Magazine Feature

Building a Just Future

Four transgender high school activists courageously share their stories and explain how educators and allies can help them amid the hostile attacks on their human rights.
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Illustrations by Peter Gehrman

“I came out as trans when I was 11,” says Dayley. “Even since kindergarten, I kind of knew I was a girl.”

Ajia* explains her realization over time while living outwardly as a boy: “I don’t think this is who I am supposed to be.” At 13, her self-understanding included her identity as a transgender girl.

Dayley and Ajia are not unusual. Research shows that gender awareness is generally established by age 5 or 6, meaning that most people will have a sense of their gender by that age. And gender identity is usually stable. This is true for both transgender individuals—those whose gender self-understanding is at odds with the gender assigned to them at birth—and cisgender individuals, for whom identity is congruent with gender assigned at birth. Helping young children understand their own experiences of gender can normalize their journey of identity formation and prevent the anguish of feeling they are somehow “wrong.”

“It wasn’t until I understood that being trans was an option for me that I came out and started social transition in fifth grade,” says Dayley. Being able to transition was a huge relief to her. This experience, too, is not unusual. Medical experts warn that withholding gender-affirming care (such as social transitioning) from minors who need it causes grave harm. Studies also confirm that receiving appropriate gender-affirming care significantly reduces trans youths’ mental health risks.

And yet every day, state politicians are restricting appropriate and necessary care for transgender youth. Literally hundreds of anti-trans bills were introduced in the past year at the state level, and dozens have passed. These attacks on trans youth are part of a broader assault on democracy and human rights to ban the teaching of accurate history, censor discussions of racism and force LGBTQ+ people back into the closet. LGBTQ+ people and students of color are in the crosshairs, and for youth of color who are queer, compounded discrimination is particularly intense.

Educators, civil rights advocates and above all young trans people themselves are fighting back. “Queer and trans people around me are so strong and so resilient,” says ishani, who identifies as nonbinary. “LGBTQ people of my generation are coming together to fight these anti-trans and anti-queer legislations.” They are also defining their identities for themselves and creating safe spaces with and for one another, often in hostile environments.

Educators have an important role in ensuring the safety and well-being of trans and LGBTQ+ young people. Trace Roth, a New York City teacher who also identifies as trans, remembers a teacher who helped them survive. “That’s who I want to be for my students,” they say. Roth finds hope in “knowing the kids will be that for other people, too.”

Illustration of two people tending to a small garden together.

Defining Themselves

While LGBTQ+ people and allies have descended on state capitals to protest, young trans people are often confronting their own local anti-trans environments. “I’m from a small town [in the Deep South] where everyone knows everyone,” says Ajia. “It’s pretty hard, honestly; people like me are not accepted.” She stopped going to church because it was a hostile space. School is “a mixed bag,” with some teachers respecting her pronouns and others bringing their religious judgments into the classroom. Home can also be a challenging place. “One day it’s cool, and the next day it’s rocky,” Ajia says.

Difficult situations are even harder for Ajia because of a lack of resources and role models in rural areas, especially those with high rates of poverty. So Ajia set out to change that. She started a community-based GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) that created a safe space and “a place to be our authentic selves.” About a dozen young people are part of the group, which has taken field trips to cities to participate in a Pride march and attend a drag show. It’s life-giving “to see there’s more people out there that are like us,” Ajia says.

Ollie lives in southern Florida and has access to the kind of resources Ajia’s small town lacks. They have been active in the regional GLSEN chapter, helping organize the annual youth conference, as well as with the Naples Pride Center, which holds regular youth events. Dayley, too, lives in a place with more support. “I’m in New Jersey, and I definitely think I’m in a lucky position,” she says. “I want to use that privilege to do something good.”

Dayley, like Ollie, is involved in local LGBTQ+ activism. They both also serve, along with ishani, on the National Student Council of GLSEN, an intergenerational LGBTQ+ organization working to make schools safer for queer and trans students. Ajia, Ollie, Dayley and ishani all understand that they have agency in the world and are using that agency to create better lives for themselves and for other youth.

This generation of LGBTQ+ young people also have a strong sense of agency to define who they are for themselves. Even if external circumstances make it difficult, they know they are the authorities on their lives. One wonderful result is that many young queer people don’t let themselves be forced into fixed identity boxes, and they understand that trans and queer are terms that encompass many lived self-understandings. “I identify as nonbinary, transgender, genderqueer, transmasculine,” says Ollie. Dayley and Ajia both identify as transgender girls.

As ishani, who lives in Orange County, California, explains, “The way I understand myself, I don’t identify with a specific type of gender. I like to see my gender as very fluid.” For young people of ishani’s generation, the concept of intersectionality comes naturally. “As an Indian person, I’ve been going on this journey within myself to find out how my culture intersects with my gender identity, how it intersects with my queerness,” ishani says.

How Can Educators Support Trans Students?

Young people experiencing forms of marginalization and discrimination need support. “They need spaces to be themselves,” says Roth, the New York City teacher, “and adults they can trust, not only to talk to but to be role models and show them that it’s possible to exist and give them resources.”

“When you see something happening, say something. Don’t be a bystander. Don’t sit patiently and watch the  news and say, ‘Oh, I hope things get better.’ Actually be part of it.”

Like Roth, Natalie Popadich is a teacher who is also trans, and she, too, has been paying it forward in providing safe space for young people. Both teachers emphasize the need for inclusive curriculum. “There’s so much research about making sure students can see themselves in curriculum,” Roth explains.

