THERE HAVE BEEN transgender people throughout the centuries, but the wide use of the word is fairly recent. And that is doubly true for teenagers.
Ten years ago, it would have been unheard of for a 13- or 14-year-old to come out in public as someone who was born as a boy but identified as a girl. Or a 15-year-old who was born as a girl - or perhaps grew up as a girl - but now wants to be considered a boy.
This is not a mass movement. The Philadelphia School District reports only 30 parents have asked about transgender rights in the last seven years. But it does bring forth the question of how to handle this issue into the schools.
It raises a host of questions. If you are a teacher, how do you refer to a student who identifies as a girl - even though the year before that student might have attended school as a boy. Is it he or she? Her or him.
And what of bathrooms? Which one does a transgender student use? The same with intramural sports. Does a transgender student play on the boys' or the girls' team? And what locker room do they use?
What principles should guide us in setting down practices?
We believe the school district made a series of wise decisions regarding this issue, and the guidelines approved recently by the School Reform Commission provide a necessary template for the district to follow.
It begins with an assertion of the obvious: Children should not be discriminated against because of their race, creed or gender - even if that gender is chosen by them.
It tilts toward the children and their needs, stating that transgender students may use the bathroom, locker room or intramural sports team of their choice. It said they could be called by the pronouns they choose and dress in a manner consistent with their gender identity.
One sentence in the new policy is worth repeating: "The purpose of this policy is to ensure safety, equity, and justice for all students regardless of gender identity or gender expression so that they can reach their fullest human and intellectual potential."
In other words, the most important factor to consider is what is best for the child.
That's the way it should be.
We should give credit to the students who have publicly proclaimed they are transgender. Teenage life is hard enough without facing the additional peer and societal pressure to conform.
In decades past, schools encouraged conformity - acceptance of and adherence to how the broader society operated. There was a time several generations ago when children born as lefthanders were forced to write with their right hands because that was the only "correct" way to write. That looks foolish and repressive now.
Of course, it's easy to advocate for fair treatment for children who do not fit the norm. It's another thing to make it happen in the classroom, hallways and lunchrooms of our schools. Teenagers can be hard and cruel on peers whom they see as "outsiders" - and they get to make the rules on what an outsider is.
In the coming year, let's hope the district trains adults and teaches students in the schools about the new policy: what it means and why it was enacted. It really doesn't come down to gay or straight or transgender - or white, black and Asian, for that matter. It comes down to a matter of respect for fellow human beings.