Rights for Transgender Students

March 5, 2014

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.Transgender Symbol

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.[1]

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.


[1] 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.


LGBTQ: What Does It All Mean?

October 27, 2013

By: Joshua Lipack

Many people find discomfort in discussing the acronym LGBT or LGBTQ … or LGBTQIA for that matter.  And herein lies the point.  The discomfort often encountered when discussing these issues isn’t coming from a place of animus or moral disapproval as it more commonly would have been less than a decade ago.  Many people find it uncomfortable discussing these terms, primarily in mixed-company, because the terms, and the acronyms that house them, are strange to many people.  People don’t want to say something that comes across as ignorant or offensive.  I know this because, as someone included among these letters, I too find many areas within my apparent “community” that remain foreign to me.

As a subject that changes regularly with generational preferences on self-identification it is difficult, even with modest effort, to feel entirely well-versed on everything falling under the newly reclaimed “Queer” umbrella.  What is offensive to some may be a badge of honor and self-identification for others.  In this kind of environment, attorneys Sarah Demarest and Kelly Durden of the LGBTQ Law Center in Charlotte have sound advice to offer.  Refer to people by name, be respectful, and only use terms they have already used to identify themselves.

Attorneys Sarah Demarest and Kelly Durden of the LGBTQ Law Center training Charlotte School of Law Civil Rights Clinic Students on the LGBTQ community

Last week Demarest and Durden gave a special training to the Civil Rights Clinic to better understand how to serve the specific needs of LGBTQ clients.  A portion of the training was dedicated to terminology and terms to avoid.  One of those terms was “homosexual.”  As a gay male, I had always thought it was the more appropriate term in place of ‘gay’ during academic conversation or in writing.  Since coming out four years ago, I have seldom thought about the myriad of terms available to the Queer community.  I wasn’t even aware that “queer” was no longer offensive.

When I came out, I was the only person, at least to my knowledge, who was openly gay on my campus at Queens University in Charlotte.  I had the support of my fraternity and of my family and therefore never ventured much into the LGBTQ community around me, the existence of which was largely unknown to me.  For the sake of terminology, I never wanted my sexuality to define me as a person.  I am gay and therefore my boyfriend, like me, happens to be male.  Beyond that, this revelation was of no importance to any other aspect of my life.  I was “gay” and, for me at least, it was as simple as that.

While it is my personal opinion that the terms available and those continually being added or removed add too much confusion, this is only true through my personal experience.  A key factor in our training was that each person, based on vastly different life experiences, will feel differently towards each term and how they most comfortably identify themselves.  Just as there is more to the color spectrum than blue and green or red and yellow, sexuality, as well as gender identity and expression, fall within a spectrum with many people finding themselves somewhere in-between the more familiar gay or straight.  I cannot blame, and people should not feel uncomfortable, for a want of understanding this spectrum when, as a member of the LGBTQ community, I myself learned new things during this training.

One letter I had generally been unfamiliar with, other than the umbrella ‘Q’ of course, was the ‘T.’  People, whether they are aware of it or not, identify in three categories: gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality.  In my case, my gender identity is male, my gender expression is male, and my sexuality is gay – or, until last week, ‘homosexual’ in my mind since I am writing.  What many are unaware of, particularly in dealing with the Transgender community, is that people can find themselves within any number of possible combinations of these three categories.  Cross-dressers for example, a term which should only be used in reference to people who self-identify that way, are not necessarily transgender, meaning that while someone who is biologically male may dress as a female (gender expression) they do not necessarily consider themselves to be female (gender identity) as would be the case with someone who is transgender.

The key takeaway from all of this is to respect people’s freedom to identify themselves.  If someone who is biologically female, and perhaps even appears to be female, identifies themselves as male, that distinction is one that should be respected.  It requires no further knowledge to interact with the LGBTQ community without being offensive.  There is no need to ask whether this person is ‘post-op’ or ‘pre-op,’ in fact this should be avoided entirely, because all that matters is how they feel and choose to present themselves.  The process for transgender individuals is one that is deeply emotional and personal.  Questions regarding the process or where they are in the transition are inappropriate unless they offer to speak on the subject.

For many of my fraternity brothers, I was the first ‘gay’ person in their life and so of course, many had questions.  While some were naturally inappropriate or offensive, such as asking whom between my boyfriend and I “wears the pants,” they all generally came from a place of seeking understanding or general curiosity and even fascination.  Revisiting my fraternity today as an alumni chapter advisor, the number of openly gay and lesbian students on campus has grown exponentially in part of a general trend of coming out at a younger age, a change occurring only in recent years.  I notice now that the questions are less frequent and the understanding seems to come more naturally with younger generations.  The LGBTQ community has unique and complex issues that take time and experience to understand.  I feel that understanding is coming more easily to younger generations not from education but simply from living in a world where members of this community are seen daily as our friends, neighbors, and family.  What’s to understand?  Perhaps the need for so many terms and spin off definitions will fade as we move towards a world where the fact that I plan on proposing to a man is of no concern to anyone.  In the meantime, the information provided by the LGBTQ Law Center is a valuable tool for any future lawyer hoping to feel confident and comfortable working with LGBTQ clients.


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