Ariel walked toward the women's bathroom at the mall, then paused as the woman exiting did a double-take. The woman's face soured as she stared at Ariel, then she barked, "You can't go in there!" Ariel's eyes dropped to the floor. She turned back to me. "I'm just going to wait," she said. I wanted to lash out at the woman, call her ignorance out by name, but I knew Ariel would be mortified. When the woman walked away, disgusted, I urged Ariel to go in. "No, it's OK," she said. "I'll wait until I get home."
I work with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness and scenarios of restroom bullying and violence are all too common. Young people like Ariel report continual harassment, turning a banal daily necessity like going to the bathroom into an act of courage.
The Obama administration's watershed letter stating public schools are obligated to treat transgender students in a way that matches their gender identity, even if their identity documents indicate a different sex, is an astonishing step forward for trans youth. For the first time, trans students' rights will no longer be contingent upon the whims of PTAs or local and state government. The Obama administration has backed up Attorney General Loretta Lynch's words
when she addressed the trans community only a few days ago:
"We see you, we stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward."
This swift action, an unequivocal rebuttal to the latest string of anti-LGBTQ legislation passed in Tennessee, Mississippi, and North Carolina, is a cause for celebration but also a call for caution. The directive will undoubtedly result in an even larger gush of fury and vitriol. Lawmakers in those states have worked aggressively to ensure that their discomfort with identities not easily categorized is accommodated, masquerading their fear as safety, attempting to purify public spaces of all things nonbinary. "Safe spaces," they've concluded, should be bestowed on those who already regularly feel safe. Instead of being inclusive and affirming of all people, these states insist on enacting another binary: fit in or get out.
Although the government guidance doesn't change any existing laws, the condemnation is already pouring in. Port Neches-Groves, Texas, school superintendent Rodney Cavness slammed the Obama administration's directive: "I got news for President Barack Obama. He ain't my president and he can't tell me what to do. That letter is going straight to the paper shredder."
This type of rhetoric from a school official fails to acknowledge the letter's goal of inclusion and the well-being of all students. It will only fuel an already wild fire, further putting trans students at risk. The discrimination, harassment, and violence trans youth already experience should not be exacerbated by irresponsible reactions to this federal directive.
Students like Ariel should not have to feel paralyzed by shame and fear each time they need to use the restroom. Now is the time for our community and allies to rally around trans students and show them they are supported. They experience enough challenges getting through the day, evident in the statistics: Homelessness, substance abuse, depression, and suicide disproportionally effect LGBTQ youth. LGBTQ youth -- especially trans youth -- continue to suffer the burden of social stigma and are continually denied dignity while little is done to address their pain. As a community, when we fall silent on trans youth issues, we fail our young people in our complicity.
We've learned from the marriage equality backlash that there is a segment of our population who believe it is their right to determine who is worthy of being treated with respect and who is not. It is our duty to stand with our young people against that bias.
Ariel said she's uncertain of the impact this affirming decision will have on her experience at school. But she's cautiously optimistic. Despite her years of self-doubt and suicidal ideation, she's managed to learn to love herself. She's found a supportive community, and she's rewriting her narrative, not allowing other people's ignorance and hate to define her. Her refusal to stay invisible despite the bullying, discrimination, and misinformation is part of what made this systemic change possible.
We all should be cautiously optimistic that public spaces over time will become safer for Ariel and other trans youth. But we can't rely solely on the government to foster that change. We as a community need to help evoke that progress by mobilizing support for trans and gender nonconforming students. Many allies don't need to think differently. We need to show up differently. It's not just about thinking the right thoughts. It's about how do we put those thoughts into action, using our privilege to raise awareness. That can mean calling out microaggressions in the grocery line, at the mall, or in the form of a phone call to your legislator. Despite the strong opposition from conservatives, I'm hopeful that we can learn to care across differences, that regardless of how in conflict our own experiences are with another person's experience, we can learn to empathize. This directive by the federal government is a good step in a safe, affirming direction. But ultimately, our safety, the youths' safety, is constructed by how we show up -- for ourselves, and for others.
Note: The youth's name has been changed.