For trans children and their families, a time of growing uncertainty

Parents of transgender students, and the teens themselves, say 2017 has brought greater uncertainty than any they've faced in recent years – after recent gains toward equality have been stifled or reversed.

Courtesy of Lisa Meyers
Transgender teen Chris Meyers and his mother, Liz, live in Illinois, where state laws are relatively friendly to the trans community. Still, recent national developments have left Liz in a pessimistic mood. “It’s almost like starting from scratch,” she says. “It’s like you get so far, and all of a sudden you’re knocked down a notch.”

For the past five years, Jim and Kate Henderson have been on a personal odyssey. The summer before second grade, their daughter said she felt like a boy and wanted to be treated like one, too.

“I realized [then] as a parent that, even if I’m struggling understanding this for myself, I have no more important job in my existence than to ensure my kid feels they’re loved and affirmed for who they are,” says Mr. Henderson.

So began a slow, sometimes awkward and occasionally painful process of self-education and protection. Conferences were attended, friends and family were notified, teachers consulted – all with the goal of ensuring their child felt safe and secure.

Now with their son in sixth grade, the Missouri family, who requested that their names be changed to protect their child, say they believed they had built a strong network of support around themselves. Their son, they felt, had been given a chance for a normal childhood.

But recently they have been pitched into uncertainty, they say, first by the unexpected election of Donald Trump, then by the US Supreme Court declining to hear a major transgender case this spring, and finally by their state legislature contemplating a controversial "bathroom bill."

“It’s hard to have parent control around that,” says Ms. Henderson. “That’s a much longer, harder journey than taking care of our one precious kid in our little beautiful family.”

“I was hoping we would find some peace and people would move forward,” she adds. “We’re now in the most vulnerable position we’ve been in.”

Multiple parents of transgender students, and the teens themselves, say 2017 has brought greater uncertainty than any they've faced in recent years. That it comes after a period of what seemed like growing understanding for trans Americans leaves them feeling particularly unsure of what the future may hold.

Debate around transgender issues, particularly access to public bathrooms, has been bubbling for years, occasionally coming to a boil over specific legislation or litigation. But overall, the transgender community and advocates felt that progress was being made. Eighteen states and hundreds of cities and counties have laws in effect barring discrimination on the basis of gender identity, and transgender celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox have made transgenderism headline news in recent years.

But recent events have bred the fear that progress could be stifled, or worse, reversed.

'It's almost like starting from scratch'

Across the border in Illinois, state laws are much friendlier to the transgender community – including gender nondiscrimination and antibullying laws. But Chris Meyers, a bespectacled transgender senior who hopes to become a therapist, is barred from using the boy’s bathroom at high school, something he says makes him feel “like I’m being labeled” and “like they’re trying to separate me.”

And recent national developments have his mother, Liz, in a pessimistic mood.

“It’s almost like starting from scratch,” she says. “It’s like you get so far, and all of a sudden you’re knocked down a notch.”

In February, the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era Department of Education guidance allowing transgender students in public schools to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity (a guidance that underpinned high-schooler Gavin Grimm’s earlier victory in federal appeals court). The Texas Senate passed a bill last month that would restrict bathroom access based on “biological sex,” and 16 states have introduced similar legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Carolina partially repealed its controversial bathroom bill in a compromise deal that left people on both sides of the issue upset.

Much remains unclear, including the Trump administration’s positions on specific transgender rights and the fate of many of those state-level bills. Nevertheless, many transgender advocates fear that after more than a decade of progress – not only around the legal and social issues facing the trans community, but also awareness of its very existence – those gains could begin to be eroded.

Mason Dunn became an activist 13 years ago when he says not many people were even familiar with the word “transgender.” As a transgender male, he would get kicked out of department stores and verbally harassed on the street. But in recent years, he says, “the climate changed in very large and important ways.”

Not only are there more laws and policies supporting transgender people, but “social consciousness of trans identities has grown.” But Mr. Dunn, who is executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, also adds that “while legal equality has been moving in right direction, lived equality is still a major challenge we face.”

For example:

  • Nearly one-third of transgender people live in poverty, compared with 14 percent of the US population.
  • The unemployment rate in the transgender community is 15 percent, three times higher than the national average, according to a 2015 survey of 27,715 transgender people in American states, territories, and military bases.
  • Two of every five respondents in the survey said they had experienced serious psychological distress in the month prior to completing the survey.
  • Forty percent said they had attempted suicide —almost nine times the rate of the general US population.

The most alarming disparity in the transgender community, many say, concerns mental health. However, transgender people also face discrimination accessing housing, health care and other social services, research has found.

