This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.
The bathroom bill. Different states have introduced different versions of it, but the goal remains more or less the same: Transgender students should use restrooms and locker rooms that match the sex they were assigned at birth, not the gender with which they identify.
When 19-year-old Henry Seaton was in high school, he wasn’t allowed to use either. He had to use the nurse’s restroom instead, which the school thought was the best way to keep him from being bullied.
At first, Seaton agreed with the administration. But he now has a different perspective.
“It made it my responsibility to not get bullied,” he said in a phone interview. “It makes the victim responsible for what they’re going through.”
When a bathroom bill made it to Tennessee in 2016, Seaton was one of the teenagers who lobbied to stop it. “Everyone said it was a safety issue, to keep our women safe,” he said. “But it really hurt my feelings, as a transgender person, to be associated with sexual assaulters. It symbolized how people perceived trans people.”
It’s that word and that idea—safety—that serves as justification for bathroom bills across the country. There is no evidence that preventing transgender individuals from using the bathroom of their choice protects girls and women from assault, but in Seaton’s case, it harmed both his mental health and his academic performance.
As the research below demonstrates, trans youth are already some of the most vulnerable young people in America’s high schools.
The Real Safety Issue
Schools are—theoretically—supposed to provide a safe space for young people. But 75 percent of transgender youth report feeling unsafe in school, according to a national GLSEN survey.
Transgender youth are also more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and attempts, as the Harvard School of Public Health reported, and 45 percent of transgender young people ages 18 to 24 have attempted suicide.
Considering that struggling with mental health is one of the top seven reasons young people leave high school, it’s no surprise that the bullying, anxiety, and depression trans students experience affects their academics.
One study in New York found that trans youth in the state reported significantly lower grade point averages, are more likely to miss school or drop out altogether, and less likely to plan on continuing their education.
“Trans youth are already in a really, really vulnerable place, so even the tiniest things can hurt someone,” Seaton said. “If they are put in a position where they are told that their body is so shameful that they can’t use a different facility, and then have to go way out of their way to perform a basic bodily function…”
His voice trailed off. He added that all the issues facing trans youth have a common denominator: a lack of awareness.
“The main issue trans students face, which is the basis for the other issues they face, is a lack of knowledge on what being transgender is, what it means, and the science behind it,” he said. “For everyone in my high school, I was the first trans person they ever met.”
‘No One in My High School Thought I Would Graduate’
Seaton came out as transgender the summer after his sophomore year. He told the principal, his parents, and a few close friends that he would start attending high school as male the next fall, and many of them were supportive.
But some teachers refused to use his preferred pronoun. One even asked Seaton to stop coming to class. So he did. He started missing a lot of classes. Seaton missed 50 days of school his senior year of high school, and he almost dropped out entirely.
“I felt like my needs were less than those of my peers, that I was not as deserving as my peers,” he said. “I just could not bring myself to go to school on a lot of days.”
As his anxiety and depression increased, he tried getting help from a counselor, but he said it was hard to find one that was both affordable and affirming of transgender identities.
“No one in my high school thought I would graduate,” he said. “No one thought I would go anywhere.”
Finally, Seaton found the support he needed—outside the classroom—to persist within it.
A Moment of Strength
The Oasis Center in Nashville offers 21 programs to teens in the area, including the city’s only crisis teen shelter and Nashville’s only college counseling center for first generation college students. It also offers a program dedicated specifically to high school students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or intersex, called Just Us.
Page Regan, a program coordinator at the Oasis Center, said that LGBTQ youth in the region often feel isolated, helpless, and lacking in a sense of belonging. Regan said one of the most important things the Oasis Center offers young people is a consistent community for young people to depend on, a place where teens feel like they can belong and be themselves.
The Oasis Center also offers free counseling, which Seaton said made a huge difference. “Just having someone to talk to really helped me out,” he said.
Seaton said the staff encouraged him to graduate high school to prove a point to those who had bullied him, “to show everyone that transgender students can succeed and be who they are.”
“It was a moment of strength from me when I actually did graduate,” Seaton said.
Regan said educators and counselors can help LGBTQ youth feel safe and supported through visible ally signs, such as wearing a rainbow pin or a putting a safe space emblem on their windows. For his part, Seaton said educators should be careful not to blame the victim for being bullied, but to try to change the bully’s perspective instead.
Seaton also had advice for other trans youth. “You start to feel like you don’t matter and that you are less. But that is absolutely not true. Trans youth voices do matter. And they are valid.”
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