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Transgender in the Schoolyard: Across America, Uneven Access to Rights

As some states chalk up major wins for the LGBT community, others are doing their best to undermine the rights of a most vulnerable population: transgender students.
 
 
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This piece was originally published at RH Reality Check.

On August 12, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266), enshrining transgender students’ legal rights to full access of school facilities and sports programs. The first piece of legislation of its kind in the United States, AB 1266 requires California schools to allow transgender and gender non-conforming K-12 youth to use bathrooms and locker rooms and join sports teams that match their gender identity.

Just four days before, though, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors voted, without public discourse, to ban gender-neutral housing, save for married couples and siblings, on all 16 of the university system’s campuses. The ban, which happened in the face of a gender-inclusive housing policy green lit by UNC Chapel Hill, arrived on the heels of a failed bill introduced in April that would have accomplished much of the same. One of the bill‘s sponsors, Sen. David Curtis (R-Gaston), even dubbed the concept of such housing “frivolous social experiments.”

The Landscape for Transgender Students

The current educational rights landscape for transgender and gender non-conforming students is uneven. While victories are coming out of California and Colorado, where transgender 6-year-old Coy Mathis won the right to use the girls’ bathroom, other states are working to dismantle or at the very least curb lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. From Tennessee’s botched “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would’ve banned primary and secondary school faculty from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity/expression to the choice by Pennsylvania’s Red Lion Area School District not to read transgender studentIssak Wolfe’s assumed name at graduation (not to mention listing him  as a prom queen, instead of a king,candidate), transgender students are facing more roadblocks in guaranteeing equal representation and protection.

Calls received by the Transgender Law Center from transgender youth who’ve experienced discrimination and exclusion in school are often similar, Mark Daniel Snyder, communications manager for the California-based civil rights nonprofit, told RH Reality Check. Transgender and gender non-conforming students frequently report having to use a secluded or faraway bathroom, are banned from participating in school sports and extracurricular programs, or are prohibited from using other school facilities matching their gender identity.

A 2011 joint report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that, across the educational spectrum, a significant percentage of transgender students reported being denied access to gender-appropriate bathrooms (26 percent) and gender-appropriate housing (19 percent). It also revealed that 6 percent of transgender youth in grades K-12 and 2 percent of college students were expelled for their gender identity/expression, while 11 percent of students lost or were refused financial aid or scholarships for their gender identity/expression.

The joint report also found that 78 percent of transgender K-12 youth and 35 percent of transgender collegians reported experiencing physical, verbal, and sexual violence by students, teachers, or staff due to their gender identity/expression, with students of color experiencing higher rates of violence in school. For example, Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old fashion design student and transgender woman of color, died on August 22 from injuries sustained after being attacked by a group of men who reportedly shouted transphobic and homophobic slurs.

Moreover, 15 percent of youth reported leaving school in grades K-12 or college because of the severity of harassment (48 percent of whom became homeless at some point as a result), and 51 percent of those respondents who’ve experienced harassment or assault reported attempting suicide.

But, said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, the country is at a “really pivotal moment around understanding about trans youth.” While most states do not ensure protections for its transgender students, Keisling noted there’s an “oasis” of states that do; laws in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, the District of Columbia, and North Carolina protect transgender students from the discrimination in public schools on the basis of gender identity/expression. In Washington, Connecticut, and now California, statewide policies afford transgender and gender non-conforming student-athletes the legal right to participate in sports consistent with their gender identity. And, earlier this year, Massachusetts’ Department of Elementary and Secondary Education decreed that schools must allow transgender students to use restrooms and play on sports teams based on their gender identity.