Not the Texas I know: The Legislature’s “bathroom bill”

Photo by Qiling Wang / The Texas Tribune

The public and legislative debate happening in Texas over Senate Bill 3, requiring transgender individuals to use the bathrooms associated with the sex designated on their birth certificates, should give pause to anyone who cares about the health and welfare of our children.

The bottom line message this legislation sends to our transgender children and youth is this: Your lives do not matter. Your mental and emotional well-being does not matter. Your ability to focus on your learning, free of the distractions of gender dysphoria, does not matter.

 It is no exaggeration to say lives are at stake as this “debate” continues.

For the past nine years, my clinical practice has focused almost entirely on work with gender diverse and transgender children, adolescents, young adults and their families.

Let me tell you a true story that shows exactly how harmful legislation like this can be to our young people.

Marco’s mother brought him to see me when he was in fourth grade. A few months earlier he had told her he was a transgender boy. Despite a range of questions and emotions, Marco’s mother was clear about one thing: her unconditional love and support for her child.

As we met over the following year, Marco’s distress about being perceived as a girl and his understanding of himself as a boy intensified. He wanted to attend school as boy. His mother and I agreed this was the right step and in September he began middle school as Marco.

Each week Marco and I met, I asked: Are your teachers using “Marco” and male pronouns? How are your peers responding (some of whom had known him before)? Is anyone teasing or harassing you?

Each week Marco told me it was good. About two months into the school year, Marco responded, “Well, now I can just do my work.”

Marco went on to describe the difference a year can make — how he used to dread school, hated hearing a girl’s name when called on in class, how distracted he felt when classmates called him a girl, his distress about having to use the girl’s bathroom and how he often “just held it all day, no matter how bad I needed to go.”

Socially transitioning and attending school as Marco removed these distractions and distress. As a result, Marco was able to simply focus on what he was learning. Over that year, Marco’s peer interactions and grades improved significantly.

What Marco needed is what every child needs — not only to survive, but to thrive. All human beings, whether children or adults, want to be seen in the world. All of us want to be seen for who we really are, and not who others assume we are. All of us want our identities acknowledged and validated by those around us — particularly the people in our day-to-day lives and the people we love and who love us, our families.

The first hurdle for any transgender child or adolescent is helping people understand that they are who they say they are, who they know themselves to be — and that they are capable of knowing that even at ages as young as pre-school.

If these young persons have their parents’ support, the next hurdle often involves whether or not they will be allowed to begin living in their affirmed gender. Gender transition is challenging for adults. It can be even more difficult to navigate for transgender youth and their families.

My colleagues within the American Family Therapy Association (AFTA) and I believe all young people and their families deserve respect, compassion and support. All young people and families deserve to be treated with equity and justice. All young people and families deserve to live free of hatred and discrimination.

As a transgender man, social work professor, family therapist and minister, I find this work incredibly rich and meaningful. I am aware at the end of each day of the difference I can make in the immediate and emerging lives of these young people. I watch the ways they are able to become who they are in the world much earlier than those in my age cohort did. I am amazed at the incredible ways so many parents show up for and support their children, even when those parents themselves may still be struggling to understand, or aren't entirely sure it’s truly okay to be transgender.

Senate Bill 3 is uninformed and unhealthy, and unless stopped, it will hurt Texas families.

The message this legislation sends leads to the terrifying statistics we see for trans people. About 40 percent of transgender individuals attempt suicide at some point in their lives. In addition, this message from the state only intensifies the hatred and violence so often directed at transgender people. It fuels the fear so many parents of transgender youth live with day in and day out — fear that their children will be bullied, attacked, even murdered by someone who believes that trans lives do not matter.

Make no mistake, Texas Senate Bill 3 is not about bathrooms; there is no data — none — indicating transgender children pose a threat to other children. This proposed law is about stigmatizing already vulnerable children and teens. It is about ignorance, fear and discrimination.

Speaker of the House Joe Straus represents the compassion and generosity of spirit I came to treasure in the people I have met living and working in Texas. He is right: We do not need another Texan, young or old, committing suicide on our watch. We do not need another Texas family, or any family, suffering the anguish of burying their child or grandchild.

Elijah C. Nealy

Assistant professor, University of St. Joseph

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