McGowan: Gender identity tattletales?

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Richard McGowan

In 1982, my wife Barbara and I were expecting our first child. We were both apprehensive and excited. Our excitement, however, was closely matched by the obstetrician’s excitement. “I just got a new machine, the latest technology for understanding pregnancy. It enables me to see inside the womb. Do you mind if I use it to see how you are doing, Barbara?”

We consented, and he performed an ultrasound scan of our first child. Ultrasounds in the early 80s were novel, so no protocol existed. The doctor asked, “Do you want to know the sex?”

Barb and I did not discuss the question much: we’d be poor parents if some person relatively unknown to us knew more about our child than we did. We were responsible for that child, not the obstetrician.

When I wrote for a parenting publication, I offered the same counsel. When parents go to a parent-teacher conference, there should be no surprises. Parents should not be told by a teacher of something important and surprising about their child’s education. They should already be aware of their child’s development.

Indiana Senate Bill 354 could have been guided by this view that the parents should be in the know about their children, even if, like the obstetrician, they would be hard pressed to know more about the developing child in utero without the equipment and expertise of a medical professional. The obstetrician understood, though, that he was obligated to make that knowledge available to us.

Senate Bill No. 354 required “a public school … to notify the parent of an unemancipated minor” if the student discloses “to an employee or staff member information” concerning the “student’s gender identity or gender expression.” As well, notification of a parent is required if the student “changes, expresses a desire to change, or makes a request to change the student’s name, attire, pronoun, title, or word to identify the student … that is inconsistent with the student’s biological sex at birth.”

In other words, Indiana’s senate is grappling with problems the trans trend has created for educators. Indiana is not alone inasmuch as other states, e.g. Missouri, Wisconsin, Florida and Massachusetts are contending with the issue of disclosure. In many of those states, the matter has risen to a legal solution, not a school “fix.”

The Indiana ACLU had this to say about the matter of disclosure: “This bill targets any student who may choose not to conform to traditional norms about gender by requiring school staff to share private information and even speculation about students’ gender identities with other school staff and parents.” The ACLU’s language suggests that gender identity is a choice, implying that transitioning and sex-change operations are, like liposuction and other procedures, medically elective.

The Indiana ACLU also said “This bill forces teachers and administrators to act as ‘gender police’ by requiring them to monitor students for signs of gender nonconformity and report suspicions.” The ACLU distorts the language — “disclosure by the student” is not the same as “monitoring.”

Finally, on the matter of privacy, the ACLU overstates the case. Privacy is not an absolute right. In my teaching career, several students came into my office and talked to me about taking their own lives. I was obligated by rules and, by my reckoning, morality, to get professional help for that student. Walking the student to the counseling center was mandatory. On his graduation day, one student thanked me and said he would not be alive were it not for my help.

The ACLU overstates the case for non-disclosure but recognizes a real problem that a minor child may face, namely, hostility at home. Parents, told by school officials of their child’s disclosure regarding ambivalence about biological identity and “gender identity,” may deliver negative consequences to the child.

However, if the school officials do not disclose, they appear to distrust handing the responsibility for the student to the parents. If so, then they have assumed the responsibility for the student’s “gender identity.” I suspect they have neither the time nor budget, let alone the inclination, to assume that responsibility.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University.