By Dakota R. Garilli
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
It was October 2016 when a friend approached me and said, “Pittsburgh Public Schools has adopted a nondiscrimination policy for transgender students. Our team is looking for a writer to help create professional development materials for their staff. Are you interested?” She was, at the time, the executive director of an organization called THRIVE of Southwest PA. THRIVE’s mission was to create inclusive school environments for LGBTQ+ youth.
I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t one of the most hopeful moments of my life. Here was the second-largest school district in Pennsylvania, which serves more than 20,000 young people in our region, taking steps to protect some of its most vulnerable students.
Transgender and gender-expansive youth, especially Black and Brown trans young people, are more likely to experience bullying and harassment and less likely to feel they have an adult advocate at school or home. This often makes them less likely to attend school and be academically successful, more likely to be shuttled into the juvenile justice or foster care systems, and less likely to graduate, attend post-secondary education, or reap the long-term economic benefits that come with higher education.
In fact, we have numbers for this.
More than 60% of trans and gender-expansive youth in the U.S. face gender-based bullying at school, and more than 40% of them attend schools with discriminatory policies. Less than half of LGBTQ+ youth are out to an adult at their school.
Black youth are five times as likely as their White peers to be held in juvenile justice facilities, making up 44% of the nation’s juvenile justice population. And while one-fifth of the juvenile justice population is LGBTQ+, 85% of those LGBTQ+ youth are youth of color. Many of them are Black LGBTQ+ girls.
How amazing, then, in a city like Pittsburgh, where Black women, girls, and queer people are exposed to such harmful conditions, that our school district was going to do something about it! Even more amazing was a piece of guidance that had just been released by the Obama administration’s Departments of Education and Justice in May of 2016. According to this guidance, LGBTQ+ youth in federally funded schools were covered by Title IX and its sex discrimination protections. Schools and the courts were, finally, being directed to provide and protect inclusive educational environments for LGBTQ+ students. The team at THRIVE got to work creating a staff manual on PPS’s new policy, webinars for school staff tasked with implementing the policy, and training modules for teachers and staff across the district to help them develop more gender-inclusive practices.
By the time the staff manual was published in 2017, it included a footnote about those Obama-era Title IX protections:
“As of the date of this publication, a federal court judge has issued a nationwide preliminary injunction prohibiting the Departments from enforcing the provisions of the May 13, 2016 Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students. THRIVE and the School District of Pittsburgh have chosen to cite to this guidance despite issuance of an injunction because the Dear Colleague letter’s contents are consistent with our read of Title IX and its implementing regulations.”
The language seemed promising. The school district and its legal department were basically saying, “We still believe in the spirit of this guidance and the importance of this work.”
But as our country crawled forward and the Trump administration’s Department of Education eventually rolled back protections for LGBTQ+ youth, the wind came out of our sails. Suddenly, all the work that students, families, and teachers throughout Pittsburgh had put in to get this policy passed felt stymied. If people in the highest halls of government didn’t care about trans youth, then why should we make them a priority?
Very few schools ever sought out the training that THRIVE had created. Within a year or two, THRIVE dissolved. And that beautiful policy, with language crafted by GLSEN, that covered pronouns, chosen names, field trips, athletics, restrooms, and privacy for young people? It got lost in the shuffle.
When I think about the past four years, I think about how our country once seemed to be on the cusp of forward movement: Black and Brown people, queer people, immigrants, poor folks, and disabled folks were picking up steam in our collective fight for civil rights. And then, one day, the bottom fell out from under us. Our movements had to pivot from fighting for equity to fighting for survival.
These past four years have also made lackluster efforts much more acceptable. When the president and his cabinet won’t disavow White supremacy, when they attempt to allow homeless shelters to turn away trans people, when they green-light forced hysterectomies on immigrant women in ICE custody, we start to get a little numb. It makes a mayor who talks a lot about racial equity and gender equity more palatable, even as his police force targets Black LGBTQ+ activists. It makes a superintendent who tells us to expect great things a little easier to swallow, even as Black children continue to face a widening opportunity gap. As Martin Luther King Jr. was back in 1963, I’m most worried about what White moderates and liberals will accept—from our elected leaders and from ourselves.
But sometimes there’s a glimmer of hope. While only 25 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts—just 5 percent—have nondiscrimination policies protecting transgender students, five of those districts adopted a policy within this past year. Despite a lack of federal guidance, parents, school staff, students, and administrations are still acting to protect LGBTQ+ kids.
Here’s what I know: our next president, whoever he is, won’t save us. We’re in another leg of a fight that has gone on for centuries against institutions that have always been racist, have always been sexist, have always been classist. Just as there are communities out there still protecting LGBTQ+ kids against all the odds, so must we band together and demand better for the folks most under attack. In the words of Angela Davis, “[We] have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And [we] have to do it all the time.”