Last week, President Trump wrote a letter to U.S. schools revoking federal protections put in place by the Obama administration under Title IX — an anti-discrimination law that was used to defend transgender students’ right to use the public-school bathroom matching their gender identity.
Trump’s order, which gives states the right to decide which bathrooms transgender and gender nonconforming students can and can’t use, is a sharp turn in the wrong direction for the roughly 150,000 transgender teens ages 13 to 17 living in the United States. Now they’re faced with a renewed anxiety they thought had been resolved: Will they be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice? And if something as basic as that is in question, what else is at risk? How scared should they be? The upcoming Supreme Court case of Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old transgender boy in Virginia who sued his school after he was barred from using the boys’ room, offers some hope, but for now, the rights of transgender youth are in limbo.
Here, four students share their thoughts about the bathroom debate, and tell us what it feels like to be denied access.
“What if I’m in the bathroom and something happens and nobody knows, and they just leave me in there?” —Jess Davis, 16, a sophomore at a public school in West Virginia
Jess Davis began her transition in the eighth grade, during which time she says, “I was not going to use the boys’ bathroom at all, because I knew I would either be beaten up or something bad could happen to me.” The school’s response was to offer her access to the bathroom in the nurse’s office, but to Davis, that wasn’t a sign of acceptance. “It felt like they weren’t ready for me to transition, when I think it’s not really for them to be ready, it’s for me to be ready.”
Without another option, Davis used the nurse’s bathroom when she needed to — which required her to retrieve a key beforehand. Then one evening at a school dance, she went to get the key, but nobody was in the office. “I couldn’t get into the bathroom, and my friends and I figured nobody would know if I used the girls’ bathroom,” she says. “They said, ‘Just go with me.’ So we went into the girls’ bathroom, did our business, and came out.” A few minutes later, Davis says a school staff member approached her and asked why she had been in the girls’ room. “I was really upset,” says Davis. “I didn’t have fun the rest of the night. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I felt like I wasn’t being treated as a person.”
When she heard about Trump’s decision to give the power to the states to decide if transgender teens can be forced to use restrooms that don’t match their gender identities, “It brought me to tears. I don’t know what to think or what to do now. My parents say, ‘Everything is going to be okay,’ but I know they don’t really know.”
For her, the fear is even greater outside of school, where she doesn’t like to walk alone for fear of being attacked or harassed. “In public restrooms, I’m scared for my life. What if I’m in the bathroom and something happens, and nobody knows what’s going on and they just leave me there?”
“If I walk into a boys’ bathroom, I have no idea what is going to happen to me.” —Grace Dolan-Sandrino, 16, a junior at public school in Washington, D.C.
Grace Dolan-Sandrino was in the eighth grade when she transitioned from male to female.
She was the first openly transgender student at her school, and the administration struggled with her new identity. An early issue: the bathroom. The school decided that she wouldn’t have to use the boys’ room, but that she was also not welcome in the girls’. The so-called compromise was for her to use gender-neutral bathrooms in the nurse’s office, music room, and art room. “It just separated me from all the other girls even more, because now it was like, this gives us another reason not to call you a real girl because you don’t get to use the same bathroom as us,” she says.
The gender-neutral bathrooms weren’t close to her classes, which presented other problems. “I had to walk a super long way just to use the bathroom, and then that started making teachers not allow me to use the bathroom,” she says. “They would be like, ‘No, it takes way too long.’ I didn’t get to use the bathroom when I needed to.”
Now a junior at a public high school in Washington, D.C., Dolan-Sandrino is allowed to access the girls’ restroom, and her teachers all use the correct she/her pronouns. “My grades are a lot better now,” she says. “It’s been totally cool in terms of being able to use the bathroom, being able to use my chosen name, and my chosen pronouns.” But she knows other trans teens aren’t as fortunate.
