In October of 1945, 80 percent of white students at Froebel High School in Gary, Ind.,walked out of classes to protest the racial integration of their school. School officials threatened to punish the striking students, but to little avail. City officials, parents, and students made no move to end the stalemate for weeks. It drew national attention and shone a spotlight on America’s ugly side.
Joseph Chapman, the local Urban League chief in 1945, observed that this strike brought attention to the plight of black residents of Gary. “It made people, I think, more conscious,” he said. “They couldn’t get decent housing. They couldn’t get adequate employment.”
Seventy years later, almost nothing has changed except what class of people are the targets of open community wrath, discrimination, and segregation.
Two weeks ago, over 150 students in Hillsboro, Mo., walked out of class to protest transgender student Lila Perry being allowed to use the girls’ bathrooms. None of them were penalized. Parents also showed up in support of the students walking out. Three school board members resigned in protest over the school district’s attempts to accommodate transgender students.
This sort of hatred is visible in other places where transgender people are being included. Northwest Local School District officials in McDermott, Ohio, faced an angry mob of parents at a school board meeting recently. “I despise it. We’re Christians, we don’t believe in this all these different types of males and females, you know what we have now,” said meeting attendee Patty Crabtree. “We have slowly watched all of our rights, our Christian rights are being taken from us. We are tired of it.””
Throughout the process, the vitriol and ignorance has been front and center. Student Sophie Beel in Hillsboro told reporters, “I find it offensive because Lila has not went through any procedure to become female — putting on a dress and putting on a wig is not transgender to me.” In McDermott, one parent commented, “If you have a child who has boy anatomy, let him go to the boys’ restroom. If you have a child who has girls anatomy, let them go to the girls’ restroom. It’s simple.”
While this student’s understanding of what it means to be transgender is flawed, it also demonstrates another common way of ensuring transgender students are segregated. This “logic” has been repeated at the highest levels throughout many school districts: Transgender students can only be treated as female if they have had gender-reassignment surgery. This ignores that even if a student wanted this surgery, even if they could afford it, no reputable surgeon anywhere would perform such a surgery on someone before the age of 18 because it violates the ethical standards of care for transgender people.
An analogy to this situation would be if a 15-year-old girl wasn’t allowed to participate in cheerleading unless she had breast augmentation. First, the idea of forcing someone to undergo unwanted surgery to conform with gender stereotypes should disgust any sane person. Second, the notion that someone should have to undergo surgery they can’t afford or don’t want in order to have access to activities at school is both classist and repulsive. Finally, even if you get past the first two, it doesn’t change the fact that no ethical doctor would perform the surgery anyway, given both the age and coercive nature of the situation.
When people look at the suicide statistics for transgender youth, they often assume it’s because there’s something intrinsically wrong with being transgender. Let’s look at it from the perspective of the transgender child.
Your parents don’t accept you. You’re ostracized, and kids at school are holding hate rallies against you. Members of the community are joining in the hate rallies and calling you an abomination.You have to quit classes because you are too hated to participate, and have to hide in the principal’s office during the rallies against you. Lawyers from powerful anti-LGBT hate groups are showing up in your little town, working with other adults to marginalize you. The only bathroom on campus you’re allowed to use is so far out of the way that your choices are to be late for class and written up, or hold it until you get a bladder infection.
The Internet and social media are full of people screaming at you that you’re sick and better off dead. Your church has told your parents you’re not welcome there anymore, as long as you show up as yourself. Your parents are threatening to put you back in conversion therapy again. The conditions people have set in order to simply tolerate you are impossible to meet, much less ever be accepted.
What teen girl, even a straight cisgender one, would hold up under these circumstances? Not many, I’d wager.
The double standard couldn’t be clearer: We as a society torture transgender youth beyond the limits of what most humans, much less adolescents, can endure, and then fault them for not being able to meet a super-human standard we created in the first place.
Zachary Drucker, a transgender woman and part of the show Transparent, recently said, “There’s no place for us in this world.” Transgender adults have a greater ability to find a place or make one on their own. For transgender youth like Lila, there really is no place in a sea of hate, and no way out but somehow finding the will hang on for a few more years and escaping to a more accepting place. But that doesn’t make the present any better.
Someday, years from now, we will look back at what we as Americans will look at what we did here and feel ashamed. Just like we do when looking back at what happened in Gary, Ind., 70 years ago.
BRYNN TANNEHILL graduated from the Naval Academy in 1997 before serving as a campaign analyst while deployed overseas. She later worked as a senior defense research scientist in private industry; she left the drilling reserves and began transitioning in 2010. Since then, she has written for OutServe, The New Civil Rights Movement, Salon, Everyday Feminism, The Good Men Project, Bilerico, and The Huffington Post.