From Resilience to Resistance: Trans Kids and a History of Fighting Back

By: 
Derek
Thursday, May 12, 2022
Across the country, queer youth are increasingly facing the ire of conservative politicians, as Republican state legislatures work to pass several policies limiting their rights. More than 240 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed so far in 2022 alone, with more than half of them targeting trans youth. 
 
In late February, Texas governor Greg Abbott ordered the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate parents of trans children who had accessed gender-affirming care for “child abuse.” The governor has called on teachers, nurses, and doctors, as well as members of the public, to file reports with DFPS, further greenlighting the targeted harassment of parents and their trans children. 
 
Within two weeks after Abbott issued the order, Texas Children’s Hospital “paused hormone-related prescription therapies for gender-affirming services” in order to shield both health providers and families from criminal liability. 
 
The supposed intent of youth-focused legislation has been to “protect” children from “indoctrination” by schoolteachers and librarians, whom many conservatives accuse of “grooming” students into being gay or trans. In reality, queer youth have a long history of facing threats, speaking out for their own rights, and reaffirming their existence in face of discrimination. 
 
Kai Shappley, an eleven-year-old transgender activist and Texas native is speaking up and out for kids like her who currently can’t. In an interview with Yahoo!Life, Shappley explained the harm of limiting such care:
 
“To the people that can’t get the treatment that they need and they have no way to work around it, it can be very harmful. It can make harmful changes to their body that can never be erased.”
 
All investigations prompted by the bill are halted until July, when a trial is scheduled following a Texas federal judge’s declaration that the order is “unconstitutional.” 
 
Facing waves of transphobic legislation, trans youth like Shappley are making the choice to stand up for themselves on a public stage. In the book Fires in Our Lives, Kathleen Cushman brings adolescent voices from across the nation on such vital issues, where trans kids tell how they are fighting for their rights. 
 
“Until I was almost twelve, going into seventh grade, I couldn’t find a word for the way I was feeling,” said Ashton Mota, an Afro-Latino high school student from Lowell, Massachusetts. “When I came across the word transgender, that’s when I came out to my mother.”
 
Two years later, in 2018, Mota publicly and actively stumped for a Massachusetts ballot provision to keep a state law that protects transgender people from discrimination in public spaces. He has continued to work in advocacy as a HRC youth ambassador, visiting lawmakers on Capitol Hill to discuss bills banning conversion therapy as well as the importance of protecting queer youth in the foster care system. 
 
Even as a ninth grader, Mota understood the impact he could have on others. “I can only hope that when they see someone like me living life authentically—out and proud, transgender and Black—it may spark a positive light in them. I did not have that before I came out, so for me it’s really important to offer that to others.”
 
Meanwhile, in the months since signing what has been dubbed by many as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Republican governor Ron DeSantis has pushed forward other policies, including limiting what books can be kept and used in school libraries. 
 
Florida’s new Parental Rights in Education Act states that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur” for children in kindergarten through the third grade. 
 
Previously, the preamble to the act (which is not legally binding) claimed that the bill would bar “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.” Proponents of the bill have used this ambiguous language (for example, the term “instruction” is not defined) to push back against critics.  
 
Regardless of the language in the bill, many Florida educators fear lawsuits if they act on such controversial issues, such as the history of the AIDS epidemic or the legalization of same-sex marriages. 
 
When school is a hostile environment, young people must seek community elsewhere. Take Wren Reeve, who recorded their story with Cushman for Fires in Our Lives. Until the end of high school, Reeve didn’t even think about coming out. They cited their local Diversity Center as being a safe space for them to go to and just talk, which eventually helped them come out as non- binary to their parents.
 
“Your identity can change and fluctuate,” they say, quoting a youth group supervisor. “But that’s still valid, and you are still valid . . . You may not be the same person tomorrow that you are today, but you’re still here.” 
 
These are the words that helped Reeve overcome their fears when it came to putting a name on their identity. “We think that kids are too young to talk about these things. But the younger that people talk about stuff, the more acceptance happens, and a lot less internalized struggle and mental distress,” they explain. Reeve now volunteers with local groups who work with trans and questioning youth to help facilitate conversations around gender and identity.
 
Trans-inclusive school spaces are also under serious threat. And Fires in Our Lives shows us that those spaces are often a vital source of support for queer youth. Take the Courageous Conversations club started by students at a school in Northern Virginia, where kids could talk openly about “taboo” issues skipped over in classrooms. Meetings often include discussions and stories about the experiences of trans students, like Asher, who is non-binary.
 
In a poem Asher presented to the club, they described gender as a weight they carry:
 
“ . . . a pressure to present a certain way, like I’m being graded on my gender. Failing at acting and presenting how I’m supposed to. It’s difficult to keep a smile when this binder causes more problems than solutions, but I continue to wear it because maybe they won’t see me as a girl, for once.”
 
And yet, said Asher, schoolmates and society keep putting them back in one box or another.
 
“They do not accept me.
 
Silence . . .
 
Like before the storm, the storm in which I finally correct people when they say she instead of they.
 
The storm when I finally walk across the stage as Ash and not my dead name.”
 
In addition to the book Fires in Our Lives, Kathleen Cushman is also the author of Fires in the Bathroom and Fires in the Middle School Bathroom, hailed as invaluable resources for teachers and parents.
 
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This post was written by Zara Kabir, a spring 2022 New Press Intern.