I was safe as long as I remained quiet and didn't let anyone know. . . . It was like walking on eggshells.
If gay and lesbian people have achieved some modicum of acceptance in the United States over the past several decades, transgender people remain misunderstood at best and vilified at worst. Although transgender people have played a significant role in the modern gay and lesbian rights movement in the United States, they are frequently marginalized and sometimes even attacked within the gay rights movement. Not surprisingly, youth who identify as or are perceived to be transgender face relentless harassment and live with overwhelming isolation.
Because so few adults understand the experiences of transgender people, even the hint that a student may identify as transgender makes most teachers and administrators extremely uncomfortable. "Our society hasn't even begun to deal with transgender issues," says Michael Ferrera, clinical director of group homes for the Los Angeles-based Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services. "They're experiencing things no one has begun to consider."170
Thus, when students report peer harassment, the student-not the harassment-is thought to be the problem.
A teacher in West Texas described the case of one very young transgender student who wore purple and pink to school. The student had a circle of friends who managed to protect her from her peers, but they could not protect her from the teachers. Upset with her behavior, her teachers began to humiliate and embarrass her, telling her to "quit acting like a girl."171
Joe Saldimini, a teacher in the Out Adolescents Staying in Schools (OASIS) program in Los Angeles, gave us a similar account of teachers humiliating a seventh grader who later identified as transgender. "One called her a faggot and told her she wouldn't have any problems if she only acted like a boy. The teacher would embarrass her in front of all the kids and call her a sissy," he reported, adding that at least one other teacher in the student's school was "very helpful."172
Such policing of appropriate behavior for girls and boys can start at a very young age. A Head Start teacher we interviewed said that kids as young as four years old are being told that their behavior is wrong. Little boys who play house may be told, "That's for girls."173
For young people who actively identify as transgender and begin undergoing sex reassignment surgery in their teens, not only does the school system fail them, but they face significant problems at home as well. As a result, many end up homeless or trying to negotiate the foster care system. Anika P. described being shunted from school to school not because of peer harassment-in fact she was able to pass quite well in school-but because the Texas foster care system was unable to place her in a foster care home or facility. She was rejected by several facilities which are run by religious organizations and allowed to discriminate against transgender youth.174
Constant rejection takes a tremendous toll on these students, particularly when they hear such messages from adults. Blossom R. grew up in a small rural town and was perceived by the community to be different from an early age. In the absence of any supportive adults and totally ostracized by peers, school was a nightmare. Blossom simply quit participating:
I stopped talking in fifth grade. Just quit participating. I sat alone at lunch. I had absolutely no friends. My grades were bad and I was told my conduct was unacceptable. I felt completely ostracized. I heard the word "fag" every single day. Kids used it as a weapon, but I didn't care.175
Sasha R., a recent high school graduate, recounted how he survived high school by hiding his male identity. Being open about his gender identity was inconceivable to him:
No, I wasn't out in high school. My school was horrible for people even out as queer. I would never have been out. I remember one guy was out as gay, and he always had to walk by the gym with two or three friends.176
Chantelle J., fifteen, said, "I've gone to school dressed as a girl since I was thirteen. I would just stay in the bathroom the whole time during lunch." Asked about her experience at school, she replied, "I wasn't able to do any work. I was harassed, a lot. I couldn't concentrate."177
During the course of our investigation, we had the opportunity to observe interactions between gay boys and transgender youth. In several cases, the gay boys behaved in ways that appeared to be sexually harassing
Lacking an understanding of transgender issues, many teachers are unintentionally offensive when confronted with transgender youth. "In my social science classes, sometimes topics dealing with sexual orientation or gender identity would pop up, and I'd get put on the spot," said Gerald A. "Another time, we were talking in class about what each of us would do if we had $70,000, and when it came to me the teacher said, `Oh, I know what you're gonna get.' This was for a final project. Mine was really about the Russian economy, but he assumed I was going to write about getting a sex-change operation."178
As a result, a counselor with the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC) told Human Rights Watch that it is too difficult for most students to come out as transgender:
I only know of one person who transitioned in school. Most people are too afraid to do so. Even if they're out to their family and close friends, they don't come out. They're just afraid to.
I know of another person, in a much more suburban area, who went through a lot of violence, low self-esteem, harassment coming from other students. That person stopped high school and is getting a GED [a General Educational Development diploma], trying to decide whether to go through college at all.179
Even youth service providers often misunderstand the needs of transgender youth. Many fail to create the safe and respectful atmosphere that transgender youth desperately need. This means being open to how each individual identifies, including giving questioning youth the space to explore their gender identity. This means using his or her choice of name and pronouns in conversations. This means respecting his or her privacy. In one discussion, a team of service providers repeatedly referred to a transgender youth as "he/she" and "she, or whatever." "Many adults think that all transgender people are prostitutes; they never imagine that we work and study and have friends and family," explained a transgender social worker.180 "I don't think we've been serving transgender youth well," Goodman candidly admitted. "Now we know what to do a little better."181
169 See Jamison Green, "Introduction to Transgender Issues," introduction to Paisley Currah and Shannon Minter, Trangender Equality, A Handbook for Activists and Policymakers (San Francisco and New York: National Center for Lesbian Rights and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, 2000), pp. 1-6.
170 Human Rights Watch interview with Michael Ferrera, October 21, 1999.
171 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 20, 2000.
172 Human Rights Watch interview with Joe Saldimini, teacher, Out Adolescents Staying in Schools (OASIS), Los Angeles, California, October 20, 1999. OASIS is a program of the Los Angeles Unified School District, with two schools that predominantly serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, one in West Hollywood and the other in Long Beach.
173 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, May 21, 2000.
174 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.
175 Human Rights Watch interview, Houston, Texas, March 17, 2000.
176 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 27, 2000.
177 Human Rights Watch interview, Long Beach, California, October 21, 1999.
178 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, October 27, 1999.
179 Human Rights Watch interview with a counselor at the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC), San Francisco, California, January 28, 2000. LYRIC is a community center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.
180 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, November 18, 1999.
181 Human Rights Watch interview with Gail Goodman, executive director, Out Youth, Austin, Texas, March 14, 2000.