We all have a role to play to end harassment and violence against the transgender community
By Phoebe Schreiner and Cash Huynh
The Trump Administration recently rescinded protections for transgender students that allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity, on the grounds that states and local schools should establish educational policy. In the meantime, the Supreme Court vacated the case, sending it back to the court of appeals. This sends the message that targeting transgender people is acceptable, states’ rights are more important than civil rights, and not all students deserve a safe learning environment. At its core, it creates a hierarchy of human value.
In the aftermath of the elections, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 1,100 acts of hate have been reported in November and December alone. Approximately 40% of those hate crimes occurred in educational settings, including colleges and universities. Transgender people, and the larger LGBTQ community, have been the target of nearly one third of these incidents.
These aren’t just statistics. At Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where Cash is a junior, gender nonconforming and transgender students have experienced hostile harassment and intimidation by locals from the larger community and fear for their safety. For example, a group of locals yelled out “make America great again, faggot” to one gender non-conforming student, making them fearful of leaving campus over their holiday break. The campus community did little to speak out in solidarity with those who have been targeted for harassment and violence. Without strong support from their peers, what has emerged at Bates and on campuses around the country is an increase in the acceptability of violence and a culture of impunity. The result? Gender non-conforming and transgender students are openly targeted with little or no accountability. They do not feel safe participating in public life on or off campus — and in some cases, they don’t even feel safe walking to class.
Even before the election, 1 in 2 trans people, 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 16 men experienced sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence during their college education. Because of the shift in the social climate and an increase in the acceptability of violence and harassment, students are concerned these numbers are rising, while reporting is falling.
If our constitution and the American values we hold most dear are to be upheld — in which all people can enjoy their rights, including freedom of expression, and freedom from violence and discrimination — then we all have a role to play to speak out against these harmful trends and step up to build a world in which we all enjoy our fundamental human dignity. Breakthrough’s history of work on gender-based violence has shown that everyone has the capacity to create change–it’s just a matter of how we inspire them to show up and do it.
Breakthrough’s fellows are setting that model, including Cash, whose campaign on bathroom access is calling on the Bates campus community to create a more welcoming space for transgender and gender nonconforming students. Late on the night of March 12, under Cash’s leadership, a group of gender non-conforming and gender queer students replaced the gendered bathroom signs in all the academic and recreational buildings at Bates with gender neutral signs. They also supplemented the signs with informational one-pagers inside each of the bathrooms, and followed the action with a tabling session in the Bates dining hall the following day where they talked to students about the significance of the action, and invited them to stand in solidarity with trans and gender nonconforming people. When students and faculty came to class the next morning, they were faced with a small taste of the discomfort that trans and gender nonconforming people feel on a daily basis. With signs that created newly gender-neutral restrooms where there previously were none, students at Bates called on their peers and administration to take simple steps towards increasing safety and support for trans and gender nonconforming students. Bathroom access is essential for full participation in a public community, and the student body as a whole can help make that participation possible for everyone.
All of us can make a difference. All of us are able to create change. It’s times like this that require us to remember where our values lie: with equality, respect, and access to the bathroom when we need it.
Phoebe Schreiner is the U.S. Country Director at Breakthrough, a global human rights organization working to make violence against women and girls unacceptable.
Cash Huynh, a Breakthrough Fellow and a junior at Bates College, is an organizer on transgender rights, immigrant rights, racial justice, and the environment. They are one of the lead organizers for Bates Student Action and has been working on electoral politics and building student power to actualize their values.