead a demonstration outside Tel Aviv’s Education Ministry offices on Sunday, demanding the school take Osher back.

Dozens of Israeli transgender students are estimated to be undergoing sex changes during their studies. Many of them are subject to violence, sexual attacks and discrimination. Their dropout rate is higher than that of other students’ and in some cases they are ejected from the system.

Recent world studies of youths who changed their gender found that living under their chosen gender does them good. Such youths have similar fortitude, good health and mental well-being to cisgender youths – the overwhelming bulk of boys and girls who identify with the sexual nature they were born with.

Also, although the suicide risk of transgender young adults is two to three times higher than that of cisgenders, the schools’ and families’ support can reduce this risk significantly.

Transgender students in the central region are treated better than in the periphery, and the readiness to accept them is immeasurably higher in secular state schools than in religious or ultra-Orthodox schools, says Greenberg. The schools’ policy plays an important role in the transgender students’ acceptance. “The more explicit and clear a school’s position, the less likely the other students are to develop hostility toward transgender kids,” she says.

The trouble is that cisgender principals and teachers see themselves as the norm and others, like transgender people, as different. “The main problem is cisgender people’s difficulty in understanding that what they see as normative is a cultural conditioning and not an absolute truth,” she says.

“There’s a groundless assumption that a 12-year-old cannot know he’s a transgender. I ask, why can a cisgender child say with certainty that he’s a boy or a girl, while a transgender child cannot know for certain?” she says.

After the last meeting with LGBT activists in January, the Health Ministry issued a summary saying the process will take a long time due to legal problems and processes with the Council for Children’s Rights and the Justice Ministry. As for the violent attacks on transgender students in schools, the ministry said “a specific policy is needed regarding violence against [transgender] students.”

Itay Pinkas Arad, who holds the LGBT portfolio in the Tel Aviv municipality, said, “Some ministries tend to ignore the entire community and evade responsibility to it… leaving the school principals as the only authority. … The Health Ministry is responsible for every student, even for those who challenge the accepted conventions.”

Sources familiar with the details say legal difficulties are preventing the ministry from issuing the regulations. The ministry says it is working on “a document with external experts. The project takes learning and time for formulating a policy that would bind the entire education system.”