“I don’t know why I feel bad when I have to use the teacher’s bathroom.”
Scrawled in pencil on a piece of plain white copy paper in the handwriting of a young child still learning the complexities of print and punctuation, this simple sentence made my heart sink deep in my chest. I knew her story, I knew her family’s challenges, but now, for the first time, I felt like I truly knew her.
Six-year old Jessie [a pseudonym] is a little girl, just like any other, living in Knoxville and beginning her journey through her early elementary school years. But, unlike most, Jessie is faced with the dilemma of being barred from the student bathrooms in her school because she is transgender, a decision that her family has been fighting tooth-and-nail for far too long.
The letter, addressed to the Court, had been entrusted to me just days before the US Department of Justice and the Department of Education rescinded the Title IX transgender student support guidance that the Obama Administration had put in place. It ended: “Please tell my school to let me use the girl’s bathroom. Thank you. Love, Jessie.”
Our landscape has changed quite a bit since the first time I read the letter.
In response to the Executive Branch’s actions on Title IX, communities across the country rallied to send a resounding message that our support of transgender students would be louder, clearer, and more unwavering than ever; that the DOJ and DOE would be held accountable; and that justice would in time prevail as the Supreme Court of the United States would soon deliberate on Gavin Grimm vs Gloucester County School Board, a historic case that would hopefully affirm once and for all the protection of gender identity and expression under Title IX.
Plot twist II: Because the rescinded guidance nullified a portion of the case, the Supreme Court decided to send the GG vs Gloucester back to the lower court. And just like that, the light of hope at the end of the tunnel crept further away.
We find ourselves now in a time of confusion, fear, and anger. Our map to victory has been flipped like a monopoly board at the hands of a sore loser. But after we lick our wounds and clear our heads, we understand that these are the times when we are truly called to do the work we were charged with when we started this journey. It’s not our defeat; it’s our call to battle.
With or without Title IX guidance or a Supreme Court ruling, queer and transgender students still have rights. And every person now has the opportunity to be someone’s guardian, cheerleader, or champion. We have not only the chance, but even the awesome responsibility, to be there for young people like Jessie and to live out the promise that our community will not rest until all people are afforded the same respect, safety, and dignity.
It’s important to remember that no rights have been eliminated and that case law still stands on the side of inclusion and equality. You can help a young person who has been victimized or discriminated against claim their rights at school by filing an online complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. GLSEN Tennessee is always prepared to help with claims, if needed: simply email us.
Our community was here long before this Administration and will be here long after. We can continue to provide safety and support. We can continue to show up and fight for young people at Congress, at the Department of Education, at the State Capitol, and at local school boards. We can continue to uplift and amplify the voices of trans and queer students. And, most importantly for me, we can fight for a world where Jessie and other young people brave enough to live their authentic lives won’t have to feel bad anymore.
Justin Sweatman-Weaver is the Board Chair of GLSEN Tennessee, a volunteer-led organization working to create safe and inclusive K-12 learning environments for LGBT students in Tennessee.