National Center For Transgender Equality's Harper Jean Tobin And High Schooler Evan Morris Discuss Transgender School Issues

This month we've shared a Voice to Voice conversation between author Whitney Joiner and the ACLU's Chris Hampton and one between Jason Cianciotto and Sean Cahill, authors of the new book “LGBT Youth in America’s Schools," as part of our anti-bullying program currently running on The Huffington Post.

Today we bring you a conversation between Harper Jean Tobin, the National Center for Transgender Equality's Policy Counsel, and Evan Morris, a high school student in Montgomery County, Maryland.

As Policy Counsel, Harper Jean coordinates all aspects of advocacy on federal administrative policies and regulations for NCTE. When she is not engaging with federal agencies and the current administration, she works to provide information for the public about laws and policies that affect transgender people. Harper Jean's writing on transgender equality and other issues has been published in the Harvard Kennedy School’s LGBTQ Policy Journal, Notre Dame’s Journal of Legislation, the Yale Law Journal Pocket Part, the Columbia Journal of Gender & the Law, the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, and others. She received degrees in law and social work from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and is an alumna of Oberlin College.

Evan is a member of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League’s (SMYAL) Youth Advocacy Program, which supports and empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth in the Washington, DC metropolitan region.

Harper Jean and Evan's conversation coincides with the release of NCTE's "Know Your Rights At School" guide a brand new resource that outlines the rights trans and gender nonconforming students have in schools and how to file formal complaints. NCTE notes that it does not provide legal services, but instead encourages anyone who cannot resolve issues through the complaint processes discussed in the guide to seek legal counsel.

Here Harper Jean and Evan discuss their personal experiences with being trans in school, bullying, intrusive questions and more.

Harper Jean Tobin: I want to start out by saying how psyched I was to connect with you through SMYAL and how impressed I am by the work you're doing to raise awareness of the need to support trans youth and all LGBT youth. I know that when I was in high school I was involved in activism around a lot of different issues of racial and economic justice and youth rights, but not specifically around the issues that I faced as someone who, I guess at the time you would have said was gender nonconforming.

Evan Morris: Thank you! I'm honored to be speaking with you. The work of the National Center for Transgender Equality is incredibly important, for me specifically the Model District Policy on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students, which I used a lot in speaking to my school about my needs.

Harper Jean Tobin: I'm really heartened to hear that. We definitely need more tools to support having those kinds of conversations. I know we and the folks at GLSEN looked at the great conversations, practices and policies at a lot of schools around the country and at the same time how few resources there were for students and schools to not have to reinvent the wheel. There was a great model policy developed by a coalition in California, but and we wanted something to serve the same purpose that could be used anywhere.

Evan Morris: To touch back on your earlier statement regarding your high school experience -- for me, knowing where I fit on the spectrum came after beginning my work with organizations like SMYAL. I knew I was queer and I was questioning my gender identity so I decided to get more involved with LGBT advocacy. Youth advocacy has always been, and continues to be, something very important to me. Through my family, I have always been surrounded by advocates and activists, so the need to stand up for equal rights was something I learned early. Now I am lucky enough to be able to advocate on behalf of a cause that is very personal to me. Because I am transgender, my high school experience is certainly different from those of my fellow classmates. Policy, such as the one proposed in California, is necessary everywhere to help smooth transitions like mine.

Harper Jean Tobin: And that's exactly how I felt when I came out and transitioned, albeit later on in college. I had the experience of being an advocate and activist and it was exciting to apply that to my own experience as a trans student. I actually did a project for my student senate where I surveyed the ways my school could better serve trans students. I have to say my transition at school was very smooth for the most part. There were definitely awkward conversations during roll call the first week of classes but it seemed like everyone should have the kind of support I was able to have. I often wonder how it would have gone if I'd come out at my fairly large public high school in Louisville, Ky. But I know one of these days pretty soon some trans student is going to or is going to show up having transitioned even before that. You mentioned conversations at your school. What did those conversations center around?

