Picking Up the Pieces When the Courts Fail Us
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This has been a very bad week for transgender kids. On Wednesday the US Supreme Court issued an “emergency” stay to stop a 17-year Gavin Grimm from using the boy’s restroom at his school. Joshua Block, his lawyer, described Gavin this week in a blog post on the ACLU’s website:
Gavin has facial hair, a deep voice, and a state ID that identifies him as male. In every aspect of his life outside school, he is recognized as the boy that he is. But when Gavin goes back to school for his senior year of high school, he will be singled out from every other student and forced to use a separate single-stall restroom that no one else is required to use.
According to his school board, Gavin’s mere presence in the boys’ restroom is a violation of other boys’ privacy. No one, including the school board, thinks it would be appropriate for a boy like Gavin to use the girls’ restroom. So the school board converted a couple of old utility closets into single-user restrooms that Gavin must now use to “protect” other students from his mere presence. He has been shamefully forced to use a separate restroom or the restroom in the nurse’s office for the past two school years.
Later in the week, as a direct response to the Supreme Court’s intervention, other school systems in the 4th Circuit (the circuit where Gavin’s case was initially decided) retreated from plans they had to treat transgender kids with respect and dignity. So while school systems are debating back and forth whether or not to let trans kids use the bathroom like other students or whether separate really can be equal, we’ve got a crisis on our hands, and the courts aren’t coming to save us any time soon.
This is where the rest of us come in. This is one of those times where, if you call yourself an ally, you’ve got to step up. We all do.
If you own a business, make sure your restrooms are inclusive. If you have single-stall restrooms, make sure they’re labeled just as “restroom.” There’s absolutely no reason to have gendered, single-stall restrooms whatsoever. If you have multi-stall restrooms, be sure they’re inclusive, too.
Go out of your way to talk to your cis (non-trans) friends, family, and co-workers about the issues trans people face. For better or worse, people are influenced most by people who are like them. You’re more likely to make progress with the people you interact with on a daily basis than someone standing on a street corner with a clipboard.
Stop letting micro-aggressions go unchecked. Yeah, sometimes it’s easier to ignore someone’s comments instead of getting involved. We don’t want the conflict so we stay quiet, instead letting someone else pick up the slack, or worse, the hurt. That has to stop. Correcting a friend or a co-worker when they misgender someone takes all of ten seconds. Stopping an inappropriate comment is as simple as saying, “I’m sure you didn’t mean it like this, but that word/joke/phrase is really hurtful to me and many others.”
For many of us, we use phrases we think are inclusive but really aren’t. Instead of saying “trans brothers and sisters,” say “trans friends and family.” “Brothers and sisters” is a binary phrase, and there are many, many trans folks who are not binary. Using a binary phrase to describe them is erasure and leaves them out entirely. (Plus, using “family and friends” keeps the same syllable count and cadence, so rhythmically you’re good.)
Average folks like us can’t change the courts. We can’t petition the Supreme Court or convince judges and justices to rule the way we think they should. But we can pick up the slack and we can make sure that in every area where we have even a little bit of influence, we go out of our way to make the world just a little bit safer for trans kids.
I know that the biggest barrier for most of us is the fear that we’re going to accidentally screw up and say something terrible. There’s a really good chance that’s going to happen, and that’s ok. When it does happen, apologize, fix it, and move on. Don’t dwell on it. Listen carefully to the critique, internalize it, and commit to changing your behavior. You don’t have to be perfect to be a good ally – you just have to want to see our world become a safer and more inclusive place.
There are some incredible people fighting in the court system. They’re doing powerful, important work. In the meantime, it’s up to the rest of us to fill in the gaps to keep our kids safe. I like to think of being an ally as the bulldozer that clears a construction site before construction begins. It’s our job to clear out the trees and obstacles and move them to the side so the experts can come in and start construction. It’s not our job to tell other folks how to do the work – it’s our job to make sure the land is cleared and ready for them to build what they need.
Finally, check in with your trans friends and family. Be a good friend, sibling, parent, teacher, or neighbor to them. Ask how they’re doing. Go out to dinner with them. Hang out together. Ask if you can do anything specific to support them more than you already are. Really, one of the best things you can do is just being a good friend. And couldn’t we all us more good friends?
Robbie Medwed is an Atlanta-based LGBT activist and educator. His column appears here weekly. Follow him on Twitter: @rjmedwed