When I was 17 I refused to wear a dress to my graduation ceremony. It would be several years before I'd meet another transgender guy. And it would be years more until I would transition myself. But even so, I knew that walking across the stage to pick up my diploma in a dress would be a lie. An exceptional lie.
Unfortunately, my school had rules: Girls were to wear yellow gowns with dresses, and boys were to wear maroon gowns with slacks. So my mom and I asked the school: Should I wear a yellow gown with white slacks or a maroon gown with dark ones?
The next day I was called to the principal's office. Being a remarkably obedient kid, this was the first time I'd ever been called into his office. He'd also dialed in my mom (who'd had a less obedient high school career and was likely more familiar with visiting the principal's office) and invited my twin sister (who was just fine with wearing the dress but didn't think I should have to).
His verdict: If I showed up in slacks, I'd be sent home. My sister would be welcome to stay.
By the time we got home, my mom was fuming. Here were two model students but one who had a different gender presentation. And because of that, this kid wasn't going to get to participate in graduation. We had two choices: I could lie and throw on a pair of shorts, hoping that they wouldn't check (which they actually threatened to do), or we could call out the ridiculousness of the situation.
Wearing a dress was a lie that didn't sit right. Wearing shorts might have been more comfortable, but it was still a lie. So, even though I was a quiet kid who didn't much like attention, I chose the latter option: sharing my story.
It was the '90s, our first lady was rocking pantsuits, and I was a teenager who never caused trouble. These elements combined to create a bit of a media storm. I was on the front page of the Washington Post's style section and on CBS national radio. There was local TV and a story in the community newspaper. I got letters from as far away as Alaska and as nearby as my hometown. Many were supportive, but others were not. The same was true for my classmates, with some openly hostile of my wish to wear pants.
Ultimately, my principal changed his mind, and I walked across the stage with my peers. But I knew that some of them, including one or two whom I'd thought were close friends, didn't want me there. That stung. So did the negativity from strangers.
Almost 20 years later, kids are still fighting this fight. And they're doing it much earlier in their lives, with far more awareness of trans identities -- including their own -- and with far more public scrutiny.
The story of Cassidy Lynn Campbell, who was elected homecoming queen by her peers but subjected to cyberbullying, is shining a spotlight on just how meanspirited that public scrutiny can get.
More and more, kids and their parents are speaking out -- and there's a patchwork of protections available to them. Some state laws -- in places like Arkansas, Oregon and Maine -- prohibit anti-LGBT bullying, and other laws, like California's School Success and Opportunity Act, work to level the playing field for transgender students. But our opponents are doing everything they can to undermine our progress. And these amazing students are still facing hostility from their peers and adults who sit in judgment.
At the Human Rights Campaign we released the groundbreaking report "Growing Up LGBT in America" that shows LGBT youth are two times as likely as non-LGBT youth to say they have been verbally harassed and called names at school; two times as likely to have been physically assaulted, kicked or shoved at school; and two times as likely to have been excluded by their peers because they are different. When zeroing in on trans-identified students, these numbers soar.
Our work at the HRC Foundation is addressing some of these issues -- like our Welcoming Schools Project and our upcoming Time to THRIVE conference, which provide critical tools for K-12 teachers, administrators and parents to create LGBT-supportive environments.
But there's a role that each one of us can play, especially those of us adults out there who have incredible support structures in place. It comes back to that one simple strategy: sharing our stories.
In just two weeks we'll celebrate the 25th anniversary of National Coming Out Day with the theme "Coming Out Still Matters." It seems too easy, but the power of telling a story is profound. When people know someone who is LGBT, they are far more likely to support equality under the law.
Beyond that, our stories can be powerful to each other. I know they have been powerful to me. They can give tomorrow's graduating senior or homecoming queen a sense of not being so alone. They can erase the assumptions that exist in the absence of knowledge. And while they can sometimes be difficult to tell, they can be powerful truths. Exceptionally powerful truths.
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