In the weeks since President Donald Trump’s administration revoked federal guidance aimed at protecting transgender students, school has been a nightmare for 17-year-old Lyle Howard.
“Ever since Trump rescinded the guidance, I’ve been harassed and bullied and yelled at in the halls,” said Howard, a sophomore at Ozark High School in southwest Missouri. “I have been declared not a person. I am an ‘it.’”
Howard, a transgender boy, says he had been using the boys’ bathroom at his public high school since the beginning of the school year without any problems. But that changed last month, when the Trump administration reversed Obama-era guidelines affirming transgender students’ right to use the bathroom in line with their gender identities. One day later, Howard says, he was chased into a bathroom stall by another boy, who banged on the door and yelled in the halls that there was a woman in the wrong bathroom. As he sees it, the timing of the incident was no coincidence.
“It’s definitely had a huge impact,” Howard said of the federal government’s reversal on transgender protections.
Trump’s decision to pull federal support for transgender students has already begun to significantly affect the lives of thousands of kids. Though the rescission itself did not change existing law, it did create a climate where schools could potentially feel safe rolling back trans-inclusive policies or ignoring cases of harassment. Many LGBTQ advocates, parents and students now say they’re concerned the administration’s action will embolden bullies and opponents of nondiscrimination protections, while exacerbating the already disproportionate rate of anxiety and depression among transgender youth.
Legally, the administration’s move also had a major impact. The Supreme Court was set to hear arguments this week in a case brought by 17-year-old Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy suing his Virginia school district for the right to use the bathroom matching his gender identity. By the end of the school year, that case could have settled once and for all the question of whether barring transgender students from the bathroom of their choice amounts to unlawful sex discrimination under Title IX, a statute prohibiting such discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities. But after the Trump administration rescinded the guidance on transgender protections, the justices decided early this month to return the case to a lower court for reconsideration, delaying much-needed clarity on the issue.
“I think people do feel more empowered to be hateful and mean. They’re seeing it from our leaders every day.”
While the move did not spell defeat for transgender students, whose right to use the bathroom matching their gender identities is supported by a growing body of case law, it did deal a tangible blow: Many students had looked to Grimm’s case as a source of hope in the days after the Trump administration abandoned them, only to be let down again.
“That silver lining just went away,” said Grace Dolan-Sandrino, a 16-year-old transgender student and activist from Maryland. “I talked a lot about the fact that I still had hope that when Gavin Grimm won, that would override Trump’s rescission. I still have hope, it’s just not as immediate.”
A number of schools throughout the country have pledged to keep transgender protections in place, despite the federal government’s abrupt reinterpretation of Title IX. But there are also some cases in which transgender students’ lives have been made substantially worse. Advocates worry the list could grow in the coming months, especially as dozens of anti-LGBTQ bills targeting children and families make their way through state legislatures.
In Derby, Kansas, school board members recently voted to reverse a policy that allowed students to use the bathrooms matching their gender identities. One member of the Derby Board of Education told BuzzFeed’s Dominic Holden that “Trump was basically leaving it up” to them to decide how to handle the issue — a position that lawyers for LGBTQ groups strongly dispute.
In Grapevine, Texas, Chelsa Nunn Morrison said her eight-year-old transgender daughter, Marilyn, has been having nightmares that someone is trying to snatch her away since the rescission. The torment doesn’t always end when she wakes up. Recently, as Marilyn was riding her bike in the street, Nunn Morrison said one of her neighbors told his kids to come inside and not play with her “soulless child.”
“I think people do feel more empowered to be hateful and mean,” Nunn Morrison said. “They’re seeing it from our leaders every day.”
The situation may not be getting better anytime soon. Texas alone has seen over a dozen bills targeting the LGBTQ community introduced this session, including one that would fine schools between $1,000 and $10,500 for every day they allow students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identities.
For Trump, the rescission also stands to have consequences as his burgeoning legacy on LGBTQ rights takes shape. Despite waving a rainbow flag as a candidate and pledging to be a “friend” to the LGBTQ community, it is now all but assured the 45th president will go down in history as an enemy of equality.
Not that anyone is particularly surprised. Trump has long opposed nationwide same-sex marriage, vowing on the campaign trail to appoint Supreme Court judges who would reverse the landmark decision that made marriage equality the law of the land. His first nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, could support efforts to undermine anti-discrimination protections based on religious beliefs, if his record is any indication. Trump took conflicting positions on North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which bars transgender people from using government building bathrooms in line with their gender identities, ultimately deciding the issue should be left up to the states. And he surrounded himself with an all-star roster of Cabinet appointees who oppose LGBTQ rights, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — the two people responsible for the rescission of the bathroom guidance.
Nevertheless, this early action represents an important shift in Trump’s presidency.
“This action is one of the most significant events in his presidency so far, and it was a clear and direct attack on the LGBTQ community, no question,” said Sarah McBride, national press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign. “It demonstrated that he’s clearly no friend to the community.”
Though LGBTQ advocates are thankful to see so many schools standing by transgender protections in the weeks since the federal rescission, many are worried about bullying taking place in the shadows. According to the latest edition of GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey, a majority of LGBTQ students who are harassed or assaulted at school do not report those incidents to school staff out of fear that the situation could be mishandled or made worse.
That certainly appears to have been the case for Howard, who was threatened with disciplinary action after he was chased into the bathroom stall last month. Neither the principal, nor the Ozark school district superintendent responded to repeated requests for comment.
As the only out transgender kid at Ozark High, Howard worries his experience is setting a bad example.
“I know plenty of trans people, but everyone has seen how I am treated and is too scared to come out publicly,” he said.
Asked how much blame he placed on Trump, Howard added: “I think it’s entirely his fault. Every single bit of it.”
Emma Margolin is an independent journalist covering politics and LGBTQ equality. She lives in New York City.