Fifty years ago, the first PRIDE march was held in Los Angeles, following the turning-point Stonewall riots in 1969 when police attacked gay patrons in New York. That became a defining moment in the fight for LGBTQ rights.
The LGBTQ community faces violence and discrimination in ways that intersect with many of the issues concerning the Black Lives Matter protests.
That’s why those who fight for LGBTQ rights stand in solidarity with the BLM movement. The battle for equality and freedom from oppression is common ground.
America’s structural inequality perpetrated against communities of color is entwined with the struggles of other groups that have suffered in similar ways under unjust systems.
Just as with African-Americans, gay and transgender individuals regularly experience not just verbal slurs and physical assault but also school, workplace, health care, housing and employment discrimination.
Many in the LGBTQ community are also people of color — a double whammy.
Gay rights have come a long way in 50 years — although gay Americans have hardly arrived yet in the eyes of society as fully equal.
But what about the “T” in LGBTQ?
Lagging far behind in societal understanding and acceptance, transgender rights are frequently trampled. Cultural bias and transphobia are real. Violence is common, bullying and verbal abuse even more so.
Last year’s Gender Odyssey conference, held in San Diego, offered lessons that remain relevant and valuable.
Mick Rabin, project resource officer for Youth Advocacy in San Diego Unified School District, said transgender and nonbinary students are frequently the targets of aggression in schools and on social media.
About 85 percent of transgender students are harassed or assaulted, according to GLSEN, an organization working to end discrimination, harassment and bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Often, there’s a higher level of persecution after an incident of bullying is reported, he said. The challenge is how to make LGBTQ kids feel safe.
“No matter what, you’re never alone” is a great mantra, Rabin said, but it rarely feels true for a bullied student.
To make it true, Rabin built a program called Ally Action. The goal is to change bystanders to upstanders.
When there’s no intervention, he said the potential for escalation increases. When the target who is bullied sees people laughing or silent, the target and the bully both regard that as validation.
“All roads of bullying lead to isolation,” Rabin said. “You are isolated when no one defends you.”
San Diego Unified’s “OUT for Safe Schools” poster is one step in helping marginalized kids feel safe, Rabin said.
“Teachers have the ability to profoundly impact kids,” said Benjamin Kennedy, a transgender activist and social justice educator. Yet surveys indicate that teachers are rarely trained in how to address LGBTQ concerns.
When administrations are not supportive, there are options, he said. Find posters to display, always use gender-inclusive language, introduce strict anti-bullying policies, organize gender sensitivity sessions and workshops — and always offer gender-neutral bathrooms.
Maria Al-Shamma said all schools need anti-bullying policies and staff needs LGBTQ training, with badges for teachers who have completed the training.
“Transgender kids look for those badges,” said Al-Shamma, a school social worker who serves on the board for the North County LGBTQ Resource Center and supports LGBTQ youth in the Vista Unified School District.
Title IX offered protection for all LGBTQ individuals under former President Barack Obama, she said, but the Trump administration has ruled that the coverage excludes transgender individuals.
However, under Assembly Bill 1266 in California, “You are the gender you say you are,” she said.
She said bathrooms are an ongoing issue and are the least safe place for LGBTQ students on campus. Every school should have gender-neutral bathrooms, and not just in the health office, she said.
“I’ve talked about bathrooms more in the last 20 years than I ever thought I would,” said
Michele Angello, PhD, in the session “Assessing Gender Identity in Youth.”
Often, transgender kids won’t drink water or use the bathroom all day, to avoid the bathroom dilemma.
Designed for educators teaching grades 6-12, the session “Growing a gender-inclusive biology education” was led by Sam Long, a trans teacher of high school and AP biology, and Lewis Maday-Travis, a middle school science teacher.
Transgender and cisgender students all benefit from lessons that teach about gender diversity, both said. [Cisgender is a term for people whose gender identity matches their gender assigned at birth. It’s opposite of transgender.]
Because it’s statistically impossible that most schools don’t have transgender students, it’s critical to show how gender is complex in biology, Long said.
Biology has been weaponized against the trans community, Long said, but attitudes can be changed with proper instruction that normalizes the transgender experience.
Resources for instruction of gender-inclusive biology and gender-sensitive science are readily available. One example is fishyteaching.com.
For educators at all levels of instruction, perhaps Adrienne Rich said it best: “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing.”
For Parents and Families
In her session for parents of transgender kids titled “How did I get here?” Michele Angello faced a room filled with hundreds of parents — and lots of tears.
Angello displayed a list of 23 questions most commonly asked by parents of transgender kids. These included:
- Did I do something to cause this?
- Who will love my child?
- Will my child be targeted?
- Why am I embarrassed?
- What about my other children?
- What about the dreams I had for my child?
- How can I come out to ___ and tell them?
- Will I have grandchildren?
This session gave parents a chance to voice their thoughts and share their pain, including many emotionally raw comments:
- “I’m embarrassed to be embarrassed.”
