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Teachers fear transgender students will become ‘political pawns’ for GOP bills

Heather Hughes, a music and math teacher at a private school in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, said a 16-year-old student pulled out her phone Monday afternoon and announced Gov. Asa Hutchinson had vetoed a bill that would have prohibited transgender minors from accessing gender-sensitive medical care.

Hughes said it shows young people understand the national conversation about trans youth, who are the subject of a wave of state bills seeking to restrict their access to medical care and transitional sports.

“They are doing something and they understand enough to say, ‘This is a bad idea,’” Hughes said of his students. “They think it’s stupid. They don’t understand why this is such a big deal in the first place, like why bother to make those bills, and so whenever it comes up they are mostly pissed off.

Another 15-year-old student spoke to Hughes last week about how they wanted to start testosterone soon. But on Tuesday, the Arkansas legislature overturned Hutchinson’s veto, and the state is now set to become the first to ban sex-affirming care for trans minors.

The law prohibits insurance plans from covering or reimbursing the cost of transition-related care for minors, including puberty blockers and hormones. After it goes into effect this summer, Hughes’ student won’t be able to use testosterone unless he pays out of pocket, which Hughes says is “not so likely given their circumstances.”

Heather Hughes.Courtesy of Heather Hughes

Hughes, who is also trans, called Arkansas’ law “ridiculous” and said it “opens the door to more restrictions.” She said her doctor had informed her that part of the law would also explicitly allow private insurance companies in the state to refuse coverage for gender-affirming care for trans people of any age.

“We already have prices for so many things and we are already confronted enough – why make it worse?”

Hughes is one of 17,300 educators in the United States and Canada who signed an open letter to President Joe Biden on Monday calling on him to do more to directly tackle the wave of bills targeting transgender youth. According to the ACLU, 20 states have introduced bills that would ban or limit transitional care for trans minors, and more than 30 that have introduced measures prohibiting trans student athletes from participating in school sports teams that match their profile. sex. identity. According to the Movement Advancement Project, five states – Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Dakota – have passed such legislation, although a federal judge has prevented Idaho’s law from being enter into force last August.

Harper Keenan, assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, helped draft the letter.

Keenan taught elementary students in New York City public schools for five years and said the bills create a dangerous power dynamic. Legislation that prohibits transgender student athletes from competing in sports teams that match their gender identity, for example, positions transgender girls “as predators invading girls’ spaces,” he said.

Harper Keenan.Courtesy of Bonnie Chan

“It’s a violation of some of our most fundamental responsibilities as educators, which is to support and protect the young people we work with,” Keenan said. “When we position young people as predators, especially a particular group of young people as predators, we are really putting them at risk.”

The educators’ letter calls on the Biden administration to protect transgender youth’s access to health care, school facilities and activities, as well as school records and identification documents that reflect their self-identified gender.

“Anti-trans bills are just the tip of a much bigger iceberg of anti-trans sentiments, gender misunderstandings and trans youth scapegoat that serves to mobilize a conservative base,” the letter states. .

The Biden administration did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment on the letter. However, Biden issued an executive order this month stating that Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which protects students in publicly funded schools from discrimination based on sex, also protects them from discrimination based on gender. on gender identity or sexual orientation. The Justice Department backed Biden’s order in a memo released Monday, according to which he interprets Title IX to protect LGBTQ students.

Lawmakers who support restrictions on trans student athletes have said the measures are necessary to protect cisgender girls’ opportunities in sport. However, lawmakers in nearly every state considering bans have been unable to cite any known instances where trans girls’ participation in sports has caused a problem in their state or region, according to an Associated Press report released in the month. latest.

Still, Hutchinson said the state’s ban on trans athletes in sport, which he signed on March 25, “will help promote and maintain fairness in women’s sporting events.

Proponents of gender-affirming care restrictions say they protect minors who are too young to make medical decisions. The sponsor of the Arkansas trans health bill, State Representative Robin Lundstrum, a Republican, compared it to laws that prevent minors from buying alcohol until the age 21.

“They have to be 18 before making these decisions,” Lundstum said, according to the Associated Press.

Helms Elizabeth-Marie.Courtesy of Elizabeth-Marie Helms

Some teachers believe that the debate on trans minors’ access to health care is in fact a debate about their existence. Elizabeth-Marie Helms, a social studies teacher at Trans College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, said lawmakers “don’t really care about science-based medicine.” She noted that lawmakers in Indiana, like those in Arkansas, want to ban trans minors from accessing puberty blockers, even though they have long been used to treat precocious puberty in cisgender youth and would not be prohibited for young cisgender people.

“I try to teach my students, ‘Listen to others with empathy. Even if you don’t agree with them, try to understand their views, ”Helms said. “In these cases, at the state level, you really don’t know what a candid approach to these Republican talking points would look like, because it just looks like they’re trying to erase trans people.”

Some cisgender educators like Melissa Tracy, who teaches at a high school in Delaware, are concerned about the effects of bills on trans students at school.

“This is personal to me, because I think of all the transgender students who have ever sat in my class and frankly they deserve better,” she said. “They are not political pawns.”

Tracy said she attended a workshop 10 years ago that changed her understanding of the needs of LGBTQ youth. The presenter said that 30 to 40% of LGBTQ students will experience suicidal ideation. (This number is higher for trans youth: 52% said they seriously considered suicide from December 2019 to March 2020, according to the Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.)

“I have since tried to really do good with the students I teach,” Tracy said.

Several states, including Alabama and Iowa, are considering bills that would require state employees, including teachers, to take students out to their parents if they think a student is questioning their sex. Being forced to “take” a student takes away her agency and jeopardizes one of the few places where some trans youth feel safer, according to Tracy.

“Why wouldn’t we want to do all we can to create safe spaces for our students, because quite frankly some of the students I have taught have not been accepted into the home, and literally the only place where they might feel accepted is in school, ”she said. “And then you take away that space of acceptance, and they can’t be who they want to be, and that’s just not fair.”

Some teachers and advocates say they are already seeing the national conversation affecting trans students.

Julia Cuneo, a youth organizer and educator who helps high school students in Detroit with advocacy campaigns, said a few students showed fear and concern after Republican lawmakers in Michigan banned trans athletes.

“We have students who are trans and genderqueer and really worry about how their school will target them and how they won’t be able to express themselves in their classes,” Cuneo, who uses neutral pronouns. , mentionned. Some students fear that their identity may be both despised and used against them or that they may be exposed.

“They don’t know exactly how it will manifest,” Cuneo said. “Lawmakers write the law, but it’s kind of up to schools how it’s applied, so this uncertainty is really frightening.”

Cuneo said the bills pitted students and teachers against each other. They said they don’t know of any teachers who openly support the Michigan athlete ban, but “I definitely spoke to teachers who were like, ‘Well the law is the law, and I have to do it. or I’ll get in trouble. ‘”

Currently, teachers and students want to create a safe learning environment, but if the bills become law their interests will collide, according to Cuneo.

“I think that’s really the end goal of the GOP right now, is to try to bridge that gap between the supporters and the allies, the people who stand in solidarity with queer people and the young people who come out,” they said.

Tracy said she wondered if the sponsors of the bills knew or talked about trans youth.

“I guarantee you that if they took even 10 minutes of their busy schedule to talk to someone, maybe their perspective could change,” she said. “At the end of the day, I think that’s exactly what I mean to these lawmakers: It’s not about you. It’s not about you. These are the children of America. These are the children in your state. “

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