2015 The Washington Post

End abuse of trans teens

Gender-nonconforming youths are too often the victims of bullying and discrimination

October 29, 2015 2:00AM ET

Adolescence can be a hellish time for anyone, but it takes a singular toll on transgender teens. For 19-year-old Kourtnee Armanii Davinnié, experiencing adolescence as a black trans woman pushed her to the emotional brink.

“I have been made fun of, bullied, run out of my school, even treated differently by school staff,” she recalls. “There were times where I felt as if I wasn’t safe or felt like I wasn’t welcomed at all. After a while, I stopped going to school to just ignore the day-to-day stress.”

For trans youth, school isn’t just an issue of fitting in; it’s where kids form and redefine their identities among peers who may react with ignorance or cruelty. Davinnié eventually dropped out and wound up on the street, but her world started opening up when she rediscovered her difference as a source of power and started organizing peers around issues of identity, sexual health and drug abuse.

Kourtnee Armanii Davinnié (Photo courtesy of Advancement Project)

Now a college student and youth leader with the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network, a Florida-based LGBTQ advocacy group, she argues that for youths to express their whole selves, they have to embrace multiple, complex dimensions of their identities. “Intersectionality is not invisible, and it’s not something that should be overlooked,” she says.

A new report on school-based organizing, “Power in Partnerships” — published by civil rights groups the Advancement Project, the Equality Federation Institute and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network — examines the nexus between the criminal justice system and gender, sexual and racial identity and describes how Davinnié and her peers are transcending social barriers by organizing across them.

The report found that LGBTQ, or gender-nonconforming, youths, particularly those of color, can end up victims of bullying or discrimination not just by their peers but also by school staffers who work for a system that expects and enforces conformity and crushes self-expression. Socioeconomic inequality and a lack of public resources to fund a comprehensive and supportive educational environment also play big parts. Being branded as a criminal or a pervert every day at school compounds the internal struggle to define the nascent identities of these kids; often they seek escape the only way they can, by walking out of the classroom.

What’s more, black and Latino LGBTQ students typically experience far more violence and discrimination compared with their white peers, and since communities of color tend to be targets of law enforcement in underserved areas, even simple expressions of their identity — wearing a dress to class, for instance — might raise some eyebrows in a white, affluent high school but could push a trans teen of color into an arrest or even suspension from an underfunded school in a poor, heavily policed neighborhood. In this hostile and racially and economically stratified social climate, students likely see their education not as a resource for self-development but as an instrument of repression. And if they resist these rules and act defiant, that becomes a pretext for still more punishment.

Every shove in the hallway pushes a young person further into isolation and despair that may endure through adulthood.

Discrimination on the basis of racial, gender or sexual identity is often viewed as a routine, even expected part of growing up. But without proactive interventions by educational institutions authorities, including school districts and individual teachers, every shove in the hallway, epithet hurled across the cafeteria or sudden expulsion pushes a young person further into isolation and despair that may endure through adulthood. Schools have a responsibility to keep the next generation from replicating these patterns of abuse.

The Advancement Project has long advocated for restorative justice practices as an alternative to zero-tolerance school discipline policies. This framework aims to address violence through peer mediation and teaching techniques focused on strengthening youths’ connections to their communities. While many schools try to “fix” kids by penalizing those who don’t fit in, the pedagogy of social restoration demands an ethical commitment by school staffers and educators to teach equity, not just discipline.

Thena Robinson Mock, the head of the Advancement Project’s Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track program, says that for adult authority figures, “the burden is on them to make sure ... that they’re creating a positive school culture.” When someone is bullied, “it’s not about just punishing the person who is doing the bullying. But it’s really about implementing a more restorative approach so that young people … understand the harm they are causing and learn the appropriate ways in which they should be treating their peers.”

Schools become truly secure only when they are safe for anyone to voice frustration and heal conflict in a supportive environment. Bringing marginalized youths into the center of a campus conversation opens the community’s perspective on how patriarchal and racist beliefs persist, even among our peers and families.

When young people learn how to empathize across social divides instead of shun difference as a threat, they find power in embracing the diversity that ordinarily provokes fear or ridicule. Getting to express one’s identity is the essence of a democratic education; it’s also the driver of broader social change.

Historically, social movements focused on either LGBTQ rights or racial equality, including campaigns around a single issue or ideology like marriage equality, have not always worked in solidarity and have at times run into tension and mistrust. The rising generation may more readily gravitate toward multiracial unity not just on moral grounds but as a matter of survival. And as youths explore ways to express their personalities in full — to live with real integrity in a polarized world — they’re democratizing our communities from the inside out.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, an associate editor at CultureStrike and a blogger at The Nation. She is a co-producer of “Asia Pacific Forum” on Pacifica’s WBAI and Dissent magazine’s “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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