Evan Morris: My high school has treated me very well, all things considered. I've had the privilege to be in an accepting environment, for the most part. I've had some trouble with teachers using the incorrect name or pronouns. Arranging to use the one gender neutral bathroom in the health room was also an unclear process. Beyond that, I've been fortunate not to run into more any more serious issues.

At the beginning of the year, when I was ready to come out to my school, I talked to my counselor about what options I had. She was very helpful, but did not know much more than I did about what I needed and what she could do. In the end, I talked to each of my teachers personally, with varying success, and was allowed to use a few bathrooms in the school by showing a pass from my counselor. Two of these bathrooms, I no longer use because, despite having a pass, I would always get questions about why I was there, sometimes accompanied by requests to just use the other bathrooms, even if those were floors away. It was always awkward so I stopped.

Later in the year, my Gay Straight Alliance was asked to speak to some people from Pupil Personnel Services about the needs of LGBT students in my county's schools. For my part, I presented GLSEN and NCTE's Model District Policy on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students as a basis of what was necessary. While I don't know what that meeting resulted in, it was good to get a voice in the process. So much of the time it feels as if there is no simple way to be heard by people who have any influence on the policy. Hopefully, that is changing.

Harper Jean Tobin: Well, that's the way a lot of things work, I know it is true with the federal government: sometimes it takes a long time to see the impact your input has had. But I think there is really increasingly a hunger in schools to have these conversations, because it is becoming clearer and clearer that it is something pretty much every school is going to need to think about.

Did you see the story in the Washington Post last month, about the family of a transgender boy in elementary school? I think stories like that are making people more aware that, wow, even if we don't have a trans student that we know of now, maybe we should be thinking ahead.

Evan Morris: I did. I think that situations like that are beginning to be taken a lot more seriously than ever before. While full awareness is still many steps away, the more people hear about trans issues and the more visible the community becomes, the easier it will be for people in the future to be accepting and accommodating of people's needs.

Harper Jean Tobin: You've been involved with SMYAL's Youth Advocacy Program. Can you tell me a bit about that and what you and others in the program have been up to?

Evan Morris: Well the goal of the problem is to teach young people how to advocate for themselves and for others. For the first half of the year, we learned a lot about the different ways of spreading a message and about the different tactics that campaigns tend to use. More recently, we've organized our own advocacy campaign using all that we've learned. The topic we chose was bullying, and using social media, we intend to make people more aware of the effects of bullying, especially on LGBT youth. At DC's Youth Pride late last month, we ran a photo booth where people could tell their own stories. Those photos are being used to raise more awareness.

Harper Jean Tobin: Wow, that's amazing, and creative! The photo booth project reminds me a bit of the public radio Story Corps project, which has also presented some great queer and trans stories.

Let’s talk more for a minute about bullying, though. When we look across the country, the research that GLSEN, NCTE and others have done finds trans and queer students today reporting a lot of harassment, a lot of feeling unsafe at school, avoiding locker rooms, avoiding going to the restroom, and not having much confidence that teachers or staff will stand up for them. Do you have a sense of what the public schools or state or local governments, either in Maryland where you live or here in the District are doing? Or what they should be doing?

Evan Morris: Personally, I'm looking into ways to help out with other organizations and their campaigns. Now that this campaign is coming to a close, I don't want to stop being involved! Unfortunately, overall, the opportunities for high schoolers are limited. I'm currently also involved in a GSA Network internship with SMYAL, but that finishes at the end of the year as well.

I have limited knowledge of areas outside my county. Montgomery County, where I am in school, is generally very good about LGBT issues in schools, in terms of protections and assistance. Still, not much is done to assist in the transition process within schools. I think they need to establish a clear process for how to handle these issues, instead of leaving the decisions up to individual employees, because then fair and equal treatment can't been guaranteed in the least. The little knowledge I have about schools outside of my own comes from students at SMYAL, most of whom go to DC schools.

Harper Jean Tobin: I know there have been efforts to pass a comprehensive, enumerated bullying law here in DC over the last year, as many other states have done. And just recently the president announced his support for federal legislation that would require all schools to adopt comprehensive policies that includes enumeration of reasons people might be targeted like gender identity, which sends a strong message to staff and administrators.

