When President Obama told school districts to treat transgender students according to their gender identity, Kimberly Shappley burst into tears.
“I did not vote for President Obama. But when Loretta Lynch came out and she said, ‘The president wants you to know that we see you and we hear you and that we’re going to get the schools to protect you guys,’ I just cried and cried and cried,” says the full-time nursing student and mother from Pearland, Texas, who had planned to enroll her daughter, Kai, in kindergarten in fall 2016.
“I was so happy and there was so much relief that came along with that. I really believed that this was gonna be exactly what we needed, and that we weren’t gonna have to go through the same struggles that the transgender community had been going through for so long.”
But that relief has now turned to anger.
This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos signed off on a letter that officially rescinds Obama’s guidance. Now, school districts will no longer be encouraged to accommodate transgender children, particularly when it comes to what restrooms or locker rooms they can access.
Shappley is so uncertain about the treatment her daughter will be subjected to that she is seriously considering a geographical relocation.
“If it continues that my daughter is going to be segregated, then I have to make the decision of whether to move my family to a more hospitable state or a more hospitable school district,” she says. “Think about that for a minute. In America, why should I have to move from one state to another because of discrimination and bigotry and prejudice? That’s not okay. That’s not an American value.”
The Shappleys have been fighting with the Pearland Independent School District since before the school year started.
When they enrolled Kai last year, they were informed that she would not be permitted to use the girls’ restroom, in keeping with district-wide policy.
It shouldn’t have been surprising; Pearland ISD Superintendent John Kelly has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s guidance on transgender students. Soon after the guidance was released, Kelly called it an example of “unconstitutional interference and social engineering by the federal government.”
He also suggested that recognizing LGBTQ rights could lead to “legalizing pedophilia and polygamy,” and called for the country to return to a “Biblical basis” for the nation’s laws.
Still, the Shappleys attempted to talk to administrators at Kai’s new school and even went to the school board to plead their case. But things worsened in late August, after a federal judge in Fort Worth issued a nationwide injunction to prevent the Obama administration from compelling school districts to adhere to the guidance.
Luckily, Kai, now 6, has benefitted during this school year from an understanding teacher and the presence of a single-stall bathroom in her classroom. However, the school has barred her from using the girls’ restroom when she does physical education, or goes to lunch, the library or recess. Instead, she must use a bathroom in the nurse’s office.
That arrangement carries its own problems. For instance, if the nurse is away or the office is locked, Kai has nowhere else where she can go to the bathroom. And Shappley worries about next year, when Kai enters first grade, and her classroom will no longer be equipped with a single-stall restroom. That leaves Kai two options: Continue to use the nurse’s office, or be forced to use the boys’ bathroom.
“I promise you, you do not want my daughter in the boys’ bathroom,” says Shappley. “She hides when her brothers walk into the restroom.”
The Shappleys have gotten tremendous pushback from some members of their community for fighting to allow Kai to use the girls’ restroom.
“It’s not just conservatives,” says Shappley, a self-described “straight-ticket Tea Party Republican,” evangelical, and ordained minister. “You’re talking about my family that’s disowned us now. You’re talking about people I have served with at church who use Bible scripture to beat us and talk about how the devil has gotten a hold of my family. It hurts a great deal. And it hurts because these are people who know us and used to love us.”
Shappley also worries about the emotional effect that hostile school policies could have on Kai and other transgender students. She slams politicians who spread fear and misinformation about the transgender community to suit their own ends, whether it’s the rescinding of the Obama guidance, or the push in her home state of Texas for a sweeping North Carolina-style bill that would restrict transgender people’s access to public restrooms.
“I have a transgender daughter who is Caucasian. She is in the highest risk group to commit suicide in the United States. She is the second highest risk of being murdered in a hate crime. The only way that she could list higher at being at risk of being murdered in a hate crime is if she were of color,” Shappley says.
“I’m going to encourage you to kinda pay attention to the news going forward because as you see these bills coming out, you’re going to see hate crime against the transgender community increase again,” she continues. “We’ve already seen the increase in the suicide rate just in 24 hours. It happens every time, but people don’t have a stake in LGBTQ community or in the transgender community, they’re not paying attention to the numbers. The moms like me we’re paying attention. We’re paying a great deal of attention.”
Because President Trump believes decisions about transgender students are best left up to individual states or local school districts, it leaves a patchwork collection of policies that might vary between states — or even between school districts in the same state.
And even those policies that are currently pro-transgender can be suddenly or radically altered, based on the whims or political motivations of state legislators or individual school boards.
The best hope for parents like Shappley is that the U.S. Supreme Court will intercede on their children’s behalf. Currently, the high court is slated to hear oral arguments on Mar. 28 in the case of Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old transgender boy from Gloucester, Va. The court will decide whether Grimm has a right to sue the Gloucester County School Board for discriminating against him when it adopted a policy barring him from the boys’ restroom.
The implications of the outcome of Grimm’s case are crucial to the fate of other transgender students like Kai. If the Supreme Court decides Grimm can pursue a claim of sex discrimination under Title IX, it could lead to an overturn of policies that prevent transgender students from accessing facilities that match their gender identity.
But if the court decides against Grimm, it could embolden social conservatives to pass policies similar to — or even perhaps stricter than — Gloucester County’s restrictions on transgender students.
“Right now we are having to step back and watch,” says Shappley, who’s anxiously awaiting the decision. “I’m going to continue to remain hopeful that the Supreme Court rules in our favor. But we’ll have to see.”
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