And these social issues, like so many others, have roots in schools. Of the survey respondents who were out or perceived as transgender while in school, 54 percent said they were verbally harassed, 24 percent said they were physically attacked, and 13 percent said they were sexually assaulted because they were transgender. Seventeen percent said they left school as a result of their mistreatment.

Something that seems minor, like barring a transgender student like Gavin Grimm from using the boy’s bathroom, can have cascading negative effects throughout society and throughout life, says Jessie Adams, a transgender male who is a mental health counselor in a Boston-area hospital.

Among transgender university and college students who were denied access to gender-appropriate bathrooms or campus housing, 60 percent attempted suicide, according to a 2016 study by researchers at Georgia State University.

“There actually is a statistically significant relationship between access to bathrooms and appropriate housing and suicide attempts,” says Jody Herman of the Williams Institute, a think tank focused on sexual orientation and gender identity law at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. “When you have these experiences of disparate treatment or discrimination, it does impact you.”

'What's wrong with ... a space just for women?'

But there are other Americans equally concerned that if their criticisms and concerns are not heard, then other populations will be put at risk.

Indeed, a diverse coalition of voices oppose, to varying degrees, the expansion of transgender rights, with bathroom access perhaps the hottest topic of all.

Miriam Ben-Shalom is a lesbian Army veteran and a renowned gay rights activist who campaigned against the military’s policy excluding homosexuals and, later, its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. But she is also concerned that allowing transgender women access to female-only spaces like bathrooms and locker rooms could put them in danger, views that caused her to be removed as grand marshal of the Milwaukee Pride Parade last year.

“I don’t think transgender people should be discriminated against. They ought to be able to have employment, they ought to have housing,” says Ms. Ben-Shalom, but “what’s wrong with having a space just for women? What’s wrong with having a room of our own?”

“Right now any male who self-identifies as a female can get into any locker room or women’s space,” she adds. “How do you know who’s a good guy and who isn’t a good guy?”

Similar concerns have surfaced in liberal areas as the transgender community has become more prominent. These range from a group of swim moms in New York’s Upper West Side who voiced concerns after their daughters reported seeing a “bearded individual” in the women’s changing room, to a leader of the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who quit the organization over its support for transgender people seeking to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.

Thus, some state gender nondiscrimination laws are facing legal challenges. The Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI) and a coalition of other groups last year successfully proposed a ballot measure, to be voted on November 2018, to repeal the state’s law, enacted last year, banning discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of gender identity. On its website, the MFI says it is “dedicated to strengthening the family and affirming the Judeo-Christian values upon which it is based.”

And for Andrew Beckwith, the group’s president, the transgender bathroom issue has become “a zero-sum game.”

“Not everyone can have what they want in this case, so what is the most reasonable accommodation?” he asks. “There is no great solution, but the best, most common-sense solution that protects the most rights, that does the best good for the most people, is reasonable accommodations like they had [for] Gavin Grimm.”

That Grimm challenged the Gloucester County school board’s decision requiring him to use a gender neutral bathroom “shows an unwillingness to be reasonable on this issue,” he adds.

Of course, Grimm had been using the boys’ bathroom at his high school for two years without incident before some parents found out and complained, precipitating the school board’s decision. And it is facts like that that bother transgender advocates.

The coalition behind the Massachusetts repeal effort keeps a long list of “examples of privacy violations” on its website, including many from conservative media websites. But other groups – including the left-leaning Media Matters for America – point out that there haven't been any increases in sexual assault in any state that has passed a nondiscrimination law.

Transgender rights advocates also point out that every state in the union already has Peeping Tom and sexual assault laws. Law enforcement agencies in states that passed or are considering bathroom bills, including North Carolina and Texas, have said the laws would have little impact on public safety while potentially diverting resources away from more important police work.

At the end of the day, transgender people are the ones who are more at risk of assault in bathrooms, says Ms. Meyers.

“Whether he’s accepted or not, as the mother of a transgender student I’ll always be worried about Chris, every day of my life, whether the law changes or not,” she adds.

'I just want to feel like myself'

Chris says he felt like he was a boy “from a very, very young age,” long before he learned the term “transgender.” He last wore a dress when he was seven years old (for a Communion), and counts himself fortunate that he has a supportive family, particularly in the social minefield that is high school.

“You’re looking for friends and acceptance, and when you don’t find that you feel alone, you feel depressed, and you feel like there’s no one to turn to,” he says. “When you don’t get that [family] support, it can bring you to those dark times in your life.”

While some in the transgender community are fearful that their recent progress could be rolled back, Chris is hoping there will be more opportunities in the future to “show there’s no reason to be scared of transgender people.”

“Just imagine being trapped in a body and you can’t get out of it, and you don’t feel comfortable,” he adds. “I just want to feel like I’m normal and just like every other boy and man out there. I just want to feel like myself.”

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