Of Texas, Toilets and the State Department of Education’s Transgender Toolkit
Sunday night I stepped off a flight from Dallas, pointed myself in the approximate direction of Roseville and–buoyed by the fact that MSP was literally 30 degrees cooler than Texas and the metaphorical temperature difference even bigger—directed a beam of pure gratitude in the direction of the Minnesota Department of Education.
I’ll get to Texas presently, but let’s start with the good news.
Over the vociferous protests of the usual suspects, MDE last week issued a “toolkit” for schools and educators to use in supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students. Eleven pages of advice on everything from pronouns to prom, the document is a tremendous and hopeful thing.
There’s some genius stuff in there. So simple it throws into hard relief the notion that the transgender bathroom wars have absolutely nothing to do with ensuring everyone has a pot to pee in.
Adoption of the guidelines is voluntary—and it’ll take you a nanosecond to predict the state’s largest district will be the last to go there. Still, I’m immensely grateful to live in a state where human rights are advancing.
This really matters. Transgender adults are 14 times more likely to think about suicide and 22 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Rates for young people are much higher.
And of course here in the Twin Cities we aren’t very many years removed from the “suicide contagion” crisis that swept through the Anoka-Hennepin School District, where at least eight students took their own lives after being bullied over their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Do you remember that? I do. Indeed I remember the official documents associated with some of the kids’ deaths. A 12-year-old who laid down in the bathtub with a shotgun; if she were alive today, she still wouldn’t be old enough to drive. Fifteen-year-old Justin Aaberg, who hung himself from his bunk bed.
I’m a lesbian with children. It was one of those stories that hit uncomfortably close to home. Back in the day when I was contemplating incredibly hard questions alone, there was no internet. It was very, very hard to find someone who would help you learn to be brave enough to speak your truth.
On the upside, kids now can find kindred spirits and support without outing themselves in dicey places. On the downside, social media means no longer is home a safe haven from the haters. They can pop up in your pocket, your bedroom, your social circle, without warning or invitation.
So where does Texas enter the picture? No, it’s not that it’s a regressive place that’s terrible for the queers. I don’t believe that, and I can point you to plenty of examples of LGBT visibility there. I speak of its particularly divisive and cynical political atmosphere.
Friday night I found myself at a banquet table at a writers’ conference in north Texas, surrounded by big hair and even bigger personalities. A river of sweet tea had given way to pecan pie when someone mentioned offhand how sad it was that people from California (presumably crystal-and-colonics loving public-sector employees) were no longer allowed to travel to Texas for events because of the bathroom bill.
Those assembled believed that the bill, which would require people in Texas to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender they were assigned at birth, had passed into law. For the record it had not. In fact, because Texas is Crazy-Upside-Down-Land in terms of its politics, it was blocked during the Legislature’s regular session by the Republican House leadership, who feared it would endanger the health of the hospitality industry in the name of ideology.
Unfazed, the governor had called lawmakers back for a special session to reconsider the measure, which this week passed again in the state Senate but still faces an uphill slog in the lower chamber. Because Texas’ Legislature meets every other year, who pees where might be up in the air for two whole years.
Equally horrifying: Texas has massive school funding problems. Massive. It’s hard to tell whether the governor and his bedfellows really care where transgender people pee or they something to lord over lawmakers and others whose main priority for bathrooms is the ability of schools to buy toilet paper.
So there I was in the company of strangers a grown woman, faced with the kind of mental panic that always makes me feel like a frightened child. The basic calculus being: How much time will I be forced to spend in close proximity to these people, vs. how pickled in self-loathing will I be by the end of the three-day event if I allow my silence to be read as concurrence.
Now imagine I was that 12-year-old Coon Rapids girl. Or an even younger child, like the children of friends and colleagues who are navigating this gantlet at an age where kids don’t know very much about their anatomy. I chose to play with my phone, being as annoying as possible as I corrected the factual record and suggested the internets were awash in #fakenews.
I felt very mercenary, having chosen the path of the Cowardly LGBT Lion. Karma is a bitch, though, so now as the week has spooled out the White House and Justice Department have given me fresh and hideous opportunities to reverse course and pipe up.
We can’t afford to let kids confront this on their own. We can’t afford for them to weigh physical threats against their psychic welfare. We can’t afford the human toll of kids who imagine this is their fault, that if they just hope—or pray—hard enough they’ll be at home in a gender that’s not theirs.
And we can’t abandon the teachers and other adults who would like to support them to try to figure this out on their own—sometimes in the face of tremendous systemic pressure, like Anoka-Hennepin’s current debate about “biological realities.”
MDE has given them something to wave at anyone who criticizes their decision to protect their kids. Yes adoption is voluntary, but in my imagination the generations that consequently grow up with intact senses of their self-worth will go on to change that.
Let’s close on the simplest, most genius thing in the state Ed Department’s toolkit. Students should be allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, the toolkit advises. Students and parents who are uncomfortable with that for any reason should be offered the alternative of a single-user restroom.
I submit that this the best bit of practical advice for settling the debate. Yet sadly I doubt the idea that in fact everyone can go in comfort is completely beside the point. And the fact that it’s not likely to quell the hate speech says volumes about what’s truly at play.