“Don’t use that as a noun,” Emma said to her mother.
Sitting cross-legged on a velvety floral couch next to her parents, Gabrielle and Rick, Emma’s long, light-brown hair that she’s had most of her 13 years fell in front of her face as she spoke. Her mother adoringly pushed her daughter’s hair back behind her ear.
“Transgender people,” Emma said. “It’s, like, it’s just a thing. You said ‘transgender’ as a noun.”
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“It’s about the people,” Emma said.
While relentlessly supportive of their two children, it’s been a learning process for the Sarasota, Florida, family after Emma — whose real name is not being used at the request of her parents — came out as transgender more than a year ago.
There are 1.4 million trans adults in the U.S. whose lives have been caught up in uncertain policy decisions. And trans youth like Emma are now subject to each state deciding which bathroom they can use in school, after the Trump administration last month retracted federal protections for trans students that had broadly allowed them to use the bathroom of their identifying gender.
Transgender children really have special work cut out for them to find their identity, because it’s not just handed to them like it is to most kids.
Rick, Emma’s father.
On March 28, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a trans rights case from Virginia determining if trans high school teen Gavin Grimm, who sued his school district in 2015 and won, can use the boys’ bathroom. Set ahead of Supreme Court justice nominee Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing, if the court is split on the decision, no precedent will be set.
In Florida, a trans man Nate Quinn won the right to use the boys’ bathroom last year, but the school’s decision initially brought fervor to Sarasota County School Board meetings. That and the county’s use of a “case-by-case basis” — a similar method is used in Manatee County schools — each drew criticism from the public. Neither side will be happy until a decision is made, but the board — in fear of litigation — is waiting on the high court decision for guidance.
There’s no waiting for Emma. Caught up in the national debate, she’s joined the fight in her town that’s seeing LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning — children coming out younger and younger, including trans youth. But in the same breath, she’s a 13-year-old making it through middle school.
“Transgender children really have special work cut out for them to find their identity, because it’s not just handed to them like it is to most kids,” said Emma’s father Rick.
He and Gabrielle asked that their last name not be used to protect their child.
Younger and younger
Emma was the springboard from which ALSO Youth — which stands for Advocacy, Leadership, Support and Outreach — began its first trans support group.
Ever since Emma was little, she preferred clothes typically designated for girls. Gabrielle and Rick just thought their child wasn’t drawn to toys and clothes typically designated for boys, and that was OK.
“We value our children’s autonomy, so of course we let her (dress up),” Gabrielle said. “We just wanted her to be herself and do what she wanted to do.”
In an enlarged photo from her parents’ wedding in California, Emma sits on the ground in a white, short-sleeved dress.
“And everything was Barbie princess fairytale. I don’t think (Emma) ever looked at a toy gun or a toy airplane or train,” Gabrielle said.
The family’s friends hinted at the idea that Emma might be transgender, but the couple didn’t know what that meant. One of Gabrielle’s friends suggested she read “She’s Not There,” a memoir by professor and transgender woman Jennifer Boylan, that details her own transition as she continued to be married to her wife.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s real love, that’s when you love a person rather than their container,’ ” Gabrielle said.
Recognizing this quality in Emma when she was 8, although she had still not come out, Gabrielle called ALSO Youth so that her child could meet friends like her and build a support system.
But Emma was much too young for the center at the time.
“Sometimes we’re able to make exceptions for a 12 1/2-year-old, (but) we want to be fair to the 20-year-olds that they can talk about sex, drugs and rock-and-roll without having to censor themselves,” said Molly Swift, program coordinator at ALSO Youth.
A week later, Gabrielle said Emma was severely bullied and she decided to wear boys’ clothes again. Then, three years later, Emma had a question.
“Mom, how do you know you’re transgender?” she asked.
A quick Google search led to an article both Emma and Gabrielle read. It clicked.
“When I found out what it meant, I just knew that’s me right there,” Emma said.
Gabrielle again contacted ALSO Youth, and a month later the center had weekly trans support groups — which, more than a year later, is the center’s most popular and widely attended group.
“It was just very clear from the start that this child, this family needed so much support that there was no other organization or source that we could think of in our area that would be more appropriate,” Smart said.
Gathered around comfy sofas in the safety of trusted friends, the group can share personal successes or hardships encountered at home and at school, politics, mental health, pop culture — anything and everything under the sun.
“This group is like the most kindest, self-regulating group that I’ve ever been a part of,” said Jules DiPronio, youth coordinator at ALSO Youth who works with Swift to moderate the groups. “It’s so nice how they’ve created this space that’s so open.”
Without the group, DiPronio said, the youth probably wouldn’t have found such support.
“They’re so considerate of each other’s feelings that I’ve never seen a group quite like it before,” Swift said.
