I used to counsel young folks at the Bronx Community Pride Center, a drop-in center that offered after-school programming to LGBTQ young people in the thick of the South Bronx. There, as well as at the Hetrick Martin Institute, Harvey Milk High School in Manhattan, and various other oases of tolerance, queer youth were provided with an environment in which they could feel both respected and affirmed. In these spaces, their gender and sexuality are accepted as layers of their identity—not the entirety of it. They love and laugh. They fight and make-up. Never short on brilliance or determination, these young people are navigating their way through adolescence and relationships while learning who they are. I was continually inspired by their commitment to authenticity. There is no law that can erase the fact we exist, just as there is now law that can determine our value as human beings.
US president Donald Trump’s recent decision to revoke former President Obama’s landmark guidelines on transgender students is an effort to legislate away our very personhood. The discriminatory move has shocked many Americans and left those who initially deemed Trump an “unexpected ally” scrambling for new analysis.
Personally, I’m not surprised that Trump isn’t championing LGBT rights. When he hoisted a crumpled, upside down rainbow flag with “LGBT’s for Trump” on the campaign trail, it was already evident that his concern for queer and trans folks in America was nothing more than political showmanship. And indeed, during his first month in the White House, Trump and his administration have repeatedly proven that if you aren’t a straight, white, Christian man, your civil liberties are up for debate.
The predictable nature of Trump’s decisions, however, does not negate their deliberate cruelty.
As Laverne Cox so eloquently put it last week, this about so much more than bathroom access: “When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities—it’s about us existing in public space.” The guidelines introduced by Obama also emphasized the importance of addressing a transgender student by their correct pronoun and name, as well as the school’s responsibility to protect these young people from bullying.
Every student deserves the right to safety, yet according to the National Center for Transgender equality, 75% of transgender students report feeling unsafe at school. Restricting access to the proper facilities implies the safety of transgender kids is less important than the political points scored by pandering to fear-mongering straight people. Even as people like this Florida woman publicly vow to harass transgender people in bathrooms, there are essentially zero examples of non-trans folks accosting anyone. Who are we supposed to be afraid of, again?
What is clear are the ways in which hostile learning environments effect the mental and emotional wellbeing of queer young people. There is direct connection between bullying, depression, and suicidal tendencies for this incredibly vulnerable community. And yet the Trump administration has essentially absolved American teachers and chaperones of their responsibility to safeguard trans students. Just as importantly, Trump’s rollback of trans protections provides legal cover for the perpetuation of outdated and dangerous prejudices in the classroom.
In a few months, Gavin Grimm’s case is still working its way through the US court system. Gavin is a 17-year-old transgender teen who sued his school board in Virginia after public high school officials denied him access to the boy’s restrooms. With Gavin’s fate up in the air, the White House’s stance on transgender rights sets a scary precedent.
In theory, the law should protect all Americans. In practice, however, LGBT people, people of color, and women have been long-exploited and overlooked by those tasked with protecting them. Legality in this country is not automatically equated with morality or justice. And now, fear of transgender people, particularly trans women, is being used to justify the stripping away of our civil rights. Tragically, transgender kids are being scapegoated to deflect accountability—girls and young women don’t need protection from trans teens, they need protection from cisgender men and boys. The pathology is not ours. The myth of the transgender boogeyman is as ridiculous as it is heartbreaking.