UW-Madison professor co-edits special journal issue on transgender student experiences

By Laurel White

One of the most highly respected education journals in the country has released a special issue this summer, co-edited by a UW-Madison School of Education faculty member, dedicated to research about the experiences of transgender elementary and high school students. 

The special issue of the journal Educational Researcher, titled “Trans Studies in K12 Education,” is aimed at bolstering education scholars’ understanding of gender, as well as providing some ways to improve school environments for trans students and teachers. 

“What we tried to do was to bring a different lens to the research — one that’s sensitive to those historical harms that have been done to the trans community in the past, and try to determine a better way forward in the ways researchers understand gender in schools and work with trans communities,” said Mollie McQuillan, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. “In this political moment, we were really appreciative of having this kind of platform.”

Mollie McQuillan

The special issue comes as political conflict over transgender students’ rights continues to spread across the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of last year, at least 35 bills have been introduced in 31 states to exclude transgender youth from participating in athletics. 

“There has been a lot of erasure of trans people in schools and, more recently, trans youth have been targeted by some politicians for political gain,” McQuillan said. “You can see that in some of the policy discussions that are happening right now.”

In addition to serving on the editorial team for the issue, McQuillan authored two studies featured in the publication. Their study, “A Starting Point: Gender, Hot Cognition, and Trans-Informed Administrative Guidance,” analyzed administrative guidance documents on policies related to transgender students at 112 school districts in Illinois. McQuillan found some documents, even if they were well-intentioned, caused harm by being too vague.

“Some of the guidance documents create additional hurdles or barriers for transgender students,” McQuillan said.

Ultimately, McQuillan’s study recommends school administrators collaborate with trans students and LGBTQ+ community organizations to draft guidance documents. They said it is important to center trans voices in such conversations.

McQuillan also co-authored another study published in the special issue with Mario Suarez, Lee Iskander, and Harper Keenan. The manuscript describes the experiences of nearly 300 trans-identifying adults who work in schools. It identified differences in structural and social supports for those workers, compared to trans students in the same school, and highlighted the need for school leaders and policymakers to direct their attention to the needs of trans school workers. It was funded by a pilot grant from the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. 

McQuillan and her co-editor’s work on the special issue grew out of a Learning Community sponsored by the Spencer Foundation. They said the path forward for Trans Studies in educational research may be complicated — especially as researchers work to center trans voices and avoid repeating harm that’s been done to the community — but argued it is incredibly worthwhile.

“A lot of these policies created to support transgender students are better for all students,” McQuillan said. 

The special issue of Educational Researcher is available online here.

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