The exact number of trans youth in the U.S. is not known, as there aren’t any comprehensive national studies like there are for adults. But trends, as seen at ALSO Youth, are showing more and more children are coming out with trans identities at younger ages.
“I can’t infer causation, but I do think that we’re seeing these youth more frequently — one, because people know more about trans issues,” Swift said.
If someone doesn’t personally know a trans person, the trans person they see in the media might be all they encounter. Transgender actress Laverne Cox, who stars in the TV series “Orange is the New Black,” and Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympian who came out very publicly in a Diane Sawyer interview last year, are just two figures that Americans have seen headlined.
Swift also said the influx of trans youth to their center might be because they need support the most, as trans people typically are faced with more violence, discrimination, homelessness and rates of attempted suicide compared with the rest of the LGBT spectrum. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ 2014 review of hate violence, 55 percent of all reported LGBT homicide victims were transgender women.
The “Injustice at Every Turn” survey found that transgender people experience four times the rate of homelessness due to either housing discrimination or unsupportive parents. Students in kindergarten through 12 grade who expressed transgender identity or gender nonconformity said 78 percent were harassed in school, causing 16 percent to quit school altogether.
And 51 percent of trans people whose families rejected them said they attempted suicide.
The trans students today are where gay people were 50 years ago.
Former Sarasota County School Board chair Shirley Brown
Though Emma has a supportive family, it doesn’t mean she’s immune to online bullies. She stands on a fine line of being out to her supportive friends and remaining “stealth” to everyone else, meaning a trans person actually looks like their preferred gender and keeps their trans identity to themselves.
Many aspects of Emma’s life aren’t unique to a transgender individual. She likes playing the Legend of Zelda – like, a lot – making jokes with her younger sister and hanging out with friends. She paints made-up characters and compiles pieces of art into videos with fitting music.
“It’s not that big of a deal, since most people assume that you’re ‘cis’ and a girl in the first place,” Emma said. “It’s kind of hard knowing that everyone doesn’t know and that they’re probably going to find out, and you don’t know how they’re going to think about it.”
“Cis” or “cisgender” means that if you’re born with male parts, you identify as a boy, and if you’re born with female parts, you’re a girl. Even if Emma’s peers don’t know, they still don’t understand the consequences of what they think is an innocent joke.
“You can hear some kids making fun of trans people across the lunch table, and you just on the inside slowly die,” she said. “ ‘Oh, did you just assume my gender because I’m trans?’ They think it’s funny.”
Although she has already contributed a lot to her community, the 13-year-old doesn’t like to boast about her influence on the ALSO Youth group.
“I don’t really think about it a lot, not to be full of myself,” she said, laughing.
“A lot of what (she) does takes a lot of bravery,” Swift said. “There are plenty of youth that we know personally who are trans and they don’t want to make their lived experience a crusade. It’s hard enough to be a teenager or a middle schooler.”
Emma has even taken that crusade straight to the school board.
A fight in Sarasota schools
“The trans students today are where gay people were 50 years ago,” said Shirley Brown, former chair of the Sarasota County School Board.
Transgender youth issues first came to the forefront in Sarasota, Florida, in 2015. Nate Quinn, a trans teenager now studying at the University of Florida, was at first barred from using the boys’ bathroom at Pine View School in Sarasota when he was 17. He told Reuters last year that when he used the girls’ bathroom, girls would scream.
If a trans student hasn’t come out to their parents or peers, they’ll often hold in urine rather than use the bathroom, which can cause a urinary tract infection. The fear of being harassed and ostracized will keep them from using their preferred bathroom, Emma said, and seeking out the few single-stall bathrooms in a school might put a spotlight on a child who is not yet out.
After Quinn finally won the right to use the bathroom matching his gender identity in January 2016, another battle started.
During the past year, Quinn and trans rights activists have asked the board to adopt the guidelines developed by “Nate’s List,” a campaign created by and named after Quinn for trans rights in Sarasota: to amend its discrimination policy to include protections for “gender identity and gender expression”; to adopt guidelines similar to Broward County Public Schools LGBTQ Critical Support Guide from May 2016; and to begin inclusion training and education on policy provided by organizations like ALSO Youth or Equality Florida.
At the same time, many who opposed Pine View’s allowing Quinn to use the boys’ bathroom voiced their concerns again.
Definitions from the National Center for Transgender Equality Transgender: describes a person whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth. Gender identity: a person’s internal sense of male, female or something else; not necessarily visible. Sexual orientation: denotes who you are attracted to Transgender woman: a transgender person born with male sex organs who identifies as a female Transgender man: a transgender person born with female sex organs who identifies as male
In February 2016, shortly after Pine View’s decision, Emma decided to speak out at the school board meeting. It was months after she had come out to her family, but she was about to do it all over again with a crowded room of strangers — a sea of people in white shirts worn in solidarity.
“I chose to speak at the last minute when everything was closing up,” she said. “’Cause of all the hate and untrue things that were being said by the other side, it was just awful what they were saying, so I felt like I had to speak.”
