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On Wednesday, the Trump administration took its latest step to reverse an Obama-era push for the civil rights of transgender students. The next day, transgender students pushed back.
A rally last night outside the Stonewall Inn featured activists, students, politicians, and parents, followed by an impromptu march up Eighth Avenue. As the issue heads to the Supreme Court, New York City transgender youth opened up about why using bathrooms and facilities that match their gender identity is so important.
“I just want to pee in peace!” Spencer Washington, 18, told the Voice. “In middle school, I was kicked out of the boys’ bathroom because I wasn’t passable, quote-unquote, and when I tried to use the girls’ bathroom, I wasn’t allowed in there, either.”
Attending the NYC rally for Trans Youth bringing my blackness and my trans inclusivity pic.twitter.com/stGsto3wgV
— Spence (@plutosuxk) February 24, 2017
“I was forced to use the female bathroom. I was physically abused. I was pushed to the floor. I was cornered into a stall and then groups of girls would hold the door shut,” said Rocky Sanabria, 18, remembering his time as a student at P.S. 58 in Queens. “It scared them that there was a boy in the girls’ bathroom. And it scared me, as well.”
“I felt like I didn’t really have a place,” Washington said of his time at the Middle School of Marketing and Legal Studies in Brooklyn. “I felt really isolated.”
The Trump administration’s actions mean trans students are likely to feel even more isolated. The day after Senator Jeff Sessions was sworn in as attorney general, the Justice Department told a federal appeals court that it would be stepping back from transgender rights cases.
Then on Wednesday, the Trump administration withdrew pro-transgender guidance the Obama administration issued last May, which told schools and colleges that, as far as the White House was concerned, transgender people are protected under Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in schools.
With this week’s reversal, Donald Trump’s position is official: trans people have no place under Title IX, and the rights of transgender students are a state matter.
“The rights of anyone do not vary from state to state,” openly gay Bronx Councilmember James Vacca told the crowd last night. “We are not a state-to-state issue.”
“Being trans is not a choice; it’s something that you’re born as,” Matt Pasini, 19, told the Voice. “It’s not something that people should have their rights taken away for.”
Pasini began transitioning as a sophomore at Maspeth High School. “My school didn’t really know how to handle that,” he said. “Everything was really awkward. I was not allowed to use the boys’ restroom at first, but I kind of ignored that and did it anyway.”
His classmates were supportive, and school administrators came around pretty quickly, but Pasini remains skittish. “I’m still really anxious about public bathrooms,” he said. “There have been moments outside of my high school when I got harassed in bathrooms, especially when I wasn’t ‘passing’ well.” One time, he says, a few men yelled at him in a Manhattan Barnes & Noble restroom about having a vagina.
“I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this whole bathroom issue, honestly,” said Deborah Parada, 21, of Sunset Park. She makes “a subconscious effort” to avoid public restrooms, she said, and sometimes even uses the men’s room because she is wary of attracting attention in the women’s room, which she prefers to use.
“I really don’t know what to do,” Parada said. “I’m very afraid.”
While the federal government is retreating on transgender rights, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio issued statements reminding New Yorkers of state and city regulations allowing trans people, particularly trans students, to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity.
Gender identity was added to the city’s Human Rights Law in 2002, prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, such as restrooms. In 2014, the city Department of Education issued guidelines for accommodating transgender students, including in bathroom and changing facilities.
At the state level, things look a little different. While the Dignity for All Students Act has provided school protections for the state’s trans youth since 2012, the Republican-controlled Senate has repeatedly blocked a broader transgender non-discrimination bill.
Advocates, fearing that the executive order could be undone in the future, want the regulations enshrined in state law. “The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act must come up for a vote on the floor of the Senate,” Mel Wymore, executive director of TransPAC, said at last night’s rally. “This must not stand.”
The patchwork of laws and regulations around the nation, and even within New York state, have left people confused.
“Every city and every state has their own rules,” said Je’Jae Cleopatra Daniels, 23, a genderqueer Brooklyn College student who lives on the Lower East Side. “There should just be a map that shows you, in this state and that city, you can use the bathroom.”
Even when the laws protect them, gender nonconforming people face problems. Last year, someone called security guards after seeing Daniels exit the women’s room at a City University of New York building in Midtown. “I was really angry,” said Daniels, who only used the women’s room because there was no gender-neutral bathroom available. “I can’t imagine how much worse it is in the rest of the country.”
“I have a friend in Georgia right now and they are super anxious,” Pasini, the former Maspeth High student, said of Trump’s decision. “They called me up… having a panic attack, venting to me about how they’re just so concerned with all the transphobia this might bring about in their hometown, making things so much worse.”
For three years, Sanabria, the former P.S. 58 student, has been mentoring a 10-year-old boy in North Carolina after their parents connected on a Facebook group for people with transgender children. “I think about him constantly when this stuff comes up,” Sanabria said. “Things are going to get really dangerous for transgender people. We were just given something that makes total sense, and now it’s been stripped away from us.”
With or without the White House’s support, the question of whether transgender students are protected under Title IX is on the Supreme Court’s radar. The high court is scheduled to hear arguments next month in the case of Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old whose Virginia school board prohibited him from using the boys’ bathroom.
Like Grimm, Sanabria was able to change his birth certificate to reflect his gender. “My birth certificate says ‘male,’” Sanabria said. “That’s not something everybody has.” In a state like North Carolina, he would be required to use the male bathroom, while someone who wasn’t able to get the document change would be forced into a restroom that doesn’t match their gender identity.
While the courts wrestle with the nation’s confusing jumble of regulations telling transgender people where they can and cannot pee, New York City’s trans youth have some words for the president.
During the campaign, Trump said people should “use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate” and that he would allow trans celebrity Caitlyn Jenner to use whatever bathroom she wanted at Trump Tower. Since then, Mike Pence has become vice president, Sessions has become attorney general, and Trump’s position has become less sympathetic to transgender people.
“I would want to ask him if he’s ever sat down and spoken with a transgender child. I would really love to know how many transgender children he knows,” Sanabria said. “If you’re someone who doesn’t know anybody who is transgender, or you aren’t transgender yourself, you don’t need to question it because it’s not relevant.”
Daniels was doubtful Trump would even listen, but had a message for cisgender people: “What would it be like for you if you were uncomfortable every time in the bathroom? Or if you were discriminated against in any number of states?”
Spencer Washington had a more defiant message for Trump: “If you think that your little law-reversing is going to prevent us from using a bathroom,” he said, “think again.”