Facing Bullies and Court Battles, Transgender Kids Head Back to School

Kids boarding a school bus.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

At her last school, bullies threw Corey Maison’s button supporting then-candidate Hillary Clinton in the boys’ urinal. They said, “You want it? Go get it, boy.” The bullying was so bad her parents decided to pull Corey from school and homeschooled her for over a year. This year, Corey, who is a transgender girl, is starting 11th grade at a new school, an arts high school in the Detroit metro area with a large percentage of students who identify as LGBTQ. She hopes to learn French and study dance, and that the kids will be nicer than the ones at the other school.

During August and September, all over the country, kids are heading back to school. It’s a time of both nerves and high hopes for every family, but for transgender and gender-nonconforming kids and their parents, there’s an extra layer of concern. After all, how these kids dress, what names they use, where they change their clothes for gym, and even where they should go to pee are serious political issues, ones that are being debated in the courts and at all levels of government in America in 2018.

For many of these kids, including Corey Maison, the concern that looms largest is whether they’ll be accepted by their peers at school. Acceptance of trans and gender-nonconforming youth varies drastically across schools. In some, kids carefully police one another’s gender expression and punish nonconformity mercilessly. In others, gender-nonconforming hair or dress is all part of the dominant fashion of the day.

Parents of these youth have the same fears any other parent has—that their child will struggle to make friends, and that they’ll be picked on for their differences from other kids. “Any time she starts a new school—and there have been several—my fears are that again she will be bullied, or she will be targeted, either by the boys or by the girls,” Corey’s dad, Eric Maison, told me. These worries are exacerbated by the constant media attention to trans issues, including coverage of negative outcomes like suicide, homelessness, unemployment, violence, and poverty. Parents have a strong drive to protect their kids, but that drive can’t always overcome a society stacked against transgender people in all areas of life. And parents are keenly aware of that.

Already this year, one school in Oklahoma was shut down when officials learned that a group of parents were making threats against a 12-year-old transgender girl. Maddie ventured into a girls’ bathroom in her new school on the first day of seventh grade, which was apparently all it took for a group of parents to threaten violence, including graphic threats to castrate her as well as suggestions that they should encourage their own children to beat her up. Disturbingly, Maddie’s mother reportedly said they originally moved to Achille, Oklahoma, to get away from bullying after their daughter was attacked in a boys’ bathroom in fourth grade. The family is now considering yet another move.

For other kids, it’s the unequal policies of local and state governments that cause the most stress—particularly in light of the Trump administration’s decision to revoke federal guidance protecting the rights of transgender youth in school. Max Brennan, 16, is returning to his Maryland public school after a court battle where he won the right to be treated the same as other boys, including changing in the same locker rooms. Max and his family spent three years contesting a policy that prevented him from using the boys’ facilities, and in June they reached a settlement that will allow him fully equal treatment for the first time.

“To me, it seemed kind of slow-moving,” Max told me. “I was just going to school and living my normal life and hearing updates once in a while or giving my opinions. Going back to school, I have all the general hopes and fears of any other kid. I’m excited to see my friends, don’t want to fail my classes. From the trans side of things, my school is a very conservative demographic, especially with kids my age, but I haven’t had anything but support.” Max isn’t sure if the other kids at school have heard about his case. “I was keeping close friends up to date, but most people didn’t really know about it,” he said. “There’s a lot of quietness about it, because it’s controversial for the area.”

Whether they’re fighting in court for equal treatment, entering a new school in the hope of escaping bullying, or just going about their lives under the spotlight that media and political attention brings, trans and gender-nonconforming youth face pressures and stressors that few other young people do. Young people like Corey and Max are brave not because they want to be brave, but because the environment they find themselves in gives them no other choice.

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