Uncertainty, anxiety overshadow new school year for transgender students

Uncertainty, anxiety overshadow new school year for transgender students

BB-HB2-629LGBT advocates, Republican leadership await court ruling on HB2 injunction

As North Carolina families load up at back-to-school sales this week, a looming question remains for North Carolina students:

Will they be returning to public schools and universities where House Bill 2 still dictates which restrooms they can use?

Two weeks ago U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder held a four-hour hearing to consider a preliminary injunction against the law. Keeping in mind the swiftly approaching school year, he said he would rule as soon as possible. His decision could still come any day.

The law, known as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, requires people to use restrooms, showers, locker and changing rooms that correspond to their birth certificates in public buildings, schools and universities.

This leaves transgender people – of whom it is estimated there are about 40,000 in North Carolina – with a dilemma.

Do they use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, as most have for years? Or do they follow the law and risk being questioned, even assaulted, by people who don’t believe they belong based on the way they look?

N.C. Rep. Chris Sgro (D-Guilford) said that for the sake of transgender children and their families, he hopes the ruling comes before school starts.

Rep. Chris Sgro (D-Guilford)
Rep. Chris Sgro (D-Guilford)

“I’m incredibly hopeful we will see that injunction and not have trans kids have one more thing to worry about as they try to excel academically,” Sgro said.

Under state law, traditional-calendar schools can start no earlier than August 26. Such schools in Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenberg and Guilford counties will start August 29.

Sgro is the only openly gay member of the North Carolina General Assembly and also serves as Executive Director of Equality NC, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group.

The law has been bad for North Carolina on every level, Sgro said, making the state a national punchline as major touring acts like Bruce Springsteen and Cirque du Soleil have boycotted the state and businesses like Paypal have pulled out of planned expansions here. Most recently the NBA relocated its 2017 All Star Game, which was to be played in Charlotte, citing HB2. It’s estimated the loss of the event will cost the state $100 million.

But the largest cost, Sgro said, is to LGBT North Carolinians – especially young people. The law also bans local governments from adopting anti-discrimination rules that include LGBT people, some of which had already been passed in Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh.

“That’s incredibly disheartening for all LGBT people and it’s dangerous for transgender people to live under the worst LGBT law in the nation,” Sgro said.

“Young gay and transgender people have heard their leaders lie and call them a public safety risk in the debate over this law,” Sgro said.

Transgender people say the law – and the way it’s been discussed in the four months since its passage – is insulting and dangerous.

“This wasn’t a problem until they made it a problem,” said Holden Cession, a transgender activist from Greensboro.

Learn more: A glossary of terms for Transgender discussions

Cession was assigned female at birth but didn’t identify that way. After a period of transition, Cession now identifies as non-binary – neither male or female, but instead somewhere along a gender-identity spectrum. Cession prefers the pronouns “they” and “them” to “he,” “him,” “she” or “her.”

The law doesn’t take non-binary people into account, Cession said – and forces transgender people who do identify as male or female into situations where many have been assaulted or killed.

It’s appalling that that’s been discussed a lot less than the economic impact of the law, Cession said.

“You can tell the way that people are just, in this moment, not really about trans people,” Cession said. “They’re really about money. The way people are playing out their position on HB2 – either for or against it – it’s about money. And that won’t create a cultural shift, a cultural change. Until we’re talking about the murder of trans people, and trans women of color specifically, in churches and policy forums, we aren’t going to see a change.”

Jennifer Roberts, the mayor of Charlotte, said that change is well past-due.

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts
Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts

In February the Charlotte City Council amended its citywide non-discrimination ordinances to include LGBT people, extending to them the same protections that already existed for protected classes like race, religion and national origin.

The backlash from the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly was swift. A special session was called, costing $42,000, to pass HB2. The bill went well beyond bathrooms, creating statewide non-discrimination language that left out LBGT people totally.

Gov. Pat McCrory initially opposed the overreach of the General Assembly and opposed the special session. But he ultimately signed and defended the law, blaming LGBT activists and the Charlotte city council for its passage. In national television interviews he framed the law variously as a matter of privacy and a matter of public safety.

That sort of blame-shifting was ridiculous, Roberts said – and has led to LGBT scapegoating and increased hostility toward transgender people.

“It’s led to more discrimination, name-calling, people being stopped before they enter a restroom. It’s damaging for the state,” Roberts said. “And it’s damaging for school children and their parents.”

Shana Gordon-Cole, a Greensboro therapist and gender specialist who has worked with transgender patients since 2008, said she has seen a chilling effect among the families with whom she works.

“There is an onslaught of teenagers I am beginning to see whose parents are now more standoffish about letting their kid transition,” Gordon-Cole said.

Transition among young people can often be a touchy subject. But Gordon-Cole said that even parents who might otherwise have been supportive are now worried that if their children transition, they will be thrust into a raging political controversy and possibly targeted for violence.

Teenagers struggling with gender dysphoria – the distress that can result from living as one gender but not identifying that way – are already a high risk population.

In 2014 the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law published a study that found 42 percent of trans women and 46 percent of trans men had attempted suicide.

Lifetime suicide attempts were highest – 45 percent – among those 18-24.

The controversy over HB2 – and the fiery rhetoric surrounding it – make parents even more afraid their children could become statistics.

“It’s a scary thought for parents to think about their child being bullied, attacked, maybe even have them commit suicide, because they’re trans,” Gordon-Cole said.

But delaying or forbidding transition can often make dysphoria and depression much worse, Gordon-Cole said.

But the controversy over HB2 has also shown how dramatically the society is changing.

A number of national touring acts have chosen to come to North Carolina and donate the proceeds from their shows to groups fighting HB2. Popular comedian Louis C.K played to a packed crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum last month, donating an estimated $180,000 to Equality NC.

Last week North Carolina concerts by the Dixie Chicks featured denunciations of HB2 and support for the LGBT community.

“What has bouyed us is the support of North Carolinains and really people all over the country,” Sgro said. “To see the state rally against HB2 in a big way has reminded us that people like Gov. Pat McCrory are in the minority – and they’re going to see that in November.”

Learn more: A glossary of terms for Transgender discussions