by Tierra M. Ragland
In the past couple of months, the rights and issues of Trans* students have made it to the forefront of mainstream news and social media. Facing an issue common to many transgender youth, the highest court in Maine ruled that a transgender student would be allowed to use the bathroom in accordance with her gender identity, an issue faced by many transgender youth. Right here in Charlotte, East Mecklenburg High School crowned the first ever transgender homecoming King. These stories address gender identity, cis-gender privilege, and the struggle of Trans* youth for equal rights, visibility, and legitimacy in mainstream society. Although these issues have made national news, many people are unaware of the inequality in treatment of Trans* students. This issue prompted two student organizations at the Charlotte School of Law to organize a panel on Trans* student rights to promote awareness of these social justice issues and provide students with the tools to get involved.
On Tuesday, February 4th, the LGBT Legal Society and the ACLU at Charlotte Law hosted a panel on Trans* student rights. Presenters for the event included Attorneys Kelly Durden and Sarah Demarest from the Freedom Center for Social Justice LGBTQ Law Center and Josh Burford, Assistant Director of Sexual and Gender Diversity at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
The purpose of the event was to educate the Charlotte School of Law community on the issues faced by the Transgender[i] community, specifically in a school setting; there were nineteen students in attendance. The event started with an interesting icebreaker wherein the students broke into smaller groups and answered a series of questions about one person in the group based on their car keys. The icebreaker addressed the problem with stereotypes and the importance of self-identity. Josh Burford’s presentation educated the audience on queer history and language. The beginning of the presentation addressed the importance of language to illustrate how, during different points in history for the purpose of identity and visibility, the LGBTQ community has adopted different words to define or redefine their sexual orientation and gender identity. Burford also addressed the tension within the community with the use of the word “queer” as a term of agency or term of negativity. He also addressed how marriage equality being the “main” issue in the LGBTQ community does not address the issue of Trans* people in an effective way. Mr. Burford’s presentation was a great lead-in to the attorneys’ presentation on Trans* student rights within the academic setting.
Durden and Demarest educated students on the issues facing Trans* students in schools. The following issues were addressed during the presentation: access to restrooms congruent with gender identity, legal name change, housing stability, exclusion from nondiscrimination policies, a dropout rate twice that of cis-gender students, sexual assault, and the criminalization of Trans* women. Almost all of the problems faced by the transgender community are centered on transphobia.
Bathrooms are an issue for the Trans* community only when they are denied access to facilities that are not consistent with their gender identity. For example, if a student is assigned the sex of male at birth but identifies as female, she then should be allowed to use the bathrooms designated female. Denying Trans* students access to facilities can lead to fear, threats, self-harm, and violence. This problem can also be solved with gender-neutral bathrooms.
Legal Name changes are available to everyone but are exceedingly important to the Trans* community for two main reasons: safety from being outed in a classroom setting and allowing Trans* individuals to choose a name aligned with their gender identity. If a student has not taken the steps to legally change their name, many schools do not have policies to protect students from being outed or allow students to use of preferred names or pronouns. Trans* students are often not protected in schools’ non-discrimination policies because such policies lack protection for sexual orientation or gender identity.
Attorneys Kelly Durden and Sarah Demarest not only educated on Trans* student rights but also provided the audience with ways to effectively advocate for Trans* student rights. The first step is continuing to educate ourselves by attending events similar to the Trans* student rights panel. Charlotte School of Law students as future attorneys or advocates can advocate in formal ways by working to change polices in the community to make them more Trans* inclusive. Students can get involved by joining local social justice organizations in the school and throughout North Carolina. Last but not least, students can volunteer at Freedom Center of Social Justice LGBTQ Law Center and other professional organizations working to improve the lives of the Transgender community.
The lesson from both presentations is that the laws and policies within the education system and many other parts of societies provide no protection, inclusion, or safe space for Trans* youth. In a world of people struggling to find themselves, to tell their own story, to be seen as legitimate, the existence of Trans* people are legitimate not because we as a society make it so, but because they say so and that is really all that matters.
 I hesitate to use the words “transphobia” and “homophobia” because I do not believe that “phobia” or fear of a group of people properly addresses the everyday reality of the violence, discrimination, and hatred experienced by members of the LGBTQ community.
[i] Within this blog there may have been be words unfamiliar to the reader. The following definitions are provided for clarity:
LGBTQ: An abbreviation for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer” A term often used to be more inclusive of the diversity within the community.
Transgender: An umbrella term that encompasses people who experience and/or express their gender differently from conventional or cultural expectations. Transgender people can be any race, age or sexual orientation. Often written as “Trans*” to be inclusive of the diversity within the transgender community.
Sex: Gender marker assigned at birth.
Gender Identity & Expression: How one self-identifies and chooses to express their gender often through dress, grooming, or social interaction. This may or may not be connected to the sex assigned at birth.
Cis-Gender: When one’s gender identity and sex assigned at birth are congruent.
Gender Binary: The classification of sex and gender into two distinct, opposite and disconnected, forms of masculine and feminine.