Two seemingly unrelated events involving teenagers have commanded attention in recent days.
In South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard agreed to meet with a group of transgender students before he decides whether to sign a first-of-its-kind bill restricting bathroom use in schools based on biological sex. A lot rides on this meeting. By all accounts, Daugaard intends to sign the bill. If it becomes law, anti-transgender forces nationwide will take notice, and similar bills will spring up elsewhere. The future of transgender rights in America may well rest on this small group of teens making their case.
Meanwhile, much closer to home, groups of teens in Howard County Maryland have been protesting the lack of severity of school administration response to a video in which a local high school student expresses racist opinions. The protesters aim to call attention to racism in their schools through walkouts, teach-ins, and a “black out,” where students and staff wear black for a day.
In both cases, teenagers are standing up for their rights. Unfortunately, the similarity ends there. The Maryland students are riding the well-organized wave of the Black Lives Matter campaign, which has awakened national consciousness to the deadly consequences of the sorry state of relations between law enforcement and the African-American community. Previously, only those directly affected had much awareness of the problem.
No similar campaign attempts to explain the issues involved with transgender restroom use, despite an onslaught of bills attempting to restrict our ability to use public sanitary facilities safely. A Florida law last year narrowly missed passage, successfully clearing two of three committees required to bring it to the house floor for near certain approval. The Gavin Grimm case in Gloucester, Va., attempts to bar a male transgender student from using the boys’ restroom at his school. It has reached the appellate level, and such courts are known to take the temperature of public opinion when they rule. Yet all we’ve managed is a viral photo campaign reaching only active users of social media. A public discussion is needed explaining the true catastrophic reality of forcing all the myriad presentations and identities to visit only restrooms consistent with body sex. It’s an easy case to make. Only a few minutes with anyone whose gender identity is at odds with their body sex makes obvious the disastrous consequences of these bills.
On occasion, our community actively shies away from the issue. When I testified before the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in 2014 in favor of the transgender rights bill, leaders forbade us to mention bathroom use. “Let the opposition bring it up,” we were told. More recently, an LGBT rights bill in Houston fell to public bathroom paranoia when opponents succeeded in defining the issue. Our community and its leaders need to take a page from the African-American civil rights playbook.
Black Lives Matter has become an easily recognized symbol for the intolerable status quo regarding racism in America. That movement has explained its issues so effectively that now three words suffice to describe them. If we’re to stem the tide of oppressive bathroom legislation, we must do the same. The phrase, “Transgender Bathroom Rights” needs universally to evoke the hornet’s nest of issues arising when burly, hairy trans men reluctantly tromp into the women’s room and willowy trans women fearfully case the men’s room hoping nature’s call won’t lead to harassment, violence or worse.
Gov. Daugaard has only a few days to decide what to do about the bill on his desk. By the time these words are published we will know whether our gender identities have been outlawed in South Dakota school bathrooms or whether those brave teens will have succeeded in thwarting the bill. Either way, our job going forward is clear. Transgender advocacy must raise awareness to the point that next time defending our rights won’t be left up to a group of children.
Suzi Chase is a freelance writer based in Maryland.