Jesus was not a homophobe.
Those words almost got Maverick Couch kicked out of high school. But Maverick never said those words; he wore them. In 2012, the gay 16-year-old student’s Ohio high school principal asked him to turn his t-shirt, which bore that sentence, inside out. Maverick had worn the shirt to observe the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) National Day of Silence, a day when students protest violence against LGBTQ youth by remaining silent for a day.
The principal claimed Maverick’s shirt was “sexual in nature and therefore indecent and inappropriate in a school setting.” Maverick fought back. He sued his school with the help of GLSEN and Lambda Legal, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting the civil rights of LGBTQ people. I work with both GLSEN and Lambda to help further trans rights.
In fact, I’ve devoted my life to protecting trans kids. I’ve made countless videos instructing queer teens about how to love themselves; my most popular video, with over 350 million views, lets trans kids know a simple but important message: They are going to be OK.
In one fell swoop, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has threatened to undo the work of LGBTQ advocates across the country, who are helping to make the world safer and the future brighter for students everywhere. On Friday, the Department of Justice head revoked the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title VII in a memo; that order stripped federal trans employees of protections against discrimination.
The issue of LGBTQ youth and workplace rights might feel separate, but they aren’t. These children look to elected officials, in particular, to help them define their place in the world. Eventually, they will grow up and get jobs, and they learned Friday that the world is a little less safe for people like them.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a cornerstone of nondiscrimination protections in the United States. The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the workplace. When that legislation was passed more than five decades ago, transgender people weren’t at the forefront of most Americans’ minds, and many didn’t know they existed. That’s why attorneys for Obama’s Justice Department extended their interpretation of “sex” as including gender identity, thus providing critical safeguards in the workplace for transgender people.
This interpretation was not novel. As Lambda Legal has argued, case law has been developing in this area rapidly in the past 10 years, and Title VII has been employed many times to cover trans workers. Lambda Legal has been busy supporting many of those cases, and clearly that work will continue.
I, too, will continue to fight. Throughout the year, I train teachers, give lectures to student populations, and take selfies with LGBTQ kids, hoping to bolster their self-esteem. I want to show them that you can grow up to be someone like meor whoever they want to be. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has made the work of uplifting queer and trans youth all the more difficult. The kids I interact with today seem less able to fight back than Maverick was five years ago. They tell me about their friends and the latest school drama, but ever since the election, there is one thing we’ve talked about less and less: their future.
It’s clear why. People like the Attorney General have made it clear that trans people don’t matter, whether it’s in the workplace, the military, schools, or anywhere else.
This is only the Trump administration’s latest attack on LGBTQ people: Earlier this year, the White House rolled back Obama-era protections for trans students in schools, which allowed them to use facilities and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. The government subsequently announced that transgender troops would be barred from military service.
These actions are acts of bigotry. They tell trans kids like the ones I speak to every day: You don’t deserve to live lives free from discrimination.
The Attorney General’s view is no surprise. Sessions has never been a friend to the trans communityor any other marginalized group. The former U.S. Senator once delivered a speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has likened same-sex relationships to bestiality. The anti-LGBTQ group is responsible for the introduction of anti-trans bathroom bills across the country. When Sessions served as the Attorney General of Alabama, he fought to keep an LGBTQ rights group from meeting on a public campus.
Under the tenure of Loretta Lynch, who told the trans community “we see you” in a groundbreaking speech, LGBTQ kids understood their place in the world. With Sessions at the helm, that position isn’t as clear.
I’ve seen it myself. The kids don’t make plans. They don’t dream. They don’t think about “what they want to be when they grow up” like other children do.
These students already face extraordinary challenges standing in the way of achieving their full potential, and the Trump administration will only deepen those barriers. In GLSEN’s 2015 School Climate Survey, they found that gender nonconforming students were almost twice as likely as their peers to be bullied at school. The vast majority of LGBTQ students (85.2 percent) experienced verbal harassment. Since the election, harassers have begun targeting queer students with the president’s own words while youth bullying rates skyrocket to all-time highs.
I believe in the inherent resiliency of kids. I can see their strength even when they can’t see it themselves. If we can be happy and adjusted transgender adults contributing to societyand be celebrated for itthey will see what’s possible. They will regain their fighting spirit. They will start to see a future for themselves again.
During the lawsuit against his school, Maverick said something that has stuck with me. “I’m not worried about bullies, whether they are my fellow students or my principal,” he remarked. “I’m afraid of what will happen if no one stands up to them.”
I’m not afraid of bullies either, even when it’s the Attorney General. Let’s stand up to him.