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Stories from the field: SPLC educates LGBT youths about legal rights

Recently, I traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to speak to a group of 35 LGBT youths.

Such trips are part of my work at the SPLC – meeting young people throughout Alabama and Tennessee to educate them about their legal rights. This work is much-needed. Despite the progress the LGBT community has made in recent years, there is still a great deal of discrimination facing this community, particularly in the South.

My trip to Tennessee only underscored the importance of this work.

I found myself speaking to members of MAGY, which is short for Memphis Area Gay Youth. This group has been a lifeline for hundreds of queer youths in Memphis since the early 1990s. During the meeting, I identified rights that are frequently violated by school officials:

  • The First Amendment protects your right to wear pro-LGBT clothing and take same-sex dates to prom.
  • The 14th Amendment protects you from being treated differently than non-LGBT students.
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 protects you from discrimination and harassment on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
  • The Equal Access Act allows you to form gay-straight-trans alliances, gay-straight alliances, and similar organizations if your school allows other extracurricular clubs.

Of course, I tend to offer the greatest help by listening to these students as they share their experiences and concerns. During the meeting, a young transgender guy named Cameron asked a question that illuminated the struggles many young people face.

“Is it harassment when other kids in my class call me by my deadname?” the high school sophomore asked.

Cameron’s peers were calling him by the name his parents chose for him at birth – an attempt to hurt him by undermining his male gender identity. I told him that, yes, it is a form of harassment. In fact, for many transgender young people, being called their deadname can feel worse than an epithet. Some youths have told me that being called by their deadname feels like being stabbed in the back.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there for many transgender youths.

Cameron can’t use the girls’ restroom at school because it makes him feel uncomfortable. He’s also afraid to use the boys’ restroom because of safety concerns. He has thought about asking to use a gender-neutral restroom, but he’s worried that will open up another can of worms.

Even when a student’s gender identity is recognized at school, it may not feel like a victory. When Cameron, an honors student, finally persuaded a teacher to stop calling him by his deadname, his class erupted in laughter. Cameron felt humiliated.

The issues Cameron and other transgender youths face at school add more stress to the everyday demands all students face – making good grades, navigating friendships and simply becoming an adult. But Cameron, like many of the people I met that day, is bright and resilient. He enjoys attending sci-fi/fantasy conventions that bring likeminded fans together in community. And he has some support from his family, though he wishes it were more robust.

I’m honored to have had an opportunity to meet him and the other youths.

Of course, these meetings are only one facet of the SPLC’s efforts to help young people. In addition to educating LGBT youths about their legal rights, the SPLC has filed lawsuits to ensure those rights are respected by school districts and others. Our Teaching Tolerance project is providing teachers with the information and strategies they need to ensure their classrooms are open and welcoming places for all students. And our Intelligence Project is pushing back against anti-LGBT extremists who spread demonizing propaganda as they sow fear and hate.

As I left Memphis, I hoped that I had provided the young people I met with more than knowledge about their legal rights. I hoped that they left the meeting knowing that despite the obstacles they encounter, they are not alone.

Rick Mula is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Mansfield Family Foundation. More information about the legal rights of LGBT students can be found here.