“We need to know that we have a history as queer people,” Popadich says, recommending that teachers start with “big names” in their subject areas—like Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Bessie Smith, Frida Kahlo or Alan Turing. More broadly, Popadich says that it’s part of her district and school diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to make sure that “there’s representation of queer people, Black people, Brown people, people with disabilities, things like that.”

When ishani’s face lights up as they recount learning about hijra people in India—a broad category in South Asia that includes transgender and intersex people—the importance of such inclusive efforts is clear. “It’s affirming to find different ways my culture has historically or culturally had queerness be a part of it for a long time,” they say.

All four of these young people stressed the importance of educators doing “the small things,” as ishani puts it. These include asking students for their pronouns and displaying safe space stickers or Pride flags. Popadich starts the school year by asking what names and pronouns students use in school and at home. “We don’t want to out anyone,” she says, because “it may not be safe” to be out at home. She also recommends leaving notes for substitute teachers so students whose names and pronouns may differ from the school roster don’t have to correct the substitute. To this list of “subtle but external support,” Dayley adds having topical classroom discussions and “bringing up current events.”

“Make explicit you as a teacher don’t tolerate discrimination from day one,” Ollie says, and recommends letting students know if they ever have an issue “that you are a safe space.”

Ajia puts it even more simply: It’s about “supporting a child and respecting them for who they are.” She also reminds educators that “you never know what someone is going through at home,” so teachers should help students “feel as comfortable as possible, let them know they’re loved, be understanding, don’t be judgmental.”

“Especially now in our current climate, it’s really hard for people to just listen,” says ishani, but sometimes that is exactly what young people need. “There’s times when all you need to do is just take a step back and listen to what we’re saying, because at the end of the day, queer and trans youth know what we’re talking about because we’re living through it.”

Legal Rights and State Repression

Educators can support LGBTQ+ students by understanding that public school students have certain constitutional rights that school officials cannot violate and state laws cannot override.

“This is the really difficult moment that we’re in, so we’re really calling for our school district leaders and school districts to just be bold in how they plan to ensure that every child who steps into a classroom is going to feel safe and affirmed—because that’s what’s needed to be able to learn.”
—Ian Siljestrom

“The Supreme Court says students don’t shed their rights when they enter the schoolhouse gate, and that goes to all the constitutional protections, including rights to speech and expression,” says Paul Castillo, senior counsel and students’ rights strategist at Lambda Legal. Those rights include gender expression—so, for instance, while schools can have dress codes, they can’t design them in ways that target students’ identities.

Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex, and sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. This gives LGBTQ+ students “the right, and this is particularly important now, to be free from discrimination and harassment at schools,” says Castillo.

The reality on the ground too often doesn’t match these rights on paper. In a survey by GLSEN, 59% of students reported that their schools have discriminatory policies or practices. And hostile state legislatures across the country are busy passing laws denying transgender students access to appropriate restrooms, among other things—and civil rights organizations are busy challenging them in court. This discrepancy underscores the truth that laws are only ever as effective as their enforcement; educators can be important advocates for the enforcement of these basic rights.

At the state level, it’s important for educators to get as much clarity as possible about what is and isn’t in the various laws and policies restricting students’ rights and limiting what teachers can teach. These laws are “intentionally vague, so that way nobody can discern what conduct is prohibited,” says Castillo. The result is that educators self-censor, curtailing curricula, modifying anti-harassment policies and even shifting their responses to bullying. The First Amendment and Title IX rights of students aren’t altered by laws like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” act, but the chilling effect they have on teachers and others negatively affects LGBTQ+ youths’ learning environment, safety and mental health. Therefore, it is crucial that educators be informed about these laws and know, as much as is actually possible, what their own rights are. Armed with that information, they can better protect both their students and themselves.

“This is the really difficult moment that we’re in,” says Ian Siljestrom, director of Equality Florida’s Safe & Healthy Schools Project, “so we’re really calling for our school district leaders and school districts to just be bold in how they plan to ensure that every child who steps into a classroom is going to feel safe and affirmed—because that’s what’s needed to be able to learn.”

Changing the World

Teachers who in the past were passively supportive of queer and trans students “have been coming to our GSA and basically saying, ‘What can I do to help?’” says Ollie. “There have been multiple teachers who have told us they will do anything for us even if it means risking and losing their jobs.” That people “who don’t have skin in the game” have decided “that this is the time to stand up … that’s what gives me hope,” Ollie explains.

Dayley’s message to educators is that LGBTQ+ young people need allies. “When you see something happening, say something,” she urges. “Don’t be a bystander. Don’t sit patiently and watch the news and say, ‘Oh, I hope things get better.’ Actually be part of it.”

These young people are definitely being “part of it.” They are exploring and defining their own identities, building support networks where none existed, actively organizing for change, and using what privilege they have to fight for others as well as themselves.

“Everyone is equal, and I feel like we deserve better than we’re getting,” says Ajia. But even in her own very difficult environment, she asserts, “the world is capable of being changed.”

These kids are joining a long lineage of queer and trans people who have fought for a better world. As Roth reminds us all: “There’s always a history not only of struggle but of perseverance, joy and revolution.”

And as Ajia encourages us: “No matter what the world throws at you, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t be that girl.”

*For safety reasons, Ajia’s name has been changed.


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