“Girls just like me are going to be forced into bathrooms that do not match their gender identity, and they are going to be put in disgustingly horrible and scary positions,” says Dolan-Sandrino, who is Afro-Latina. “If I walk into a boys’ bathroom, I have no idea what is going to happen to me. We already know that trans women of color like me are at a disproportionately high risk of being murdered, assaulted, and attacked. When you take a woman’s right to use the bathroom away from her and force her into a male’s bathroom, do you think that percentage is going to go down? Of course not.”
“I’m just a kid. Let me pee where I want.” —Drew Adams, 16, a sophomore at a public high school in Florida
“I’d been using the men’s room [at school] for about two months when it became an issue,” says Drew Adams, who came out as trans in May 2015. From the first day of his freshman year, he used the boys’ room without incident. Then, he says, “I got called into the guidance office and they told me, ‘You’re not allowed to use the men’s room anymore.’ I was like, ‘Okay, where I am supposed to go?’ And they were like, ‘You can go to the gender-neutral bathroom in the art room.’ But that’s disrupting a class. It’s humiliating.”
As it would turn out, the school received an anonymous complaint about his use of the boys’ room, which prompted the change. “I don’t understand who would do that,” says Adams. “I’m just a kid. Let me pee where I want … I was shocked that somebody complained. I didn’t understand what I did wrong. All I did was use the bathroom, wash my hands, and leave — with a hall pass, too.”
Adams says he and his mother met with the school administrators, who “basically said it was a district issue and wouldn’t touch it,” he explains. After unsuccessful meetings with the principle, social workers, and the superintendent of the school district, no progress was made. “They were definitely not concerned with my needs — it was entirely focused on making sure the conservative parents and the conservative students … were happy and comfortable, even if it denied me my rights,” he says.
They filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which ultimately found the school district to be in violation of Title IX. But in the wake of Trump’s decision, the protections provided by the anti-discrimination law may no longer hold up, which leaves Adams without grounds to move forward with his complaint. “It’s heartbreaking,” he says. “I put in all this time and effort into this fight for my rights at my school, and that feels like completely wasted time.”
“I’ll go to the stalls in the very back and I keep my head down, because I feel like I’m disrespecting the girls.” —Steve (name has been changed at his request, to protect his identity), 16, a junior at a Catholic high school in New Jersey
It’s been almost a year since Steve told his Trump-supporting parents he’s transgender. “There were a lot of teary conversations with Dad,” he says. “But in July, I got my hair cut short, and they started to take it seriously. Then for Christmas, my parents got me boys’ clothes, so I don’t have to steal my brother’s clothes anymore.”
With his parents’ support, Steve is free to be himself at home — but school is a different story. “At my Catholic school, there is a new rule this year that says if you come out like me [trans] or even if you come out as gay, they say they have the right to expel you if you make it public. It’s intimidating — if the principal does hear, I could get kicked out. And you can tell they are catching on.”
In order to keep his gender identity under wraps and comply with the school’s policy, Steve wears the girls’ uniform — which means going to class in a skirt. “It’s not comfortable, obviously,” he says. “A lot of my friends try to cheer me up and sometimes they say, ‘Imagine you are in Scotland and the skirt is a kilt.’ I have gotten used to it. And because my legs don’t look feminine, being able to see that sometimes helps.”
Steve also must use the girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms — a measure impervious to the Trump administration’s stance on public restrooms, since he goes to a private school. “I have to use the women’s bathroom, which, I hate saying that,” says Steve. “And I play sports, so I also have to use the girls’ locker room to get dressed for games or whatever. I’ll go to the stalls in the very back and I keep my head down, because I feel like I’m disrespecting the girls.”
“There’s another depressing fact here,” Steve adds. “I can’t go to prom.” His school released new guidelines requiring all “girls” (including Steve, since he was born female and must keep his gender hidden from administrators) to wear dresses, which he’s unwilling to do. “It’s this fundamental part of high school that everyone gets to take part in, and I can’t,” he says.
If you or someone you know is an LGBTQ youth at risk, call the Trevor Project’s 24-hour crisis intervention or suicide prevention help line to speak with a trained counselor, 1-888-488-7386.