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Acknowledging LGBT's 'T'

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A couple of weeks ago I saw the YouTube appeal of a 14-year-old transgender kid named Asher who was raising money to attend a private school where he'd feel safe being out. I was struck by Asher's love for learning and explanation of how an affirming environment would help him grow, so I was determined to write a blog post to express the importance of addressing trans students' needs.

That was easier said than done. My first draft was about looking into vouchers for marginalized students whose schools fail to provide a safe environment; it's not an overarching solution but a way to help students now, I reasoned. But while a few students could benefit, others might be sent to private schools that teach that being transgender (or being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, or accepting evolution, etc.) is bad. My second draft moved away from the voucher idea and instead emphasized the urgency of addressing trans student needs in our schools. With eight in 10 trans adults reporting having been bullied in K-12 schools, 35 percent having experienced physical assault at school, and those who were harassed or bullied reporting a 51-percent (that's right, over half) suicide-attempt rate, I highlighted the alarming rates of harassment that trans students experience. But those data are obvious to anyone who spends five minutes searching about trans bullying on Google.

Which led me to the bigger issue: Not very many people are doing those searches, or talking about transgender students' needs. Or, to put it another way, transgender-specific outcomes (let alone more specific things, such as transgender-student-of-color outcomes) are easily lost in the sea of statistics and news articles broadly representing LGBT issues.

The reality is that while bullying, school environments, and related outcomes have a long way to go for LGB students, the distance is even further for transgender students. We need to be having a discussion about that.

As an example of the lack of dialogue, consider GLSEN's 2009 National School Climate Survey about the experiences of LGBT youth, which touts itself as "the only national study to include transgender students." The survey included nearly 700 transgender and otherwise non-cisgender participants, enough to run statistical tests, yet lumped transgender students in with everyone else on data such as how often LGBT students skip school because they feel unsafe or uncomfortable and how often they're cyberbullied. (The study did break down data on general harassment/assault by gender identity.) Every experience or outcome that is not broken down by gender identity, or the intersection of gender identity and other statuses such as race, makes invisible the unique and often more concerning experiences transgender students have. Despite these shortcomings, GLSEN should be commended for including transgender students in the survey and highlighting the high rates of assault they experience.

A more common problem is simply not representing transgender data or issues under the umbrella of LGBT. News articles discuss LGBT bullying or LGBT suicide while citing data that only include LGB individuals, obscuring the fact that rates of assault and suicide are higher for transgender youth, and especially trans youth of color. Same-sex marriage is touted as an LGBT issue, despite the fact that many transgender individuals are heterosexual. Many commentators called the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" a major milestone for LGBT equality, but transgender individuals are still barred from serving openly in the U.S. military.

What to do? We should either not say "LGBT" about data or policies that exclude transgender individuals, or, preferably, include and analyze the specific experiences of transgender people. It's also important to acknowledge the different experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual women and men, as well as LGBT people in different racial, religious, and socioeconomic groups. While I don't expect a plethora of research on, say, school outcomes for low-income, Hindu, bisexual males, I do expect more acknowledgement that factors besides sexual orientation can shape the experiences of someone who falls under the LGBT umbrella. (Just think of the rich, white, gay, cisgender male whose family's religion supports LGBT rights, compared with the black, lesbian transwoman whose working-class family incites religion to be appalled by her existence, and whose school does the same without explicitly saying the r-word.)

But back to Asher, the 14-year-old whose video got me thinking in the first place. He's raised a little over $10,000 of the $13,000 needed (in addition to a scholarship and some help from his mom) to go to the private school that offers him an affirming environment where he can be himself. Asher is one of millions of LGBT youth, but I hope that our schools, journalists, researchers, and politicians can see how transgender youth face a different set of experiences and outcomes than the rest of the LGBT population. Once they have that down -- and there's no time like the present -- it's time to start addressing their specific needs.