US school an an­ti­dote to trans­gen­der com­plaints

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

In­side a sunny class­room at a church dec­o­rated with rain­bow flags, two trans­gen­der teenagers ex­ploded into gig­gles dur­ing a dance break from math at Pride School At­lanta. They are among a hand­ful of les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual or trans­gen­der (LGBT) youth who have found a haven at the school, which opened this fall at a time when the num­ber of dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaints from trans­gen­der stu­dents has been soar­ing across the na­tion. The non-profit pri­vate Pride School At­lanta is seen as the first school in the Amer­i­can South fo­cused on the LGBT com­mu­nity and one of few ad­dress­ing sim­i­lar con­cerns in the na­tion.

“They don’t have to fight for the right to ex­ist here,” Chris­tian Zsilavetz, the school’s trans­gen­der co-founder and di­rec­tor, said in an in­ter­view. Court records and data re­viewed by Reuters show a 12fold surge in trans­gen­der stu­dent-re­lated civil rights com­plaints lodged with the US Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion - from seven in 2014 to 84 in 2016. Many com­plaints in­volv­ing bath­room and locker room ac­cess are go­ing un­ad­dressed following court de­vel­op­ments, and there is un­cer­tainty over the di­rec­tion the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump will take on the is­sue.

The in­ac­tion has shut down a process that in­creas­ingly had pro­vided re­course to stu­dents fight­ing for ac­cess to fa­cil­i­ties, names and pro­nouns match­ing their gen­der iden­ti­ties. In re­cent months, fed­eral au­thor­i­ties have sus­pended in­ves­ti­ga­tion or mon­i­tor­ing in 35 pend­ing cases of al­leged dis­crim­i­na­tion, court doc­u­ments show. They are ap­peal­ing re­stric­tions that were im­posed by a US judge in Texas amid build­ing back­lash to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies pro­mot­ing trans­gen­der bath­room rights. Amid the wran­gling, a trans­gen­der high school stu­dent in Vo­lu­sia County, Florida, has been fail­ing a gym class, of­ten late or im­prop­erly dressed due to com­pli­ca­tions about where he must change clothes.

De­spite hav­ing a mus­tache and goa­tee, he can­not change along­side the other boys in the locker room, said his mother, Jen­nifer, who asked to be iden­ti­fied by only her first name to pro­tect her son’s iden­tity. He is in­creas­ingly an­gry af­ter al­ready wait­ing for two years on a pend­ing civil rights com­plaint. “It’s hard to look at him and say, ‘Yeah, what you are go­ing through is un­fair. But there’s noth­ing we can do about it,’” she said.

Safe haven school

At Pride School, where trans­gen­der stu­dents are the ma­jor­ity of its in­au­gu­ral class, Josh Farabee, 14, feels com­fort­able show­ing off his spunky pink and lime hair and long mauve nails. Un­der the gen­derneu­tral re­stroom pol­icy stu­dents voted for, he tried the men’s re­strooms but dis­cov­ered he still prefers the women’s. The trans­gen­der stu­dent’s days at the school are a far cry from his for­mer public school, where class­mates called him “tranny” and “fag.” “I don’t wake up scared to go to school,” he said.

Still, Josh and his mother, Sta­cia Ober­weis, said his public school was rel­a­tively ac­com­mo­dat­ing, with teach­ers adapt­ing to his new name and “he” and “him” pro­nouns. “The teach­ers can fol­low a pol­icy but you can’t make the kids get on board,” Ober­weis said. “And we all know kids are ter­ri­ble to each other.” Even op­po­nents of trans­gen­der bath­room ac­cess see ben­e­fits in the Pride School model, which is serv­ing a small group of full- and part-time stu­dents in a multi-age class­room. “We might dis­agree with the con­tent but the no­tion of lo­cal so­lu­tions and school choice ... is prob­a­bly a good thing,” said Gary McCaleb, se­nior coun­sel at the con­ser­va­tive Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom.

Grow­ing back­lash

Sto­ries like Josh’s in­creas­ingly have alarmed of­fi­cials at the US Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. In court records, the depart­ment says its re­search of trans­gen­der is­sues led to a 2013 land­mark res­o­lu­tion of a civil rights com­plaint out of Ar­ca­dia, Cal­i­for­nia. The agree­ment rec­og­nized a trans­gen­der boy’s right to use gen­der-spe­cific fa­cil­i­ties, in­clud­ing the boys’ cabin on a class trip. The gov­ern­ment soon saw an out­pour­ing of com­plaints. The ad­vo­cacy group Lambda Le­gal rewrote a brochure once fo­cused on bul­ly­ing pro­tec­tion. “We have evolved to, ‘You ab­so­lutely should not be sent to the nurse’s bath­room,’” said Dru Levasseur, trans­gen­der rights project di­rec­tor for Lambda Le­gal, re­fer­ring to the uni­sex bath­rooms com­monly of­fered in schools that block trans­gen­der stu­dents from their pre­ferred bath­room. As of late Oc­to­ber, there were 32 open civil rights in­ves­ti­ga­tions into trans­gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaints at ele­men­tary and se­condary schools in 21 states, Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment data shows. The agency did not dis­close de­tails.

One in­volves the stu­dent in Florida who filed his com­plaint al­leg­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in his school dis­trict, said his lawyer, Asaf Orr, at the Na­tional Cen­ter for Les­bian Rights. Now in his first year of high school, his mother says he feels stig­ma­tized on the long walk to the me­dia cen­ter to change clothes for phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion, which in his opin­ion was the best of the op­tions of­fered to him. He once found him­self locked out of the gym upon re­turn. His school dis­trict said in a state­ment that its poli­cies are not dis­crim­i­na­tory un­der cur­rent law and that it works with trans­gen­der stu­dents on a case-by-case ba­sis. “Things take time,” said Thomas Kr­ever, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Het­rick-Martin In­sti­tute help­ing LGBT youth in New York City. “This is time that this cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple just doesn’t have.” — Reuters

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