By Amy Lynn Smith
It’s hard enough being in high school, no matter who you are. Figuring yourself out is part of the experience of growing up, and it’s not easy for anyone.
It’s even more challenging for young people who might be outside the mainstream in some way – which still, sadly, includes being LGBT. It’s especially difficult being a young person who is transgender, when far too many people just don’t understand what that means.
Now consider that transgender people of all ages are caught up in the backlash following the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Transgender people are increasingly the target of those who oppose LGBT equality. Look no further than the anti-LGBT law passed in North Carolina to see how that’s playing out.
Even worse, Michigan’s trans youth are under attack. After the State Board of Education issued draft guidance to make schools safer and more supportive for LGBTQ students, there has been fierce and ugly pushback, including the introduction of a so-called bathroom bill by state Senator Tom Casperson This legislation forces transgender students to out themselves and use the restroom that matches the gender they were assigned at birth, even if it conflicts with the gender they identify with and present to the world.
It seems unlikely that Senator Casperson has given a single thought to the painful burden this would place on transgender youth, like 17-year-old Hunter Keith, who came out as transgender in eighth grade. His family has been completely accepting, as has everyone at his school, Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, Mich.
Keith knows how fortunate he is not to have to struggle with the decision of which bathroom is okay for him to use – which also means deciding which bathroom will protect him from harassment or even violence. When a young man goes into the girls’ room at a typical high school, there could be trouble. That’s something Keith doesn’t have to face.
“I use a unisex bathroom at school because that’s the most comfortable for me,” he explains. “But I have gone in the guys’ bathroom at school and no one has said anything.”
Keith says that if he were forced to use the girls’ restroom at school, he’d be angry. “I’d probably just hold it all day,” he says.
For Reid Ellefson-Frank, using the restroom was just part of the discomfort he felt at a Michigan school that wasn’t affirming of LGBTQ students.
“I didn’t pass well at the beginning of my transition, so it was keep your head down and get out of there as fast as you can,” says the 17-year-old young man. “There was the constant sense of fear – whatever I was doing, whoever I was with or wherever I was – there’s a fear that comes from no one knowing who you are. By having such a big secret, you’re one of the most vulnerable kids in school. So it’s hard to concentrate on formulas or remember what those people did back in 1792 when the most important thing in life is being afraid.”
To place Ellefson-Frank in a more supportive learning environment, his parents enrolled him in Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts, a boarding school for academically advanced 11th and 12th grade students.
Not every young transgender person has the kind of accepting family these teens have, and that’s part of the problem. With no one at home or at school to turn to – or a place where they can feel safe – transgender youth are at risk of not only violence, but emotional duress.
“Trans people are successful with their transition and make it if they have supportive parents,” says Coleen Young, whose daughter, Heather, came out as transgender when she was 26 after struggling with her gender identity for years. “The 40 percent rate of trans people that have attempted suicide breaks my heart. It’s so important for parents to support their kids. It does so much to make their kids happy and successful.”
Young’s protective nature, as both a mother and a retired teacher, has long motivated her to help create safe spaces for LGBTQ youth.
“If you haven’t been around trans people it can be hard to understand,” Young says. “So I’d urge anyone who doesn’t understand to talk to transgender people. Let them tell their story. Even if you don’t understand or agree, they still deserve the respect any other individual deserves.”