Last week, New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press reported on the story of Rachel Pepe, a 13-year-old student at Middletown, N.J.’s Thorne Middle School. As the summer wound down, school officials allegedly reached out to Pepe’s mother Angela Peters to inform her that her daughter would not be welcomed back into the classroom this fall unless she agreed to act and dress “like a boy,” use the boys’ restroom, and go by the name “Brian.”
If this sounds absurd, it is.
Pepe is transgender. In her case, she was assigned male at birth, but identifies as a girl. Like many trans children, Pepe tried to live in line with the gender she was assigned at birth, but doing so brought with it the troubling symptoms associated with gender dysphoria, the medical condition associated with this type of mind-body dissonance. Peters told the Asbury Park Press that Pepe’s past attempts to attend school as “Brian” drove her daughter to a state of deep depression, anxiety, and even stress-induced seizures.
“She would get off the bus and just cry,” Peters said. “Then she would go to sleep for 17 or 20 hours and refuse to go back [to school].”
According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 78 percent of K-12 trans students reported harassment at school, 35 percent were the victims of physical assault, and 12 percent were sexually assaulted. This harassment, laid upon them by students, teachers, and administrators, drove 15 percent of transgender children to drop out of school. 68 percent of those forced to drop out of school would one day attempt suicide.
Though trans students have received positive news in the form of the Department of Education’s announcement that Title IX of the Civil Rights Act does, in fact, protect trans students against discrimination, along with legislative and judicial victories in Colorado, California, Maine, and other states, these students still find themselves the victims of increased rates of bullying and harassment.
Additionally, trans students are often denied the ability to use gender-appropriate restrooms and locker rooms. This type of discrimination has the effect of further ostracizing the student, placing them in a situation where they are more likely to become the victims of assault, or forcing them to minimize trips to the restroom, leaving them more susceptible to bladder issues and sickness.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, trans students are often excluded from participating in extracurricular activities like sports and other gender-segregated activities.
Being transgender is a lonely experience in itself, and these issues—bullying, harassment, exclusion from school sports, and being forced to use the incorrect restroom—only make life harder, lonelier. As a whole, more than 40 percent of trans people will at some point in their lives attempt suicide.
Acceptance is powerful, and can quite literally be a life-saver. Perhaps to Pepe’s teachers and school administrators, telling her to “be a boy” seems as reasonable as asking her to switch her lunch hour. The reality is that these actions—this public stand against the legitimacy of her existence—inflict lasting, often lethal damage. Hopefully there comes a day where all students are accepted for who they are, and are no longer forced to endure harassment, mistreatment and outright rejection from parents, classmates, and teachers.
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