Keeping students’ innocence and violating students’ rights were common themes in dissenting opinions. One speaker, Tom Wolcott, recalled his own experience in the boys’ locker room, saying P.E. was at the same time his favorite class and a “devastating” memory marred by ridicule.
“For me to think of my boys being in that situation and then throwing a girl into the mix, watching them change or urinate or whatever it might be, seems completely outrageous to me,” he said.
A few pastors from the area spoke as well. Jay Sheppard, a pastor at Tri-City Baptist Church in Port Charlotte, referenced Quinn directly, recalling that Quinn had said he was bullied by classmates who would call him by his birth name and pronouns and then laugh.
“This is not bullying,” Sheppard said. “This is life.”
Heather Eslien, a gender specialist who helps adults questioning gender identity in Sarasota, was taken aback by the opposition.
“I’ll remember that forever,” she recently told the Herald. “It felt really threatening.”
Most of the opposing speakers focused down to only trans women and not trans men, painting a picture of a predatory man following little girls into the bathroom. Eslien said that trans women are more harshly discriminated against because people see them as “men in dresses.”
“It’s important to keep in mind that trans people are not asking for special rights, merely equal ones,” she said.
Emma approached the lectern and pulled the microphone down to her face. Her voice was shaky, her long hair covering part of her face as she spoke. The camera recording the meeting panned to see the whole room: The sea was watching, listening.
I have been a girl for as long as I can remember.
Emma, 13, told the school board during a February school board meeting
“I have been a girl for as long as I can remember,” she said. “In my early years of elementary school, I was very harassed every time I went into the bathroom, because the people in there that were coming in there would do horrible things, like ask me to prove that I was a boy and things like that.”
She continued, saying, “I would never try to go to a bathroom just to harass someone.”
In a workshop after the meeting, the school board feared they would be sued by either side of the issue for taking any action. Yet as the year went on, fewer and fewer people came up to the podium to voice either their concerns or support of trans youth, the most recent in November. The school board decided to leave it as a case-by-case basis until they know more from the Supreme Court.
“A lot of the people were confused with the policy and procedure,” Brown said. “We’re sort of following Broward County in procedures, basically you treat people on a one-to-one basis.”
Broward County Superintendent Robert W. Runcie announced Feb. 23 that the school district would continue to support its transgender students and the Trump administration announcement would not change its transgender student support guidelines.
But many, like Emma, Quinn and Eslien, feel that the case-by-case basis just won’t work.
“A lot of kids don’t have supporting parents, and school is a place where they need to feel accepted,” Emma said.
Brown said there haven’t been any problems when using the case-by-case policy or when trans students who aren’t out yet use the bathroom they prefer.
“The policy is we won’t discriminate. The policy is we won’t bully. We have those policies,” Brown said.
She added that due to privacy rights, the school board doesn’t know how many transgender children there are in Sarasota County.
“Transgender (people) are the ones who are not the perpetrators,” she said.
The new administration
At a “Today” show town hall event on the campaign trail in April 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump addressed a Twitter question regarding the LGBTQ community and the bathroom debate.
“There have been very few complaints the way it is,” he said, noting that transgender people should “use the bathroom they feel is appropriate.”
Host Matt Lauer followed up with a hypothetical: that Trump would be OK with Caitlyn Jenner using whatever bathroom she wanted to in Trump Tower.
“That is correct,” Trump said.
Emma doesn’t buy it.
“He says so much random nonsense, so it’s hard to believe anything he says,” Emma said. “Maybe if he stood for it, it’d be more believable.”
Many in the trans community are concerned with how President Trump will change the LGBTQ landscape, even leading many to update official documents with their identifying gender before he was sworn in.
Quinn isn’t optimistic, but continues fighting for equal rights with his list.
“The school board in Sarasota county still refuses to move forward, and with this huge win for Trump I can’t see anything good happening there in the near future either,” he wrote in a recent message to the Bradenton Herald.
With the administration’s rescission of federal protection, citing that it didn’t sufficiently express how it met guidelines for Title IX — a law that prevents sex discrimination under educational programs — the debate has catapulted back into the national spotlight.
Still, as the fights continue in the courts and in the school boards, Emma and her family are looking on the positive side. They’re counting on being able to keep within a supportive community that they’ve helped cultivate.
“We sort of live in a bubble,” Rick said. “But it’s a very good bubble.”
Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse
Where to learn more about LGBTQ issues locally and nationwide
Equality Florida: www.eqfl.org
ALSO Youth: www.alsoyouth.org
PRISM Youth Initiative: www.prismyouth.org
GLAAD Transgender FAQ: www.glaad.org/transgender/transfaq
Support group for trans people in southwest Florida: http://www.swfltranssptgp.org/
National Center for Transgender Equality: www.transequality.org