Evan Morris: Yes, which I think is wonderful. Having support in government is so important, obviously for legal reasons but also for general hope about continuing progress in all aspects of the movement.

Harper Jean Tobin: I just read that such a law was signed in Maine today.

Evan Morris: Oh really? That's great!

Harper Jean Tobin: Yes, I think that all these things are of a piece -- adopting laws and policies, educating and increasing awareness -- and I think it's important to recognize that combating bullying and peer victimization and addressing the other issues trans and gender nonconforming youth face in schools are of a piece, too. The question of equal access to restrooms, for example, is not something you can separate from the conversation about bullying. To use Maine as an example again, I know that GLAD represented a family there whose trans daughter started getting picked on by other kids only when the staff told her she had to use the nurse's restroom. Well, other kids noticed and it sort of singled her out as different. But I don't think folks often think about it in those terms.

Evan Morris: What people need is a way to not have a hugely different school experience from everyone else. They shouldn't have to use a specific bathroom, but they should instead have the option to use what makes them comfortable.

Harper Jean Tobin: Exactly. Sometimes, though, when we talk to policymakers or education officials we hear that attending to the needs of trans youth is seen as sensitive, as very challenging, as something they’re unprepared to handle and something other parents in schools are unprepared to handle. What would you say to them?

Evan Morris: Nothing will ever get done if people don't trust each other enough to allow it to happen. If people are worried that the parents will make a fuss out of something, then they can start by not making a fuss out if it themselves. A transition is not something up to public scrutiny. Yes, parents need their children to be safe, but that safety needs to be extended to all children including students who are transgender.

Harper Jean Tobin: I think you put it very well. I think that goes whether you're talking about high school or college or the workplace. Of course, when people are exposed to something that's really unfamiliar to them they can be anxious. They can have all sorts of concerns about how it might play out. That's a pretty normal, human reaction to all sorts of things. But if people get the message that this is really not something they need to worry about, and they have the opportunity to see that for themselves, those worries can fade away very quickly.

Evan Morris: I agree. One of the biggest problems I have faced is with people who are just not open to hearing anything I have to say. Because I am different, everything else I say is void. If people would open their eyes to try to understand what is happening around them, perhaps we would not still be in such a stalemate. I will never give up trying to educate people, but if they never open themselves to receiving that knowledge, there isn't anything either of us can do.

Harper Jean Tobin: We see the same dynamic in government and policymaking too, by the way. Having transgender people working as advocates meeting with agencies, and as employees in agencies, really makes a difference. But some days are easier than others, of course.

Evan Morris: I also get frustrated by social politics in this country simply because some politicians will not support equality based only on the fact that such support is seen as so exclusively tied to being very liberal.

Harper Jean Tobin: That's certainly been a dynamic we see often, and it even gets in the way of folks doing what they know is right. I think that is changing though, with more and more people of all political persuasions getting to know the queer and trans folks in their families and communities and understanding that discrimination is holding us back.

I'm curious, as someone who's had to do some education and advocacy for yourself around trans issues, and specifically as a young person (I think I no longer qualify as young, since I am about to turn 31, unimaginable as that seems), what questions do you get asked, and what questions do you wish you were being asked?

Evan Morris: Well, I get a lot of very intrusive questions, which I wish did not happen quite so often. But generally speaking…

Harper Jean Tobin: Amen to that.

Evan Morris: [Laughs] Oh, yes. From the experiences of myself and a few friends, I have basically concluded that upon coming out as trans, it is very difficult NOT to become some sort of poster child for transgender people. No matter what people could Google, it is somehow more interesting to ask every question imaginable about the subject, no matter how blatantly rude. I do appreciate the more thoughtful questions though. I'm having some trouble thinking of specific examples of those at the moment because I get SO many questions that they all seem to run together.

Harper Jean Tobin: I know what you mean. I do try to be sympathetic to the curiosity people have and the fact that unfamiliar phenomena sometimes momentarily short-circuit our good manners.

Evan Morris: I do too, I pretty much answer all questions I asked -- that or I politely explain why the question they asked is inappropriate.