OPINION: Never supported a trans youth organization? Now is the time

by Koritha Mitchell | @ProfKori | The Ohio State University
Tuesday, 16 June 2020 08:30 GMT

Keegan, 9, who identifies as gender creative, pours glitter on his head during his 9th birthday party at his home near Austin, Texas, U.S., May 10, 2019. The glitter party was inspired by a Queer Eye episode. Keegan's family says he was motivated to try drag after watching RuPaul's Drag Race. REUTERS/Amanda Voisard

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many transgender young people will be suffering at home with abusive families amidst coronavirus restrictions

Koritha Mitchell is author of the award-winning book Living with Lynching and of the forthcoming book From Slave Cabins to the White House. She is an Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University and can be found on Twitter @ProfKori

COVID-19 has exposed countless inequities. For one rarely visible group, transgender students, the pandemic has underscored how vital LGBT+ youth organizations are. These young people may now be able to escape harassment at school, but many are stuck at home with abusive families, unable to spend time with their support groups.

So let’s commit to ensuring that these life-saving organizations survive the new coronavirus.

Not attending school may offer trans youth relief from abuse, as they are routinely harassed and assaulted throughout school, from kindergarten to Grade 12 (age 16-18).

The 2015 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), the most comprehensive data source on American trans life, found that 78% of trans youth experience harassment, 35% are physically assaulted, and 12% are sexually violated at school. 

Students are far from the only perpetrators. Almost a third of the 6,450 surveyed reported harassment by teachers or staff, while 3% reported being sexually assaulted by these adults.

When those who should create a safe learning environment offer hostility instead, the fallout is disastrous. More than half of those harassed by authorities attempted suicide, the NTDS revealed. More than three-quarters of students who had been sexually abused by teachers or school staff reported having tried to kill themselves.

Schools in the United States send an unmistakable message to trans youth, not only because harassment and assault are so pervasive, but because affirmation is so rare. Only 18 states allow trans high school athletes to compete without restrictions, for example.

Because school is such a hostile place for trans youth, LGBT+ organizations provide powerful respite. Volunteering at Kaleidoscope Youth Center (KYC) in Columbus, Ohio, exposes me to an alternative universe in which youth can express themselves and simply be.

Adults are present but do not intrude, and I am struck by how unnecessary rules about how to dress and hold one’s body truly are. Unthinkingly accepting gender constraints as natural and right leads to much more than dress codes, however. Bills are being introduced all over the country to force children to stick with the sex they were assigned at birth. 

I always leave KYC, or its annual “Other Prom”, thinking about how powerful it would be if American schools offered such a supportive space. How much students could flourish. How creative they could be. How deeply they could think. And how much adults could learn from young people.

With the changes wrought by COVID-19, the trans youth I met at KYC may still be experiencing online harassment from classmates, but at least they don’t have to encounter them in person. Online harassment is no less detrimental, but it may help that trans students don’t have to witness teachers pretending not to see what they’re enduring.

Unfortunately, being at home does not necessarily mean trans youth are in a nurturing environment.

Many students express their true gender identity only at school because they anticipate rejection from parents. And their fears are well founded. The NTDS revealed family rejection is more common than not, occurring 57% of the time.

Furthermore, when family members know a young person identifies as trans or non-binary (neither male nor female), violence sometimes follows. The NTDS found almost one in five trans or gender-non-conforming students had experienced domestic violence from a family member because of their gender identity.

With coronavirus restrictions potentially leading to a 20% increase in domestic violence, according to a United Nations prediction in April, trans youth are surely part of this “shadow pandemic”. While many organizations are being proactive about trying to protect women from domestic violence, young people will not benefit from measures targeted at adults.

Now more than ever, it is important to support organizations that provide a lifeline to LGBTQ+ youth. KYC is a special place, but it has counterparts all over the country. Support them now so they can exist when COVID-19 has stopped wreaking havoc.

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