At Sand Creek High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., over the weekend, Scarlett Lenh was named homecoming queen – no doubt a high point in the 16-year old’s life so far.
What makes the event newsworthy is that until recently Scarlett was known as Andy Lenh, a biological boy who identifies as a girl.
Transgender issues now touch virtually all aspects of American society – public and higher education, news media and entertainment, politics, and the armed forces.
To some, Colorado Springs might seem an odd place for a homecoming queen who used to be Andy but now is called Scarlett.
It’s where the conservative Focus on the Family and many other evangelical groups are located, as well as the US Air Force Academy, which in recent years has been criticized for pushing religious values and beliefs.
But apparently it was not a big deal for local school officials.
"The leaders at Sand Creek High School and in District 49 respect the decision of the Scorpion student body in electing their homecoming court," district spokesman Matt Meister said in a statement. "Our board policy sets the standard that we do not exclude any person from participating in any program or activity on the basis of gender identity and gender expression."
Last year, a transgender first-grade student won the right to use the girls' restroom at another Colorado Springs-area school district. The Colorado Civil rights Division ruled that not allowing Coy Mathis, who is biologically male, to use the girls' bathroom violated Colorado's Anti-Discrimination Act.
Not all transgender teens have as happy a weekend as Scarlett Lenh at Sand Creek High School. There’s a high rate of suicide among such youth, and many are rejected by their families and find themselves homeless.
According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program in Washington State, more than 50 percent of transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday – five times the percentage for all high school students. Another study finds that nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt.
Bullying, homophobia, religious strictures, and family rejection all play a part. But as with gay rights generally – most notably same-sex marriage, and also with the US military’s turnaround on its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay service members – public attitudes are changing, particularly among younger generations.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said he “would be open” to changing the military’s ban on transgender service members, a policy he said should “continually be reviewed.”
Three retired US Army generals reported last month that “allowing transgender personnel to serve openly is administratively feasible and will not be burdensome or complicated.” An estimated 15,500 transgender men and women now serve in uniform.
The generals’ report, published by the Palm Center, a California think tank, notes that 18 countries – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom – allow transgender service members.
In June, President Obama issued an executive order that formalizes protection for transgender federal employees from discrimination.
"The majority of Fortune 500 companies already have nondiscrimination policies to protect their employees because it's the right thing to do and because many say it helps to retain and attract the best talent, and I agree," Obama told a White House reception marking Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month.
Meanwhile, Women’s colleges are revisiting policies around enrolling transgender students as institutions of higher learning – single-sex, coed and those with religious affiliations – demonstrate varying degrees of acceptance for changing norms, the Associated Press reports.
Mills College in Oakland, California, recently became the first US women’s college to declare it would accept undergraduate applications from “self-identified women” and people “assigned female at birth who do not fit into the gender binary,” effective the semester that starts January 2015.
Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, followed with a similar announcement last week. Administrators at other prominent women’s colleges also are weighing changes.
“What it means to be a woman isn’t static,” Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella, who announced the admissions policy change at the college’s convocation ceremony, told the AP. “Early feminists argued that reducing women to their biological functions was a foundation of women’s oppression. We don’t want to fall back on that.”
In the entertainment industry, transgender characters have begun to play important roles. In the popular Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” one of the most prominent characters is a transgender woman played by transgender actor Laverne Cox. Ms. Cox’s twin brother plays the character in flashback scenes.
Next to a selfie taken after she was elected homecoming queen, Scarlett Lenh writes: “Thank you to everyone who was there for me, your support really makes life a whole lot better right now!”