Bathrooms: for trans students who have considered suicide when the rainbow is not enough
bathroom – a room in a public place with a toilet and a sink
sex – the state of being male or female as assigned at birth
gender identity – a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female
transgender – a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person was assigned at birth (i.e. – someone whose sex is female but whose gender identity is male)
trans – an inclusive term to cover all non-cisgender identities in the gender spectrum (people who identify as transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, etc.)
gender spectrum – the idea that gender is a range of variations rather than exclusively male or female
cisgender – a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person was assigned at birth
student – one who attends a school
consider – to think about carefully, especially in order to make a choice or decision
suicide – the act of killing yourself because you do not want to continue living
enough – equal to what is needed
In 1976, Ntozake Shange premiered the choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. The play is a combination of poems telling the story of seven black women’s experiences with racism and sexism as well as their work to rise above realities of a society designed to oppress them. It is a story of adversity, of struggle, of overcoming, and most of all, of identity.
I chose the title for this article very intentionally. We are in crisis in our country. I am not saying that the story of black women and of trans students is the same story, but that the story of trans students is also story of oppression, of adversity, of struggle, and most of all, of identity. And all too often, it is not a story of overcoming. We are in crisis in our country. In fact, we are in more than one crisis. This article could be about the crisis of police brutality, or about the crisis of race-related hate crimes, or about the crisis that still exists in the story of all too many women’s experiences with racism and sexism. I am not the person who should write those articles; I hope they are written and soon and many. This article is about a different crisis in our country. I am the person to write this article. I am a teacher with trans students, and I am here to tell you we are losing them.
Our children are in crisis. Our children are dying. Our trans children are killing themselves.
According to a report published in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “one out of every six high school students have seriously considered suicide in the past year.” The same report states that the rate of suicide attempts of LGB high school students is four times greater than that of straight youth, a statistic that is scary in and of itself, but more terrifying when the fact that this statistic does not include the suicidality of trans students, only of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. And trans students experience far more victimization, a risk factor which is highly correlated to high rates of suicidality.
Statistics concerning trans youth and their suicidal ideations and behavior is difficult to come by; studies currently available, like the Grossman and D’Angelli report “Transgender Youth and Life-Threatening Behaviors” or the GLSEN report “Harsh Realities: the experiences of transgender youth in our nation’s schools” are outdated and suffer from small sample sizes and inadequate survey questions. The most reliable and most current statistics on trans experience come from a study which surveyed adults exclusively. Still, the findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a survey conducted with 6,456 respondents, all adults over the age of 18, are relevant when trying to examine the suicidality of trans youth. According to this study, the prevalence of suicide attempts for adults between the ages of 18 and 24 was 45%.
Let me break that down for a moment. This means that almost half of the United States’ transgender population under the age of 24 has attempted suicide by that age. Almost half of transgender people attempt suicide during their youth. Almost half. That is unacceptable. That is unconscionable. But it is not unbelievable.
Our country is in crisis. Our trans children are killing themselves. But to watch the news, one would think the country were under siege from another crisis – the crisis of unsafe bathrooms due to the presence of trans people in those bathrooms. Turn on the television in any given state and you’ll undoubtably hear about the local or state government’s plan to limit the access of trans people’s ability to use the restroom by requiring them to use the bathroom that corresponds to their sex assigned at birth rather than the gender identity they live on a daily basis. The most famous of these laws is HB-2, North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (aka the Bathroom Bill), passed in March of this year. The campaign to pass the bill was rife with fear-mongering, including ugly and statistically untrue assertions that trans people use their gender identity to disguise predatory behaviors in public bathrooms. The irony of this is that if anyone is unsafe in a bathroom, it is the trans person themselves. The reality of this is that we are not only talking about bodily functions, we are talking about life and death. We are talking about trans children being bullied and discriminated against by their local and state governments, and that means we are talking about suicide.
The 2013 National Climate Survey published by GLSEN reported “59.2% of transgender students had been required to use a bathroom or locker room of their legal sex.” This is a discriminatory practice and is the equivalent of state-sanctioned bullying. It was also reported that “LGBT students who experienced LGBT-related discrimination at school were more than 3 times as likely to have missed school in the past month” in comparison with LGBT students who had not experienced discrimination at school. There was not a distinction made between discrimination at school and discrimination by school or by state law, but I can only assume that the state-sanctioned bullying felt all the more cutting to these students. As Emme Goldman, a trans student in Wisconsin, recently told NBC News, “My school district has been really good about giving me spaces and accommodations so I can feel safe in school, but a much bigger state power is working against me. It seems pretty scary… I have accommodations now, but will I have them in a couple months?”
School should never be scary. School should be a safe place. A place of creativity and exploration, a place of study and respect, a place of support and success. Most of all, school should be a place of learning. And yet, for far, far, far too many of our children, it is not. It is a place of state-sanctioned discrimination. And that is not acceptable.
The Obama Administration agrees. In their May 2016 release of “joint guidance to help schools ensure the civil rights of transgender students,” the Department of Justice determined that “under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, schools receiving federal money may not discriminate based on a student’s sex, including a student’s transgender status.” This means that schools receiving federal funding must “allow students to participate in sex-segregated activities and access sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity.” The document goes on to provide guidelines for schools specific to restrooms, taking the stance that students must be allowed access to the facilities consistent with their gender identity while also maintaining that “schools may, however, make individual-user options available to all students who voluntarily seek additional privacy.” Providing single-stall and gender-neutral bathroom facilities can be an effective way to ensure bathroom safety for trans students. The United States federal government will not stand for the state-sanctioned bullying of trans students. There is hope here.
And yet, is there? Just as the school year started for students, including trans students across the country, Judge Reed O’Connor of Texas issued a preliminary injunction against the above federal guidelines. The judge stated that “the federal law that bars public schools from discriminating on the basis of sex does not apply to transgender students” because Title IX apples to “the plain meaning of the term sex.” The Departments of Justice and Education maintain that “both federal agencies treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of enforcing Title IX,” and while such a statement is powerful, it does not change the the Texan judge’s injunction will be interpreted by many states as a green go-ahead light to continue the bullying of students in their schools. Which means trans students will continue to feel unsafe. And continue to consider suicide, and to attempt it, because we are not doing enough.
In for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange wrote the following:
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/ no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly.”
This is what I hope for our trans children. I hope for them to hear our song, and in our song, for them to know themselves, for them to realize their own beauty, for them to be born, and most of all, for them to be handled warmly. For this to happen, it means we need to sing and ask questions. It means we need to reach out and hold them. It means we need to fight for their rights. And most of all, it means we need to realize that it is time for this crisis to stop. Our children are in crisis. Our children are dying. Our trans children are killing themselves. It is time for the story of our trans students to be about stories of adversity, of struggle, of identity, and most of all, of overcoming, and of living.