Illinois groups stand with transgender youth

By Jackie Murray

When the Trump administration rolled back guidelines introduced by the Obama administration regarding the protection of transgender youth Feb. 22, LGBT advocacy and civil rights groups in Chicago and across the state expressed fear, disappointment and outrage.

“It sends a terrible signal to young people who are transgender,” said Ed Yohnka, director of Communications and Public Policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “It say[s] they aren’t deserving of the protection of their government, and that’s an awful, shameful signal to send.” 

The Obama guidelines, sent in a letter May 13, 2016 from both the departments of Justice and Education, instructed public schools that transgender students should receive an environment that is both “supportive” and “nondiscriminatory. ”The guidelines would have allowed students to use bathrooms and locker rooms in school based on their identified  gender. 

The transgender youth community is among the most vulnerable, and this was an intentional act to further marginalize them, said Gregory Storms, director of youth services at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St. The Trump administration attacks the most vulnerable populations in order to play to their political audiences, he added. 

Although retracting the guidelines does not accomplish much policywise, it adds a cultural and social threat, according to Storms. 

“It’s publicly telling the nation that transgender youth and their concerns are of no value to the Trump administration and to U.S. policies,” Storms said.

According to both Yohnka and Storms, this increases the pressure the transgender youth community already faces. Storms said those who view Title IX—part of a 1972 law designed to protect students from ex discriminated in school —as protecting the gender identities transgender students, will offer greater protection. 

While Chicago Public Schools has strong policies to protect transgender students, every school district can improve, Yohnka said. 

“It’s not static, it’s not just adopting a policy,” Yohnka said. “It’s adopting a way of living and treating people that recognizes each individual person for their humanity and that takes longer.” 

It is important for teachers to understand how important and necessary transgender safety is, said Susan Maasch, executive director of the Trans Youth Equality Foundation. In order for transgender students to receive a good education, they need to be physically, psychologically and emotionally safe, she added. 

Storms said he plans on working with CPS administrators to make sure they are aware that the actions they have in the classroom impact LGBT students.

Recognizing that transgender youth face adversity and discrimination in the classroom in addition to possibly their race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, Center on Halsted offers a safe space for transgender youth to come and express themselves in an authentic manner, according to Storms. 

“They don’t have to worry about disguising who they are and not presenting themselves in the gender they identify with,” Storms said. “They can expect to be appreciated and praised here for who they are.” 

ACLU Illinois will continue to fight to protect the legal rights of transgender students, Yohnka said.

“If there is a single school across Illinois that changes in accommodating open, inclusive and thoughtful policy because of this, we’ll sue them,” Yohnka said. “We’re not going to rest until every single school district in Illinois has policy that is open, inclusive and  affirming of people based on their lived gender identity.” 

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