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The Government Is Abandoning Us — Time to Go Back to Our Roots

The Federal Government Is Abandoning Us—Time to Go Back to Our Roots

With an increasingly hostile administration, local activism is imperative.

These are scary times for LGBTQ youth, their families, and their loved ones. Hell, let's be honest, these are scary times for most of us who live, work in, or visit this country. With a new presidential administration made up of leaders who espouse antigay, anti-transgender, anti-Muslim, racist, xenophobic views and more, and whose actions appear erratic to the most seasoned political observers, it is no wonder queer families are worried.

A letter issued Wednesday by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education is an abandonment of transgender students. The letter revokes key school guidance that clearly said schools are obligated under Title IX to let transgender boys use boys' bathrooms and transgender girls use girls' bathrooms in public schools. It is a devastating setback. It means that many schools will not adopt or enforce policies that ensure equal treatment of transgender students. It also means that transgender students at schools that have complied with the guidance may see their schools suddenly reverse their support.

The last presidential administration did an enormous amount to develop protections for LGBTQ youth, particularly in schools. Its efforts resulted in widespread change including acceptance and inclusion of students throughout schools and districts where previously there had been little hope of achieving advancements in LGBTQ protections.

Significant progress came from the last administration's deep commitment to guarding civil rights. When North Carolina passed its odious statewide law that excludes transgender people, including youth and adults, from being able to safely move throughout their communities and rolled back local nondiscrimination protections, the Department of Justicw quickly stepped in to challenge it. The federal government's leadership was a beacon of hope for the community.

Yet even with a supportive federal administration, we saw major setbacks as well. In a case deliberately brought in Wichita Falls, Texas, because it would be heard by a predictably hostile judge, a federal district court prohibited the administration from requiring schools to permit transgender students to use the same restrooms as other students. The Obama Justice Department appealed that ruling and defended the guidance, an appeal now all but abandoned by the new administration.

Against the backdrop of this dynamic activity, one brave boy (now 17 and a senior at a Virginia public school) stands poised to walk into the United States Supreme Court March 28 to challenge his school's refusal to allow him to use the boys' restroom. In 2014, Gavin Grimm challenged his local school committee's adoption of a policy that targeted transgender students for exclusion from restrooms in public schools throughout Gloucester County, Va. After an initial loss at the district court, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Gavin's favor. A ruling in his case will impact both him personally and transgender students across America. With the Trump administration's reversal of policy, however, there is a real risk that Gavin's case may not be heard now that the basis upon which the lower court's decision rests has been dissolved.

To say the least, we face tremendous uncertainty about what the future holds with regard to federal enforcement of civil rights protections. So while we must hold federal agencies accountable for their obligations and we must and will pursue all protections available through the federal judiciary, we cannot rest comfortably. The only thing this administration has proven is that it will follow through on its promises of hostility against the most marginalized among us.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, and surely there must be, it is that we cannot count on the federal government or any of its agencies to protect the LGBTQ community. Recent events suggest that, like it or not, we are returning to the LGBTQ movement's home court, the one that brought us to the point when the Obama administration took up our cause -- fighting for change locally, in our families, our neighborhoods, our schools and campuses, our towns and cities. For the past two (and really three and four) generations, that is what we have been doing -- creating real, sustainable change by engaging people one at a time and asking them to stand up for the dignity of people they know and love.

These are difficult and challenging times, and we will undoubtedly see even more reversals of prior gains. But know this, although it may feel like a sea change, it is one that returns us to the place from which LGBTQ people successfully built a movement that changed the world for the better and, in doing so, laid the foundation for the federal government to support us.

We cannot forget that while the federal government's support was central to recent progress, we also know that gains we ultimately achieved came about because of the visibility and advocacy of trans kids, growing numbers of parent-support communities, queer summer camps, social and peer support groups and networks for youth and families, high school and college advocacy, and an explosion of online ways to connect and create community. The community's hard work and efforts set the stage for government support. Not the other way around.

The magnitude of the political shifts we are seeing can make us feel either demoralized or empowered (and sometimes leave us swinging wildly back and forth between extremes). But when it comes to creating a safe, inclusive, affirming environment for our kids, we have no choice but to act. We must, and we can. No school or parent should wait for the first openly transgender kid before advocating for the adoption of supportive policies. No parent should be satisfied their school hosts a supportive climate because federal or state law states a broad commitment to nondiscrimination. School by school, district by district, community by community, we must shift school climate to support transgender students.

Parents and allies, with or without LGBTQ kids, are the fiercest advocates for change. Make it your personal goal to see that all schools in your local community adopt express policies that ensure transgender boys and transgender girls in schools are fully integrated into learning environments on equal terms with other boys and girls, including making sure they can freely and fairly access student bathrooms. These times call us all to advocacy.

In the words of Harvey Milk, "All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential."

Harvey spoke often of hope in times that were bleak and dark for LGBTQ youth. In his calls to action, he emphasized the importance of effectuating social change starting within our own families and communities by speaking up and coming out. Although today Harvey Milk is recognized as a national leader, we should not forget that he was a city supervisor -- a local official. In these tough times, we are called to remember our heroes and history and to have hope. In continuing to blaze a path forward, we must understand and capitalize on the reality that we are returning to what may turn out to be our home court advantage: local activism.

JENNIFER L. LEVI is transgender rights project director for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders.

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