This week, President Trump ordered the Departments of Education and Justice to strike down guidelines to keep transgender and gender nonconforming students safe, under Title IX—the 1972 federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. This is an unequivocally pernicious act that is far more personal than political. The White House has aimed and fired at a vulnerable population, the outcome of which can only increase bullying, self harm, violence, suicide risks, and long term mental health damage for many many people—not only those who identify as transgender.
First, to be clear, as the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) points out, the Trump administration’s actions “do not and cannot change the well-established legal foundations upon which the federal Title IX guidance is based. Many federal courts have already determined that Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination and the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection extend to transgender individuals. Fairly applied, the law remains on our side.”
That being said, all of the messages our president sends to the country (especially those that are official) have very real impact, and this one will be particularly destructive.
The specific letter the government has addressed to public schools, states that their former position (under the Obama administration)—that transgender students may not be excluded from restrooms and locker rooms congruent with their gender identity—is no longer held. In other words, schools can now feel free to deny certain students access to the restroom in which they feel most safe.
You need only be human to understand why such a message from the top down is disturbing, but I will spell out the clinical implications for you nonetheless.
When you choose to use a restroom, your decision is largely based on your own sense of safety. Now, imagine that every time you enter the restroom of your choice you are stopped, rejected, degraded, and made into a spectacle. Just because you want to relieve yourself in the place you feel most safe. How would such an experience affect you? As a child? An adolescent? Over the course of several years of your life?
If you make the effort to walk in the shoes of transgender students, it’s not at all surprising that studies show them to be more likely to face violence and discrimination at school than their cisgender peers, and therefore at higher risk of suicide and self-harm. According to GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey, 76 percent of transgender students felt unsafe at school simply because of their gender.
Conversely, research also shows that transgender students who are provided a safe environment to be themselves are as healthy, happy and successful as their peers. The White House’s rescinding of the Title IX guidelines is therefore not only counterintuitive, but nothing more than an attack on youth who already struggle to feel safe in the world.
For an evocative illustration of how such a rupture could impact the interior life of a transgender or gender nonconforming student, take a look at how psychologist and psychoanalyst Sheldon Bach describes the experience of traumatic rupture in developing youth:
“[T]he experience of continuity becomes radically disrupted and the child or even the adult is suddenly thrown back upon his own resources to sustain life. That is to say that life, which up to that moment had been a collaborative effort between the child and his environment, now suddenly becomes a traumatic solitary endeavor...the child has been prematurely ejected from Eden, from a state of subjectivity in which he is being safely carried by an environment of which he may not even have been aware, in to an objective state where in order to save his life he must become prematurely aware and self-conscious often with feelings of shame, guilt, and humiliation. These feelings arise because the traumatized child or adult so frequently blames himself for his predicament.”
When we punish transgender students by not allowing them to use the bathroom in which they feel most safe, we shun them into emotional, solitary confinement. We diminish their sense of self and their opportunities to thrive. As trans actress Laverne Cox says, “My transition was about me existing in public space and thriving in society...that's all we want."
Transgender and gender nonconforming students will certainly be the most severely harmed by this government action, but it ultimately damages all of us.
With one simple statement the government has effectively demonized a category of people. The main defense of their position comes from right wing activists who have asked the public to consider the perspective of teenage girls who must share locker rooms with “someone with male genitalia.” This implies that the experience of some youth is worth protecting (teenage girls), but not others (teenage transgender girls) and establishes an us vs. them dilemma. It promotes stigmatizing, targeting, bullying, and blaming. As opposed to a system of relating and belonging that allows for everyone’s safety. The fact is that schools across the country that had adopted policies under the previous guidelines, made for a safer environment for all students than those that had not.
When we identify a group of people as categorically deviant, we permit discrimination and violence against them, and also create a culture of hatred and fear. Hatred of the identified deviants. Fear of being harmed by them, or of becoming them. This thwarts every student’s capacity to be fully present, to maximize their capacity to learn, and to develop their relational abilities with a variety of people. How can we expect to have livable and meaningful lives if we are not allowed to relate to people who are different from us? How can we relate to people who are different from us, if the right to be different is not protected or encouraged by our government?
You don’t have to be a social worker or psychologist to know that being in relationship with other people is healthy, and being cut off from other people is not. When we meet individuals—and actually take them into our minds and hearts—we are more likely to treat them as we want to be treated, than if we do not meet them. When people remain abstract ideas to us, we tend to generalize, categorize, and scapegoat them at our convenience. Donald Trump’s rescinding of the Title IX guidelines for public schools blatantly permits us to think of transgender students as abstract ideas rather than as individual human beings.
Even the most conservative thinker can’t help but recognize the humanity of a transgender person when faced with her or him. For example, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews left a right-wing activist guest on his show dumbstruck this week when he asked him if fellow guest, trans actress Laverne Cox, should be forced to use the men’s room. The activist was unable to answer the question with Ms. Cox present.
Similarly, a Texas high school athlete who identifies as male has been forced to wrestle with female students, because Texas public school athletes are required to compete as the gender listed on their birth certificate. Ironically some of the same people who oppose the athlete’s authentic gender, also oppose him wrestling against girls. Actually knowing the individual person has necessarily complicated the way the parents, administrators, and students, think about the situation. People clearly cannot be reduced to categories for convenience. That ultimately doesn’t work for anyone.
School should be a safe place for young people to learn, to thrive, and to expand their capacity for relationships. Not a place that shuts down their minds with hatred and fear.
No matter what your politics are, it is in the best interest of our collective mental health to protect all of our students, not just some of them. Below are some resources for promoting the safety and well being of transgender and gender nonconforming youth:
Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R
Bach, S. (2016) Chimeras and Other Writings: Selected Papers of Sheldon Bach. New York: IPBooks.