Fifteen-year-old Sara’s mother recently bought her a wig so that she could look more like the other girls her age. Sara was thrilled, her mother recalled, but the first day she wore it to her school, a group of kids surrounded her outside of gym class. They wouldn’t let her pass.
“Show me your d!” they chanted at her, using a euphemism for male genitalia.
Sara is a transgender youth who was born a boy, but identifies as a girl. Her mother Michelle has been very supportive, but her school in upstate New York has refused to discipline other students who have subjected Sara to bullying so brutal she recently dropped out of school.
“She’s told me on more than one occasion, ‘I wish I could go to bed and not wake up,’” Michelle told reporters in a statewide conference call this morning. “Her anxiety and depression have made it impossible for her to go to school.”
Sara’s story was one of dozens collected from students all over the state by the New York Civil Liberties Union for their report, “Dignity For All?” The five-year report, released today, provides a harrowing look into the humiliation and discrimination endured on a daily basis by transgender and gender nonconforming students in districts from all over the state.
“Transgender students, like all students, have an equal right to education,” said Donna Lieberman, director of NYCLU, in a conference call presenting the report. “Public education for transgender students is in a state of crisis.”
Many students are not openly transgender, instead striving to “pass” as their preferred gender to their peers and avoid harassment. But schools publicly expose students as transgender by not allowing them to use bathrooms or locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity, says Lauren Frederico, one of the authors of the report.
“In the classroom, students feel disrespected and shamed by teachers who call out incorrect names during attendance or use incorrect pronouns,” Frederico said. “Kids avoid using the bathroom or skip class altogether to avoid being seen.”
One student athlete from Syracuse, for example, has managed to keep his classmates from finding out about his transgender status. But after his school insisted he stop using the boys’ locker room, he chose to stop going to gym class instead. He is afraid his friends will ask questions if they see him changing in the nurse’s office.
As a result, his grades in gym, where he was once top of the class, have plummeted. He’s at risk of falling off the honor roll. He is trying to convince his parents to homeschool him.
“Children should not be forced to go to these lengths to get an education,” Frederico said.
According to state law, they shouldn’t be.
The Dignity for All Students Act, which was signed into law five years ago, prohibits discrimination based on a variety of factors, including gender identity and sex. But the New York State Education Department has not provided public schools with guidance on handling discrimination specific to transgender youth.
“In the absence of state guidance, trans students face discrimination and harassment throughout the entire school day,” Frederico said. “Even the most well-intentioned principals and superintendents are at a loss for what to do. Most staff receive little to no training on students with different gender expression.”
To make matters worse, transgender youth are some of the most vulnerable in American society. Almost 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, with “family rejection” being the leading cause of their homelessness. About 41 percent of transgender people will attempt suicide at least once in their lives.
These statistics frighten parents like Michelle, who has watched her daughter Sara spiral deeper and deeper into depression as a result of the abuse she’s suffered at school.
“We’re in the process of moving again so we can bring her to a new school district,” Michelle said. “That means starting all over. I don’t even know if the new school will be any better. But she deserves a chance. Her life matters.”
NYCLU is calling on the State Education Department to provide detailed guidance to public school districts. “It’s time to stop the discrimination of transgender and gender non-conforming students in our schools,” said Lieberman. “We can’t wait another minute.”
Among its recommendations is a state law ensuring transgender students have access to bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity, equal opportunities in athletics and the right to keep their transgender status private. That includes respecting preferred names and gender pronouns.
“All I ask is that, even if someone doesn’t accept transgender people, to please respect them,” said one student on the conference call this morning. His voice wavered as he spoke. “Calling someone by their preferred name and using their preferred pronouns doesn’t mean you’re accepting them. You’re just respecting them.”
NYCLU is also asking for more training opportunities for school staff on supporting transgender youth.
“I asked the school to bring in training for the staff,” said a mother of a six-year-old girl, who prefers boys’ clothes, characters and accessories. “Over several weeks, the harassment [of my daughter] escalated and became physical. She was kicked, stepped on, her hair was pulled while a student shouted at her that she’s a boy. I asked the school to bring in training, I asked the school to incorporate age-appropriate lesson plans for gender identity. The school said no.”
Under the Dignity Act, one administrator in every school should be trained as the Dignity Act Coordinator to respond to discriminatory bullying. But from the stories in the report, it’s clear that training for only one administrator is not enough, said Frederico.
“Transgender students can’t afford for us to take on discrimination one school or one district at a time,” she said. “Immediate guidance and training is needed to make sure all school staff understands what it means to truly promote dignity for all students.”
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