This Is What It's Like to Be a Trans Kid in a Conservative School

Though Obama's bathroom guidelines were largely symbolic, there are real consequences for the students who just lost their protections under Trump

"I didn't feel like I had a place in the classroom and I didn't feel like people wanted me there," says one trans teen. Credit: Christian Beutler/Keystone/Redux

When Drew Adams came out to his family as transgender two years ago, it was no big deal. The only problem his brother, Carter, had with it was that he was worried Drew would start wearing his shoes. Carter only has two pairs, and he didn't want Drew borrowing them.

"I don't care as long as he doesn't mess with my stuff," Drew remembers his brother saying. "It doesn't matter if I have an older brother or an older sister, but leave my stuff alone."

Drew lives in a heavily Republican district of Florida where a majority of voters went for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. While his family and friends have been supportive, the 16-year-old says it's been difficult to be treated with respect at his school. Drew came out before his freshman year and began using the men's restroom on campus. After two months of absolutely no trouble, he says he was pulled into the guidance counselor's office after someone filed an anonymous complaint. Drew says administrators asked him to use the gender-neutral bathroom in the nurse's office instead.

"It was very alienating," Drew says. "It made it very clear that the school saw me a lesser person and not the same as my peers, and therefore, they treated me differently."

In an email to Rolling Stone, the school called its policies as "lawful and reasonable."

After back and forth with the district, Drew and his mother, Erica Kasper, filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. An investigation into the school found violations, and the OCR drew up a resolution agreement – a set of proposed changes the school should make based on the findings – but, according to Kasper, the agreement has not yet been signed. (The OCR was not able to provide comment by press time.)  

Drew hoped that the year and a half of lobbying for his rights would pay off before he graduates – and now that Trump is president, his family believes that's unlikely to happen.

Last week, the Departments of Justice and Education announced that they would be revoking guidance issued by the Obama administration last year allowing trans students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that most closely correspond with their gender identity. Although the federal policy was non-binding, it advised teachers and administrators on best practices when dealing with trans students – simple things like referring to LGBT youth by their preferred name and pronoun.

"This is an issue best solved at the state and local level," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. "Schools, communities, and families can find – and in many cases have found – solutions that protect all students."

But as trans students and their parents told Rolling Stone the night of the announcement, allowing local districts to handle the matter has already been a nightmare for many students in areas that have yet to catch up to recent advances in LGBT tolerance and understanding. Taking away these guidelines, they say, will further an environment where kids are bullied in schools, targeted by other students and denied the ability to comfortably go to the bathroom. While some might call the guidance – and its revocation – largely symbolic, this decision will make it more difficult for trans teens to fight the discrimination they face every day.

Grace Dolan-Sandrino, a 16-year-old high school student in Washington D.C., knows what it's like to be harassed just because of who she is.

Her family moved from their school district in Maryland, alleging harassment and discrimination at her middle school. Grace, who came out as transgender during her eighth grade year, said she was told to use the single-stall facility in the nurse's office. The problem was that the restroom was extremely far away from her classes. To go to the bathroom, she would have to walk down two floors and through an outdoor courtyard. The school's communications office declined to comment.

"I didn't feel like I had a place in the classroom and I didn't feel like people wanted me there," Grace says. "I went through a lot of bullying, and it was really difficult. It was bad for my emotional health and bad for my mental health."

The hardship Grace faced at school affected her grades, she says, causing her to perform poorly in her classes. But that all of that changed when her parents transferred her to a different high school, one that allowed her not only to use the girls' restroom but to put her chosen name – which had not been legally changed at the time – on her school identification, and teachers referred to her by the correct name and pronouns.

"It meant that I was safe and that I was able to just focus on being a teenager," Grace says. "I didn't have to feel scared in the hallways or walking into the girls' bathroom. I didn't have to feel nervous when a substitute teacher called my name on the roll."

To help make going to school easier for other trans students, Grace decided to do something about the bigotry she experienced. After getting involved in the Human Rights Campaign's "Welcoming Schools" program, which helps make schools more inclusive and affirming for LGBT students, she got a call from the White House. In 2015, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tapped Grace to attend a meeting of trans and gender nonconforming students that would help inform the office's policy under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

In 2014, the Obama administration announced that its understanding of the 1972 law – which bars discrimination on the basis of characteristics like sex, race and national origin – would be extended to cover gender identity. These meetings would determine how the federal government's interpretation of Title IX would apply to trans kids in school.

"It was very empowering and amazing to be involved," Grace says. "It made me feel like I was not only helping other kids but also that my opinion, my life, and my education mattered."

