Back-to-school is an exciting time filled with anticipation and renewed energy. But for LGBT students and staff—who experience heightened rates of discrimination at school and elsewhere—this time of year can be stressful and anxiety-ridden.
Jen Slipakoff is the mother of a transgender daughter, eight year-old Allie. Allie has always flourished at school, thanks to supportive teachers and peers. But Jen worries that the recent increase in anti-trans rhetoric will seep into the classroom and negatively impact Allie’s self-esteem and her ability to participate fully in school activities.
“Being recognized and treated as the appropriate gender by her teachers and peers is vital for Allie’s success,” said Jen. “It’s this idea that she is seen and affirmed for the person she already knows she is.”
“Throughout school I was forced to remain closeted about being transgender because of the threat of discrimination.”
Jen’s fears are not unfounded. Transgender youth are all too frequently ostracized for their gender identity, and made targets of harassment. Nearly nine in ten transgender students are verbally harassed at school due to their gender identity and more than half have been physically assaulted, according to a 2009 GLSEN survey. Rose Pelham—a transgender woman and recent graduate of Druid Hills High School—can testify to this.
“Throughout high school I was forced to remain closeted about being transgender,” Rose said.
When she could no longer bear the weight of living a double life, and finally did come out as transgender, Rose experienced severe backlash from her peers at school.
“Inevitably, you feel the strain of living every moment in disguise like a spy in your own life. And inevitably people realize that you are not the straight man they thought you were, because you can only hide so long. But it’s no salvation when their response is verbal abuse and sexual harassment as I experienced.”
Right now, legal protections for transgender students are a shifting target. Though there is growing legal precedent that says Title IX sex non-discrimination prohibitions also apply to trans students like Allie and Rose, not all judges agree with this interpretation.
“I dream of a day when all LGBT students can go from home to school and everywhere in-between free of the fear that they will be treated unfairly just because of who they are.”
In a recent case brought by Texas, Georgia, and nearly a dozen other states, a judge ruled against this interpretation blocking enforcement of non-binding guidelines from the Obama administration that said transgender students cannot be discriminated against and should be allowed to use the restroom that matches who they are.
With court cases regarding Title IX ongoing, it is important that local schools do the work of creating safe and nurturing learning environments for their LGBT students in lieu of explicit non-discrimination protections.
The Friends School of Atlanta is a leading example of a school with LGBT-inclusive policies, where gay and transgender students and staff are welcomed and affirmed.
Head of School, Waman French, said these policies were born of the notion that the school can only thrive when each and every student and teacher feels supported—regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Here at The Friends School of Atlanta, we are proud to be welcoming of all teachers and students—including those who identify as gay or transgender,” he said. “I dream of a day when all LGBT students can go from home to school and everywhere in-between free of the fear that they will be treated unfairly just because of who they are; and when all of Georgia’s LGBT teachers are protected from discrimination and the threat of losing their livelihoods.”
“It’s this idea that [our transgender daughter] is seen and affirmed for the person she already knows she is.”
Skylar is a student at the Friends School. And for her two moms Jennifer and Shonda Lyons-Golden, who are teachers themselves, the school’s LGBT-inclusive policies mirror their own family values—and mean they have one less thing to worry about as lesbian parents.
But in other areas of their life (from home to work to public places like the grocery store) Jennifer and Shonda live with the constant, nagging fear that at any moment they could become the target of discrimination—and their lives could be turned upside down.
“As teachers, it’s our job to create learning environments that feel welcoming and safe for all of our students. But it’s really tough knowing that, because we’re lesbian, we aren’t actually safe or legally protected ourselves,” Jennifer and Shonda said.
As mothers, they are less worried for their own wellbeing than they are for the wellbeing of their daughter, Skylar.
“Because we lack legal protections, we could be fired or discriminated against just for being who we are—and ultimately, that doesn’t just put us at risk, it also puts our daughter’s life on the line.”
To ensure that LGBT Georgians have uniform protections across all areas of life, lawmakers must take steps to advance a statewide non-discrimination bill. If you support LGBT non-discrimination, click here to sign the petition.
If you are a transgender student who has experienced discrimination at school, click here to learn more about the Georgia Transgender Student Rights Watch web hub, a new tool designed to weed out discrimination against trans students at school.SHARE THIS STORY