If there has been one defining trait of the first month of the Trump administration, it’s bullying. Americans have watched their president turn on some of the country’s most vulnerable populations, including Muslim refugees and travelers and the judges who rule in their favor, as well as immigrants here illegally and the cities that offer them sanctuary.
And on Wednesday, President Donald Trump targeted another vulnerable demographic: transgender children, who already fear for their safety at school.
The administration’s decision to rescind federal guidelines protecting transgender students in public schools nationwide didn’t come as a surprise to most advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Whatever feelings Trump has toward LGBTQ people, most of us assumed he’d owe it to the Christian right that helped put him in the White House to let conservatives target transgender people. On Wednesday, those fears were confirmed.
Trump’s move comes even after several recent high-profile incidents of bullying against trans kids. In Britain, an 11-year-old trans girl was subjected to horrific harassment for five months before being shot with a BB gun last week by a male classmate. In her case, her bullies called her a “tranny” and a “freak” and drew penises on the covers of her books. They told her that she should be taken to the gym and beaten up “because you’re a boy, not a girl.” The abuse escalated until she was shot. She’s 11. In what world is it OK to do that?
Those people who stand in the way of child transitioners often say that children are too young to know their gender. Bullies, apparently, aren’t too young to know, though; where’s the admonishment for them?
Harassment and bullying of transgender children is painfully common. Study after study reports that LGBTQ students are at higher risk for bullying, with trans kids bearing the brunt of the abuse. Society’s gender roles are strictly enforced, especially among those assigned male at birth. Children are coerced into proper behavior for their birth-assigned sex role by everyone around them, including parents and other children, and bullies remain an important tool of oppression.
When I was growing up, I was still very closeted, but even so, I faced incidents of bullying for being trans. When I was in 10th grade, I told a girlfriend of my affinity for dressing in girls’ clothes in private. I trusted her with that information at the time, but then we broke up, and she told her cousin, who already happened to have been my biggest bully. The next day, my locker was broken into and my belongings were defaced with homophobic slurs. It was terrifying for a young, closeted trans girl, and I decided to try to swallow my true nature at all costs. It would be 19 more years before I actually began my transition.
Those of us who advocate a more free and accepting society for trans kids often hear people express concern that allowing children to transition will only set them up for bullying by peers. But why is the U.S. government now seeking to control the victims of abuse instead of going after the abusers?
Stories of the abuse of trans children come from far and wide. In St. Paul, Minnesota, a charter school’s initially supportive stance toward a trans girl who started transitioning became a political hot potato once other parents were notified. Zack Ford of ThinkProgress chronicled the many letters sent to the board of Nova Classical Academy; one comment, in particular, shows how bullying of trans kids is endorsed by parents who should know better. “I don’t have to inform the school leadership that transgenderism is a behavior and thought mentality that is novel and only lately approved of in common culture,” the parent wrote. “I have no ill will to any transgender people. But it is foolish to assume that such behavior is normal and should not raise any eyebrows. For children to find such things either alarming or strange is natural.”
The children at the school had no problem with their trans classmate until the teachers decided to intervene. Child bullies can take cues from their parents. If those parents are demanding that schools out their children’s classmates, and schools aren’t allowed or willing to protect students on the basis of their trans status, it creates an environment of harassment.
When the schools treat trans girls as boys and trans boys as girls, how can they expect their classmates to accept them? Suddenly their school is endorsing bullying. And trans students are most at risk for suicide; bullying and abuse only exacerbate the problem. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 41 percent of trans people will attempt suicide in their lifetimes; the most common factor is bullying.
When Trump was elected, his wife, Melania Trump, vowed to make bullying the centerpiece of her advocacy work as first lady. She recognizes that it’s difficult to go through the day while being subject to constant abuse and that children — teenagers especially — are ill-equipped to handle it. In a speech last summer, she specifically said children and adolescents need protection from bullying: “As adults, many of us are able to handle mean words — even lies. Children and teenagers can be fragile. They hurt when they are made fun of or made to feel less in looks or intelligence. This makes their life hard and forces them to hide and retreat. Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and to teenagers.” The job of educators is to teach the children of our future, and that cannot be done when a whole class of students fear for their safety at school.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reportedly objected to rolling back the Obama administration’s guidance on bullying, and she issued a statement Wednesday night pledging to protect trans children, although she also said the issue is “best solved at the state and local level,” which advocates know isn’t true — just look at the legislation some states have passed to require trans people to use bathrooms based on their assigned sex at birth. And at this point, whatever DeVos says is too little, too late. Trump has given cover to every bully who stalks our schools’ hallways to target the most vulnerable among us.
Now trans people and our allies must turn our attention to Gavin Grimm, a trans boy from Virginia, and his Title IX case — to be heard later this year by the Supreme Court. Gavin’s case will decide whether the law applies to trans students. If he wins, Trump’s action becomes moot. Again, conservatives who can’t stomach the thought of equality have forced it to be determined by the courts.
Katelyn Burns is an essayist and a trans woman. She lives in Maine with her two young children.