Advocates, officials gather to support transgender students

Advocates, officials gather to support transgender students

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*Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Sharron Cooks organized this event. The original story stated that Equality Pennsylvania organized the event.

As the conversation about the rights and protections available for transgender students heats up across the county, activists, LGBT organizations and city officials came together last week in Philadelphia to re-affirm support for nondiscrimination policies and for transgender youth.

The event, called “We’ve Got Your Back,” was held Friday at Philadelphia City Hall, and was organized by Equality Pennsylvania board member Sharron Cooks. It comes in the wake of the Trump administration’s February action that rescinded Obama-era protections for transgender students.

“This is about more than laws and policies,” Cooks told the several-dozen people assembled. “This is about doing the right thing for our children.” 

Rue Landau, out executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, spoke about the 2002 inclusion of gender identity into the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, which bans discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing.

Mayor Jim Kenney in his keynote remarks described Trump’s recent order as “another onslaught” on transgender youth.

“The executive order is clearly saying that this administration does not have our kids’ backs,” the mayor said.

He also addressed plainly where the City of Philadelphia stands on transgender rights.

“I want every student and parent in Philadelphia to know that we stand with transgender students, even if the federal government doesn’t. We are in this together.

“Keep the faith and be yourself,” the mayor said in closing.

School Superintendent Dr. William Hite also spoke firmly about district policy, noting, “I am here to proclaim that the Philadelphia School District will always protect students from discrimination.”

Hite noted that the School Reform Commission passed a policy in June, crafted with help of transgender youth and parents, that requires that students be referred to by the correct pronoun, that they can use the appropriate bathroom and locker rooms and that student activities will not be organized by biological sex.

Despite the sweeping protections for Philadelphia public-school students, young people in nearly every other county in Pennsylvania do not have the same legal rights. A 2016 study by Human Rights Watch found that the absence of protective policies for transgender students puts them at risk. Outside of Philadelphia, only an estimated 6 percent of school districts has passed any kind of protective policy, and students attending private or charter schools aren’t covered by the Philadelphia School District’s policy.

Hazel Edwards, a recent high-school graduate who was among the author of the city district’s policy, spoke at Friday’s event, saying she didn’t want young transgender students to deal with the same challenges she faced in high school.

Edwards had attended a charter school, but tension over respect for her gender identity drove her to transfer high schools twice before she could graduate.

“My old principal at the charter school eventually asked for a sensitivity training, which I put together with the help of my supervisor at The Attic Youth Center, and it did make an impact,” Edwards said. “After the presentation, he turned to me and said, ‘The student has become the teacher.’”

Anxiety at school is not an uncommon experience for transgender or gender-fluid students. A 2013 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that 75 percent of transgender youth feel unsafe at school, and 63 percent avoid using any public restroom because they fear harassment and assault. Transgender students are also more likely to avoid eating and drinking to prevent themselves from using public restrooms, which can lead to health problems.

Deja Lynn Alvarez, a member of the Commission on LGBT Affairs and director of the LGBTQ Home for Hope, spoke at City Hall about the dangers transgender people face.

“The life expectancy of a transgender person is 35 years old. Three trans women of color have been murdered in Louisiana already this year,” she said. “But people are worried about where we go to the bathroom?

“We are still fighting for civil liberties,” Alvarez added. “It’s not really about bathrooms; these issues are about transgender people’s right to exist in public, the right to simply live. Transgender people are not a danger. We are in danger.”

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