The Deadly Reality for Transgender Students Facing Discrimination in School
Transgender youth in school are subject to constant discrimination, from policies and administrations who fail to fight for them, to severe bullying by other students. Because of this, trans students often feel like they have few choices between...
Illustration by Jennifer Kahn
In honor of the transgender men and women who lost their lives to extreme violence and suicide in 2016, we're taking an in-depth look at the social factors that contributed to their deaths. Read more of our coverage here.
In September of this year, the parents of Marilyn Morrison, an eight-year-old transgender girl, made the decision to pull her out of school after her complaints of constant harassment were met by no response from the school's administration. The child described the school as "a horrible, horrible place" wherein teachers refused to accept her chosen name and where she was denied bathroom rights.
Nell Gaither, President of the Texas-based Trans Pride Initiative, released a statement in August encouraging both the community and the media to condemn "the broad state-sponsored stigma that is growing in Texas and elsewhere, which fuels bias that exacerbates bullying in our schools."
"Harassment and discrimination are products of adults not establishing a culture of acceptance."
According to the Williams Institute, trans and non-binary people are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than cisgender people, and almost 50 percent of transgender youth have considered taking their own lives. Last year, we saw a string of transgender teen suicides; most victims had voiced their experiences of bullying and discrimination at school to those close to them. Among them was Ash Haffner, a 16-year-old trans boy who took his life after enduring years of bullying, according to his mother. Another was 16-year-old Taylor Alesana, who not only spoke out about the harassment she experienced on her YouTube channel, but who also reported it to school officials. In the end, its effects were too devastating for Alesana to face everyday.
Joel Baum, the Senior Director of Professional Development at Gender Spectrum, tells Broadly that transgender and non-binary youth feel largely "less safe, less seen, and less supported" than their cisgender classmates. "There are a number of [trans and non-binary] kids who are facing rejection at home, suffering from depression, mistreatment, and feeling unsafe or unsupported at school," says Baum. "Schools have an affirmative obligation to say to every kid, 'However you're doing gender, we see you. However you're doing your gender is fine.'" Still, Baum says that this is only an ideal that most schools are nowhere near. Schools today, he says, are organized around an outdated understanding of gender. These institutions do not go out of their way to understand their students who do not fit into the two societally accepted gender molds.
Read More: A Day in the Life of a Trans Teen
A report by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that "transgender individuals reported retrospectively high rates of harassment, assault, and sexual violence when they had attended K–12 schools." According to Bullying Statistics, transgender students are five times more likely to miss school out of fear from bullying. Baum says that though both peers and faculty are at fault for this, "harassment and discrimination are products of adults not establishing a culture of acceptance" within schools. Through his work at Gender Spectrum, he has seen the effects of adults who practice gender inclusion on youth. "It is our experience that when schools are intentional about creating a gender inclusive school climate that we see a big reduction in degrees of mistreatment that kids face from their peers," he says.
Trans students face yet another opponent in their fight to stay in school: lawmakers working to effectively takeaway their bathroom rights. Baum explains that laws like HB2 are about a lot more than a bathroom choice—they successfully stand in the way of a trans student and their education. There are serious repercussions for trans students who are forbidden from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, he explains: Unable to use public restrooms during the day, "kids become constipated, they have urinary tract infections or accidents, they end up dehydrating themselves—and suffering the psychological effects of being marginalized in this way." Baum says that such laws place an immediate target on the backs of students whose classmates know they are trans or non-binary. Evan Singleton, a trans boy from Texas, told Al Jazeera that bathroom bills alone feel like a form a bullying. "It's public shaming," said his mother. Further, Baum says bathroom restrictions are sending trans students a "chilling message institutionally," which is that "you are not who you think you are, and we do not endorse who you are at all."
Today, some schools are move towards gender comprehensive existences. In July of last year, for instance, New York's State Education Department released a document, titled the "Guidance to School Districts for Creating a Safe and Supportive School Environment For Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students," to help schools create an environment free of harassment and discrimination for students across the gender spectrum. For many trans students, however, these changes won't happen soon enough. According to the NYCLU, 50 percent of trans students avoid school regularly, and their dropout rates are disproportionately high compared to those of their cis classmates. "The results of this are dire," says Baum. "We start to talk about the school-to-prison, school-to-institutional care, or school-to-street narratives. A young person who is not successful at school and is facing rejection at home has literally no alternatives."
Education is considered by many to be a tool, a weapon, and a ticket to prosperity. When transgender people are time and time again denied the resources and respect necessary to obtain that education, we feel those effects collectively as a society. The fight for trans equality has seen both strides and setbacks in the past few years as it has made its way into mainstream conversation. The next few years, however, exist in a space of uncertainty as one of Congress's most notoriously anti-LGBT members becomes our vice president and as LGBT organizations prepare for the fight of their lives. In education and elsewhere, trans youth and their allies are mobilizing, hoping that the latter prevails.