How to Explain Biden's Gender Discrimination Order—in Terms Simple Enough for Kids to Understand
President Biden's order aims to ensure that everyone—including student-athletes—receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation. Here's how experts recommend sharing the details with your child.
The instant that that inauguration wrapped up, the Biden-Harris administration got to work tackling some of the greatest issues that the U.S. is facing. On day 1, President Biden signed an executive order on preventing and combating discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. But within 24 hours, the order was met with backlash from conservatives using the hashtag "#BidenErasedWomen" and others sometimes referred to as trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs).
The uproar is a teachable moment for kids. Discussing issues relating to discrimination with kids is always a good way to teach inclusiveness, says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Ed.D., a certified school psychologist and licensed professional counselor based in Ridgefield, Connecticut. In addition, "creating a safe space for questions will help your child feel more comfortable discussing this and other important issues," she notes.
Here's how experts say you can talk to your child about President Biden's order, why it doesn't hurt women, and how it can help kids live their authentic, happy lives.
How to Explain What President Biden's Gender Discrimination Order Says
When talking with children, you can start with the language used in the executive order, says Laura Wernick, Ph.D., LMSW, associate professor at Fordham University School of Social Service in New York City.
The order asserts that "every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love" and specifically speaks to children who, the administration says, "should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports." They note that "all persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation."
The order points out that last year the Supreme Court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1964's Title VII's prohibition on discrimination "because of . . . sex" covers discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. And the Biden administration plans to "fully enforce Title VII and other laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation."
Melinda Hall, director of Gender Studies and chair of Philosophy at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, advises parents share that the Civil Rights Act and laws against discrimination at school have always protected at least some people in the United States.
"Unfortunately, often, not all people are equally protected," says Hall. "Even when laws are written to protect women, sometimes the law is used to define who counts as a woman—or who counts as a man—and then people get left out."
But through this executive order, President Biden has said that no one, ever, can be discriminated against by the government for their gender, how they identify, or who they love, says Hall. "His team is helping us live up to the potential of the Civil Rights Act and fairness at school, and to make sure that no one is harmed or left unprotected because of who they are," she notes.
Specifically, the order specifically calls out protection for students who play school sports. "Existing education laws, including Title IX, have recently been interpreted to apply to only a narrow group of people: cisgender young adults," explains Hall. "That means that while you can't be discriminated against because of your assigned gender, you can be kept from playing sports or using gendered spaces open to the gender you identify with."
You can share that now, thanks to the new executive order, children are free to identify and express their gender in whatever way feels best to them and to play sports with kids who also identify with their gender, says Wernick.
They also recommend saying something like, "You also have the right to be respect and affirmed for who are and how you express yourself. It also means that you have the right to not be bullied, and you do not have the right to bully others who are different from you."
How to Talk About the Controversy
Sam Brinton, VP of Advocacy and Government Affairs for The Trevor Project, says you can broach this part of the conversation by noting that it can be hard to understand what it means to be transgender, especially if you've never met a transgender person. "It's common to have questions at first," they say. "But we can all agree that transgender kids should be treated with dignity and respect, just like everyone else."
You can then share that people like TERFs think transgender people and other members of the LGBTQI do not count as real women or real men, notes Hall. "They seek to exclude those individuals from protections under the law and worry that protecting trans people will reduce rights for everyone else," she notes. "It's very, very hard to pin down a definition of 'woman' and 'man,' no matter what side of this controversy you are on."
But thankfully, she points out, we don't have to find a perfect definition that works for everyone to be sure that people are protected under the law, because the new executive order allows for open-ended definitions and prohibits discrimination based on any identity related to sex and gender.
You can also share that TERFs have argued that when trans girls will have an advantage over cis girls because they were assigned male at birth. But this isn't based in reality. For instance, last year in Connecticut, a cisgender female high school student beat a transgender athlete in a state championship race—just two days after a lawsuit was filed aiming to prevent transgender athletes from participating in girls' sports.
You can also bust this myth by noting that the same people haven't voiced concern about kids of the same gender being disparate sizes. "We have large girls playing with small girls and large boys playing with small boys," they say. "But we wouldn't say a small boy can't play on the boys' team because they may get hurt or a strong, large girl can play with smaller girls because they may hurt others."
How the Order Will Help Kids Live Their Most Authentic, Happy Lives
You can share with your child that sometimes kids have been punished for how they identify or made to identify a different way while at school, advises Hall. "For instance, sometimes kids are only allowed to use spaces at school that others perceive to be related to the right gender for them," she notes. "That can be terrifying for kids and confusing."
A peer-reviewed study by The Trevor Project found that transgender and nonbinary youth who report experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity had more than double the odds of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who did not experience gender identity-based discrimination.
Wernick adds that for transgender athletes, feeling unsafe while playing sports at school negatively influence their self-esteem and grades. "Being able to feel safe and affirmed to play in sports, using the bathroom, changing in the locker room that aligns with your gender completely mediates whether or not young people will benefit from playing sports," they note.
Safe, LGBTQ-affirming spaces are also research-proven to save young LGBTQ lives, points out Brinton.
Now, President Biden's executive order will help ensure that LGBTQ kids have these spaces and can be in the spaces that best fit their identity, including bathrooms and locker rooms. Hall recommends that parents explain that when kids have that level of comfort—and continuity with what they do at home—they're more likely to grow and flourish.