Five LGBTQ Developments That Should Give Transgender Students Hope for the New School Year

By Adam Polaski • September 18, 2018 • 12:10 pm

Back-to-school season is in full swing, and for many LGBTQ students this can be a challenging time. In recent years, transgender students have found themselves in the national spotlight as the conversation about transgender nondiscrimination protections has accelerated.

From headline-grabbing court rulings to local school district policy changes, transgender students are seeing their dignity and humanity debated – and while that can be unsettling, it also helps more Americans confront what may be their initial, unexamined reactions and come to a place of deeper understanding, acceptance, and ultimately  support. As kids head back into the school year and the months ahead get busy, transgender students and the many other students who support them can take heart in these five developments from the past few years:

1) Discriminatory policies restricting facilities access for transgender students have been shut down by judge after judge:

“When confronted with something affecting our children that is new, outside of our experience, and contrary to gender norms we thought we understood, it is natural that parents want to protect their children,” U.S. District Court Judge Timothy J. Corrigan wrote in July 2018 as part of his ruling in Adams v. School Board of St. John’s County. “But the evidence is that Drew Adams poses no threat to the privacy or safety of any of his fellow students. Rather, Drew Adams is just like every other student at Nease High School, a teenager coming of age in a complicated, uncertain and changing world. When it comes to his use of the bathroom, the law requires that he be treated like any other boy.”

Compassionate, empathetic court rulings like Judge Corrigan’s have swiftly become commonplace when it comes to legal proceedings involving transgender students who confront discriminatory policies in their school districts. In the past few years, more than 20 federal judges, appointed to the bench by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, have sided with transgender students in similar court cases, and momentum continues to be on the side of fairness and equality. Numerous courts, including, most prominently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, have found that policies prohibiting transgender students from using the facilities that match their gender identity violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It’s wrong that transgender students and their loved ones must often fight against discrimination at school, when those students should be able to focus solely on their studies and building their futures – but we should take heart in the many rulings against such discrimination and work toward the day when every school rejects anti-transgender harassment and discrimination outright.

2) Anti-transgender rhetoric is failing – in the court of public opinion and in the court of law

Opponents of transgender equality, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, have recently tried to push a fear-mongering legal argument to chip away at progress for transgender students. The argument – that inclusive school district policies violate the privacy of non-transgender students and violate Title IX – is a shameful distortion of what Title IX is meant to do: protect children from discrimination.

Thankfully and tellingly, judges have found no merit in these legal arguments, knocking down these so-called “privacy” cases in court universally. In July 2018, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals became the highest court yet to dismiss these arguments in the case of Doe v. Boyertown, writing, “Adopting the appellants’ position would very publicly brand all transgender students with a scarlet ‘T,’ and they should not have to endure that as the price of attending their public school.” 

“Adopting the appellants’ position would very publicly brand all transgender students with a scarlet ‘T,’ and they should not have to endure that as the price of attending their public school.” – 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Doe v. Boyertown

As legal precedent like this continues to be built in the coming years, transgender students and their families can take heart that scare tactics from their peers, pushed to join cases by anti-LGBTQ activists like Alliance Defending Freedom, hold no legal water.

3) School districts are increasingly passing policies affirming dignity and respect for all students, including transgender students:

Beyond the fact that transgender students have been protected in court decisions is the reality that school districts and school boards are increasingly taking proactive steps to protect transgender students from mistreatment at school.

In just the past few years, transgender-affirming policies (which extend to affirmative use of students’ names and pronouns, as well as sex-segregated facilities) have been adopted in Kittery, Maine; Tiverton, Rhode Island; Oak Park/River Forest outside of Chicago, Illinois; Northbrook, Illinois; and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin; among others. Each time a school board comes together and stands united for the dignity of all students, they send a message to LGBTQ youth that they are supported, understood, and loved.

4) Support for full transgender equality is higher than ever, especially among young people:

For years now, national support for LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination protections has been very high, and as polling has honed in on transgender people, we’ve gotten even better data detailing that this support also includes support specifically for transgender equality. What’s clear is that millenials and younger are very likely to support full transgender equality (so that transgender people are fully protected from discrimination in employment, housing, and public spaces), at much higher rates than older Americans.

According to a 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll, “Americans aged 18 to 29 favor letting transgender people use the restroom of their identity by a 2-to-1 ratio.” And a 2018 poll of young adults from GenForward found that majorities of Asian-American and white respondents (69% and 52%, respectively), and pluralities of African-American and Latinx respondents (49% and 47%, respectively), agreed with the statement: “Our society has not gone far enough in accepting people who are transgender,” revealing a growing base of strong support from young people. With increased exposure and greater information about what it means to be transgender, these public support numbers will keep growing, and transgender students should know that their peers are the most understanding and accepting generation yet when it comes to basic dignity and equality.

5) Inspirational new role models and leaders for transgender young people have emerged:

Court cases and increasing media attention have led to courageous transgender young people coming forward and sharing their stories, helping more Americans open their minds and consider what it means to be transgender.

Gavin Grimm saw his story rise to national prominence when his court case was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court. Although arguments were never heard in his case, a result of the Trump administration’s rescission of the guidance that formed much of the basis of lower court rulings in his favor, Gavin emerged as a hero, a young man who simply wanted to be treated equally.

In an editorial for The New York Times, Gavin wrote: I am often asked if I regret my actions, or if I would do anything differently if I had the chance. When people ask that, I immediately think about the hundreds of parents who have reached out to thank me on behalf of their children. I think of the hundreds of young people who have thanked me themselves. I think of the countless #StandWithGavin messages on social media, and the countless hugs and handshakes at school and on the sidewalks of my town. I think of people I’ve gotten to meet and grown to love. I think of how honored I am to carry the voice, in some way, of a community so rich and so colorful and so important. I think of how I’ve grown from that 15-year-old child, sitting in fear as he waits to hear what his future will be, into the young man who stands hand in hand with a huge community as we all prepare to take the next step in this fight. I think of my parents, unwavering and strong as pillars in my success and growth. And I say, ‘Absolutely not.’”

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Of course, many transgender students and young people still face significant hardships, and they likely will continue to face challenges in the years ahead. A story from just weeks ago reminds us of the dramatic and dangerous stakes that many transgender youth face in living as their authentic selves: In August a group of parents in Achille, Oklahoma took to Facebook to share their horrific, vile and violent opinions about a 12-year-old transgender girl using the girls’ restroom. Their comments, published on the Achille parents Facebook group, forced the district to close the school for two days that week out of fear for the young girl’s safety, and her family is now relocating to Houston. Stories like this are in line with the results of a national survey by GLSEN, which found that 75% of transgender youth felt unsafe at school.

There’s still so much work to do, and we are fighting harder than ever for the day that no one faces discrimination because of who they are. In a majority of states and at the federal level, LGBTQ people are not fully and explicitly protected by nondiscrimination laws, and that has to change. We must continue to do the work, open hearts and minds, and fight for a safer, stronger future for all Americans, including transgender young people.

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