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This Trans Teen Took on Ted Cruz — That Was Just the Beginning

Our Future and the History of Trans Equality and Equity Isn’t Up to Donald Trump

James Van Kuilenburg has a message for all trans youth -- and allies -- feeling disheartened right now.

As many of you might remember, almost a year ago, my mother and I were kicked out of (then) presidential candidate Ted Cruz's rally. At that time, wearing my trans equality T-shirt to his rally was distinctly important to me, given his aggressive rhetoric against trans people.

Looking back, the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency was not even a priority in my mind. Back then, Ted Cruz was public enemy number 1 for trans folks. I could have never foreseen the daily attacks on women, immigrants, and trans youth and adults by the Trump administration.

As an aspiring historian, I often wonder how history will record this struggle for trans equality and equity, its successes and pitfalls. How will history tell the story of this president? What will the history books say about the undeniable statistics Trump came into office knowing?

* Over 50 percent of trans youth in elementary and high school are verbally harassed.
* Almost a quarter of trans youth are physically attacked.
* Seventeen percent of trans youth leave elementary or high school because the mistreatment is so bad.
* Numerous transgender women of color were murdered in the last six weeks.

What will history make of a president, who, knowing all of this information, still decided to rescind the Title IX guidance? The guidance that instructed schools in our country to follow the law and protect trans youth from discrimination, harassment, and bullying? But I know, both as a trans youth and a history enthusiast, President Trump will be nothing more than a footnote.

In the present, however, we have given him an enormous amount of power. No matter what the newest headline or the trending topics are, Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump do not get to decide whether or not trans youth and adults are safe. That decision is up to us and our communities. An executive order only means so much if we let it. Right now, it's up to trans youth to speak with their own voices and up to allies to amplify those voices, instead of speak over them. We cannot trust the administration to know what's right; we must trust supportive parents like my mom. Organizing is key right now -- targeting our school boards, city councils, and mayors. We must persuade them to be on the right side of history.

I appreciate your hashtags; don't get me wrong. Those trending terms like "#protecttranskids" are changing the way trans youth think about their support systems. Up until two weeks ago, we had never been in the spotlight nor realized the sheer number of people who were willing to fight for us. Thank you. This being said, we don't need you to ... protect us. We've been protecting ourselves for years. We need you to join us.

It's very important to us, as trans students, that we are part of the process of creating the policies designed to protect us. Let us build community! After all, we are the ones who have been at the forefront on these issues. We have the stories and the experiences that are vital in creating the most effective regulations.

We are not a single narrative; we are made up of students from every grade, every race, and every financial background. I implore you to listen to our stories and use them so that these experiences become a thing of the past. Let me walk you through my typical day in school as a trans student.

Every day when I wake up, I am forced to choose my priorities. What I chose to wear in those early mornings is often the difference between being harassed or not. It doesn't matter what clothes make me feel comfortable; what I always must remember is what my peers want me to look like. If I do not conform to their expectations of what a boy should look like, I am vulnerable to bullying or teasing.

Every morning I get on my bus and my bus driver uses misgenders me (calls me "she" instead of "he"). I correct him, but it never changes. No one has ever told him to care about using the correct pronouns for students.

Usually, when I walk to my classes, I look at the walls to see the posters my gay-straight alliance has hung up. Their affirming slogans, "Respect Pronouns" and "Trans Pride," make me smile even when I'm feeling scared. I can't say I do this anymore, since every single one of the posters have been ripped down. One was even slashed through with a knife.

In each of my classes, I have identified who I can and can't trust. I know my teachers won't protect me, even if they want to, because they don't know how. I know the group of boys in the back of my English class will make jokes about trans people, but my teacher doesn't know how to respond, and instead of shutting down their comments, she will let them continue. I'm not sure when they stop, because I have to leave the room so I can breathe.

If I have to use the bathroom, I must deliberate. Am I in the right frame of mind to potentially respond to someone in the bathroom? Or would I freeze in time, unsure of what to say? Will I get beaten up, and if so, how badly? I can't afford to risk it. By the end of the day, I'm too tired to defend my identity in the bathroom. I usually skip it until I get home.

If it were up to me, I wouldn't think about being trans every second. Not even every day. I would set it aside and focus on the things my friends are worried about, like the SAT. Instead, every single person in my school reminds me. Every single second, I am yet again made aware that I am trans.

My teachers misgender me in front of my entire class. I run to the bathroom between class changes, and someone stares at me until I leave. I'm told by my concerned friends and sometimes even teachers that students are spreading rumors about my genitals again. These things have never happened to my cisgender friends.

I am one story. I am just one student, but everything about my experience at school would change if comprehensive policy is passed on a county level. Later today, I'll be joined by hundreds of other trans youth, supportive families like my own, and allies. We'll ask the Board of Education to do the right thing to choose to pass policy that protects all of our rights, a policy that was shaped by trans students and our testimonials. Frederick County Public Schools -- and all schools -- belong to trans students too.

And if board members do the right thing, we'll thank them and we'll celebrate because our schools and our country will be just a little bit safer for trans youth. If they cast their votes in favor of fear and to turn the clock back on our rights, we'll celebrate the work we've done so far and come together to strategize on how to change their minds and if need be -- elect new people to office. But win, lose, or draw, our fight doesn't stop at the border of Frederick County or at the magical age of 18. Our work will continue until every trans youth and adult is safe in every school, every city and every state.

The hope President Obama and his cabinet instilled in me, both as a trans student and an aspiring historian, is not gone. He may not be in office anymore, and our allies like Attorney General Loretta Lynch are gone, but I still remember when the AG said, "Please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy -- but we'll get there together."

JAMES VAN KUILENBURG is a 17-year-old trans student at a public school in Frederick County, Md., an aspiring historian, and a member of Trans United's youth advisory committee. Today, he's mostly known for the time when he and his mom got kicked out of a Ted Cruz presidential campaign rally for wearing a trans equality T-shirt, but he aims to go down in history as one of many trans youth leaders who helped make this country and our world safer for trans young people and adults.

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