The guidance, which was issued last May, was a massive step forward for America's schools. A 25-page document issued along with the letter encouraged schools to treat students with dignity and respect in all classrooms. After those materials were sent, Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, promised trans students that they would have a friend in the federal government.

"Our guidance sends a clear message to transgender students across the country: here in America, you are safe, you are protected and you belong – just as you are," Gupta said in a statement.

Without the guidance, Title IX remains in place, but it could make those protections even more difficult to enforce.

Dave Edwards, a 31-year-old parent in Minnesota, cried the day that letter was issued, and he cried again on Wednesday after the Trump administration revoked those guidelines. Trump, who initially supported the right of transgender people to use whichever bathroom "they feel is appropriate," flip-flopped on that stance during the 2016 election. While coming out in support of North Carolina's controversial House Bill 2, Trump claimed that the matter should be left up to states to decide.

"It feels like we're losing ground on something that shouldn't be an issue," Edwards says. "It makes no sense to me to move backward on protections that were designed to keep a marginalized population safe – because it communicates that group isn't important. It's infuriating, and it has very real consequences in the lives of students."

If Title IX is further jeopardized, it would be a disaster for families like his.

Last year, Edwards was forced to move his daughter out of a charter school in St. Paul after a group of parents contacted the Minnesota Family Council, a religious right-wing group, to put on an event in which some attendees defended their right to not to recognize her identity. "Is it bullying when a child says my parents taught me that someone is born male or female?" one attendee asked, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Disagreeing with someone isn't automatically bullying."

The evening, in which supporters also came out protest on behalf of his daughter, was planned in response to a letter that the school's administrators sent to families explaining that she would be transitioning at school. That effectively outed her to the other students. The girl was in kindergarten – she was just five years old at the time.

A representative for the school says that although it can't comment on the cases of particular students, the school board later developed a "specific gender identity policy" that recognizes the right of all students to a "safe, supportive school environment." The policy allows transgender students to transition at school and states that trans youth should be referred to by their preferred name and pronoun.

But Edwards says the messages his daughter learned before those policies were introduced – that it would best if she remained "invisible" – are only being reinforced by the Trump administration's decision.

"[Trans] students know why this happened," Edwards says. "It's because there are people in the world who don't believe they exist and think that there's something wrong with them. That's the message they're receiving, and it's deplorable that it would come from our government. It's just not right."

Even students in accepting schools are unsure about what's next. Next month, the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in G.G. v. Gloucester, in which 17-year-old Gavin Grimm sued his district after being blocked from using the restroom at his Virginia high school. The future of that case is uncertain after the conservative judge Neil Gorsuch was picked for the Supreme Court.

"I've been crying all day," says Sarah Cuneo, the mother of a trans student in Maryland. "It was hurtful and scary. Not allowing transgender students to live as they want to live and need to live prevents them from being happy and healthy."

Cueno's son, who is 11, has been accepted in his elementary school since coming out last year. While she expected a battle from administrators, she says that what she got was support from faculty and staff. Although the school initially agreed to allow him to use the single-stall restroom on campus, her son decided after a couple weeks that he wanted to use the boys' bathroom.

His mother says it's currently a non-issue, but it could become a problem next year when her son starts middle school. Without the guidance in place, they're unsure if their new school will be supportive.

That stress has already taken a toll on her son, who is particularly concerned about what will happen to him in middle school locker rooms. He's worried about being taunted and gawked at by other students.

"I'm trying to make everything as fine as I can for him, but if the president doesn't support my son, I can't protect him from that," she says. "I can tell him I love him all I want and that he's OK, but if he's hearing from the Departments of Justice and Education in the White House that he's not OK, that's what he's going to hear. And it's going to jeopardize his health, his safety and his future."

As studies have shown that trans students — who face an enormously high risk of suicide — are less likely to experience suicidal ideation at a school that accepts them for who they are, offering support and resources to LGBT youth will save lives. But as of this week, the Trump administration has claimed that's not their job.

Parents and trans students, though, remain hopeful that change will come, even if it takes years to get back the guidance the Trump administration erased.

"This stuff is coming from people who have not educated themselves," Erica Kasper says. "The more they learn, the more they understand, and the more they get it. Hopefully it gets better by the time our kids get older. Maybe now this is groundwork for the future. Maybe someday the kids who come after my son will have the rights that he might not get to enjoy while he's still in high school."

This story was updated from an original to more accurately reflect Grace Dolan-Sandrino's experience in middle school.