- “I’m afraid I’ll be judged because they look like a freak.”
- “We’re targeted as a family.”
- “It’s better to know sooner because it’s so hard as adults who transition.”
- “I thought I could talk about this without crying but it’s still so hard.”
- “Some family members say this is just a trend.”
- “We need to resist the urge to care what other people think.”
- “I try to focus on people important in my child’s life and forget the others.”
- “I teach about gender and I didn’t see it in my own family.”
- “My young transgender daughter wants two things: to change her penis into a vagina and to be a mermaid.”
Angello listened, offered advice when asked, and provided comfort in a safe space. No one left this session unmoved.
Aidan Key said he’s seen two out of thousands of families that have said they were excited to have a transgender child.
“For just about everyone, it can be a shock,” he said.
Key is the founder of Gender Diversity, a nonprofit based in Seattle that presents the Gender Odyssey conference. Key’s organization leads the largest network of parent support groups in the nation and works with individuals, families and organizations to educate and support transgender rights.
Key assumes few parents are fine with the news and tells them that he “understands why this upsets you, why you are sad, why you are scared.”
Although he said there are still not enough trained providers to work with these children and their families, there is some good news. “There’s starting to be more resources for schools, saying this is making “a world of difference.”
Darlene Tando, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice, is one of the first and foremost San Diego experts working since 2006 with transgender and gender-expansive clients.
Tando defines gender-expansive as expanding beyond rigid societal norms for what’s expected for one’s gender. This can include gender expression or gender identity, which are not the same.
Gender identity is not something kids can change, same as eye color, she said. It’s only something they can mute or hide.
Gender expression is how a person expresses their gender, typically in their appearance.
Gender-expansive children and kids who are quiet, sensitive, or don’t like sports are more susceptible to teasing, Tando said.
Many parents have what Tando calls cisgender privilege — taking for granted that everyone is aligned with the gender they were assigned at birth.
“It’s important to be aware of that privilege,” she said, because it helps understand what it must feel like to be “mis-gendered.”
Many parents feel anger, frustration and grief when they first learn their child is transgender, she said. A common comment is, “This is my fault. I somehow caused this.”
Parents should try to show compassion without sharing that they’re hurt. The child has been hurt “and they don’t need to take care of you,” she said.
For parents it’s helpful to take on the role of the learner because gender identity is something your child can teach you. “The child is always way ahead of where the parents are,” she said.
Tune in, she advised, saying, “If we don’t listen to the little stuff when they’re little, they won’t talk about the big stuff when they’re big.”
Kids believe information more at home than at school before the teen years, and then it reverses, she said.
“Home is where your child’s self-esteem is built from the ground up,” she said, so push past your fear and follow your child’s lead.
“Gratitude doesn’t exist well with sadness or anxiety,” Tando said.
Tando advised parents to talk to their child about brains and hearts, that those are the body parts that make you who you are, not your genitals.
As someone once said, “It’s what’s between your ears and not what’s between your legs.”
For LGBTQ kids, Tando distinguishes between what’s private and what’s secret. She said a secret is not good, but private means you don’t have to tell because it’s personal.
For more information, see www.darlenetandogenderblog.com.
Gender dysphoria, said Michele Angello, is the feeling of being a different gender than the one assigned at birth. It’s the opposite of euphoria and should not be classified as a disorder.
“It’s normal and healthy for children to explore gender and even occasionally deviate from gender norms,” she said.
It’s an “incredible gift for kids who know they’re transgender before elementary school,” she said, noting that it’s rare.
The most common time when transgender kids come out is during puberty. And the next time is at the end of high school which she said is a “wonderful opportunity when going away to college to re-invent yourself.”
Experts say the language we use matters. Avoid binary words like boys and girls, resist stereotypes, and learn to use the word “they” as a singular.
“They” as a singular pronoun is the Word of the Year, Merriam-Webster announced last year. Planned Parenthood called this a critical win for people whose gender identity is nonbinary and who do not identify as either she or he.
As adults, gender and sexuality have merged in our minds, and it’s hard to separate them, Key said.
Most of us are taught early that sex is the same as gender, but “you can only know someone’s gender by how they feel,” Tando said.
Maday-Travis clarified the difference by explaining, “Sexuality is who you go to bed with and gender is who you go to bed as.”
No Time for Silence
June is National PRIDE Month, which is a good time to learn more about the issues facing gay and transgender individuals.
When any under-represented group is attacked because of skin color, race, religion, or sexual or gender orientation, we all suffer.
Let’s work to humanize all who are different from us and try to understand the pain oppressed groups experience when ignorance and hatred tread on the American principles of justice for all.
Silence is not golden when we see bigotry of any kind directed at anyone. Take PRIDE in being a voice for the oppressed.
As we’ve heard so often these last few months, “We are all in this together.”
Marsha Sutton is a local education journalist and opinion columnist.