Transgender high school students are frequently mistreated and denied basic rights by schools ill-prepared to give them the support they need. The Equality Act could change that.
By Ketaki Deo
Middle school and high school are often a reminder of the turbulence of adolescence- struggling to find oneself in the face of societal pressures. For students like Brandon, 17, a Massachusetts high school student, that struggle was further complicated by having to navigate the public school system as an out transgender student.
Brandon describes his middle school as “fantastic”- a safe learning environment dedicated to its students. In eighth grade, however, Brandon came out as transgender. Brandon’s middle school, like so many others, found themselves completely unprepared for a transitioning student. His middle school didn’t know what bathrooms to allow him to use, and forced him to use unisex facilities.
“I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom,” he says, reflecting on his middle school experiences. “I would get bullied, get pushed down the halls.” Brandon notes that he was also unwilling to talk to administrators about the bullying he faced: “I didn’t tell anyone, even though the school would have probably stepped in.”
Brandon’s experience isn’t unique — a CDC study estimates that about 2 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 identified as transgender- that’s one in every 50 students. And yet, the majority of LGBTQ students report going to a school without any policies in place. One in four LGBTQ students feel uncomfortable going to school, one in three report bullying, and one third have survived a suicide attempt.
To help address this crisis, schools and administrators requested guidance from the Department of Education on supporting youth like Brandon — which they received in 2016. But within days of taking office, the Trump administration withdrew that guidance and began ignoring reports of prejudice from transgender students.
Asked recently at a Congressional hearing whether she knew the damage withdrawing that guidance would to trans youth, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos confirmed that, yes, she did.
For Brandon, going to a high school that was aware of how to provide resources for its transgender students meant all the difference. Suddenly, he didn’t have to think about where he had to go to the bathroom, or if he should report bullying from other students.
“I was still scared”, he says, “but I knew that I had support.”
While many states and school districts are opting for better rules to ensure the safety of transgender students attending school, there are far too many cases where trans students are suffering as a result of inadequate protections and policies.
Last October, a trans student in Virginia was barred from an active shooter drill and forced to sit in the bleachers because teachers were unsure which locker room to send her. This past summer, the Achille School District in Oklahoma shut down for two days following violent threats from parents against a middle school transgender student. Another student in West Virginia was harassed by his vice principal while using the restroom, with the administrator even demanding he use the urinal to “prove” he’s a boy.
As Brandon notes, the variety in state and district policies makes it difficult to tell whether a school will be accepting or whether they will be completely unable to meet transgender student’s needs: “In Massachusetts we do have guidelines,” he explains. “Unfortunately, if I want to go to school in New Hampshire, or Arizona, or Texas, things would be different”.
This variation in experiences is especially important when considering how students of color, students from low-income families, or differently abled students might deal with their gender identity or sexual orientation. Students with marginalized identities will no doubt still face adversity in being open and expressive with their identity- but having policies in place means they have a starting place to seek just treatment.
The Equality Act seeks to establish these policies, mandating schools to consider the needs of all students and incorporate gender identity and sexual orientation into already existing language for school equality policies.
Over 70 percent of Americans approve of the Equality Act, and the bill was introduced with bipartisan support in the House and Senate. However, there is still a great amount of momentum necessary- lawmakers and advocates are calling for as much visibility as possible.
Like the Civil Rights Act that this bill seeks to amend, the Equality Act will not unequivocally end discrimination in public schools. But giving students the awareness and support they need is important, and for students like Brandon, it is life-changing.