Bathroom Bills and Trans Youth

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As a queer Jewish teenager, I have the uncommon privilege of having relationships with people between 20 and 50 years older than me with similar intersectionalities. I have been able to develop these relationships through Congregation Bet Haverim, a synagogue founded by gay and lesbian Jews in Atlanta. I was raised in this community, and as I get older, I am becoming a leader in it.

On a recent Wednesday night, I sat in our small community building eating Indian food with many of these adults. The topic of conversation was privilege.

I have always viewed privilege as the inherent opportunities and lack of discrimination an individual experiences due to an aspect of their intersectionality. I was surprised to learn of a different way that people understand privilege, specifically those of the older LGBTQ generation who came to understand privilege in another way — as the ability to pass as straight or cisgendered in unsafe or uncomfortable situations. This was an idea that until that moment, I had not fully processed. I saw this definition of privilege as another backward and shocking reality of being queer in previous generations.

The passing of HB2 in North Carolina was a sad reminder that the privilege of passing is still relevant and necessary for many young people today, especially trans youth in states such as North Carolina. The original bill was created as a response to local legislation being passed in the state to actually protect trans individuals. It forces individuals (regardless of their gender presentation) to use the bathroom of the sex on their birth certificate. That produced its common name of the “Bathroom Bill.”

Shortly after HB2 was passed in March 2016, I visited a mentor who runs a youth group for LGBTQ youth in South Carolina. When I arrived, we had a meeting where the youth were prepped for the possibility of a similar bill being passed in South Carolina. The group discussed the increase of hateful rhetoric and language at their schools since the passing of the bill, as well as the emotional toll it had taken on them, especially the trans youth.

Recently, I have learned of a particular situation of one individual, a nonbinary person whose birth certificate reads female but has been taking testosterone for two months. This exemplifies the complications many trans youth face. This person expressed fear and frustration of the fact that either bathroom they entered created an uncomfortable situation. The passing of this bill heightened the repercussions for this situation, as it gives legal legitimacy to the individuals that make bathrooms unsafe for trans people. The legislation tells uneducated individuals that a transgender existence equals an illegal existence.

It was also shocking to hear how many young people in South Carolina had no understanding or education on what being transgender even means, and now their first impression of trans people was as criminals trying to harass people in public bathrooms. The demonization of their identities and the fear it brought to the youth was clear.

Conversely, I have beautiful and eye-opening interactions with the older generation of Jews at my synagogue, and also with the youngest generation. In the sixth-grade class where I teach Sunday school, I was surprised when one of my students was telling a story to the class about her gender nonbinary friend who uses they/them pronouns. I looked around the class, expecting confused looks or questions, but there were none. After asking the class, even though I had never discussed this with them, I was surprised and overjoyed to find that this was completely normal to every student in the class, and they all used the correct pronouns.

There is so much hope and growth in the generations to come. Adults, I ask you to listen to your children. Whether it is your students, your kids, your nieces or nephews, listen to them. Our generation has important knowledge that those who are older than us can learn from.

I am asking allies to take action. The reason hateful legislation like North Carolina’s HB 142 “compromise bill” became law was due to lack of education and the failure of moderate individuals to stand up for social justice.

Though it leads to many uncomfortable and sometimes unsuccessful conversations, allies must step up and educate these individuals. This issue is no longer about opinions or ideology, it is about protecting the safety and well-being of children, and transgender individuals whose rights and lives are at stake.

Maddy Laing is a high school junior, filmmaker and activist, and a dual enrollment student at Georgia Perimeter College.

The Q in LGBTQ was included in this piece to accurately represent the spectrum of sexual and gender identities that exist within this community.

This op-ed is also published in VOXATL.com, a nonprofit youth media organization in Atlanta. (Youth Today’s managing editor is the founder of and a consultant with VOX.)