Voices: North Dakota’s law requiring trans students to be outed is dangerous and despicable

·6-min read
Doug Burgum and stock image (AP/iStock)
Doug Burgum and stock image (AP/iStock)

They called her the “mouth of the south.” Of course, I did not know that when I came out to my schoolmate as gay; I was a scared 15-year-old boy. Having just moved to the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, I did not know a single person at my new high school. This girl seemed nice, though – bubbly, outgoing, curious about my life before Leslie County – and so I thought I could trust her. Within a week, however, the whole of Leslie County High School knew the new kid was a [insert homophobic slur here].

I thought about this childhood experience as I read, with grief and righteous fury, about a new law passed in North Dakota which mandates that “a school district, public school, or public school teacher may not … withhold or conceal information about a student’s transgender status from the student’s parent or legal guardian.” In plain English, the law essentially requires teachers and other school employees to out students to their parents against their will. It is nothing more than robbing our children of their most basic autonomy and privacy for no other reason than because North Dakota Republicans can. To be clear, this law is not meant to protect children from medical interventions. That law already passed in North Dakota and was signed into law by Republican Governor Doug Bergum last month. It is not about illegal drug use, or self-harm, or exploitation by adults. Rather a child simply identifying as transgender being enough cause for alarm that the state mandates schools should override a child’s decision to keep something that, on its own, is causing no harm – physical or mental – to said child.

Given that they have already banned gender-affirming healthcare for minors, and that any discovery of children using hormone replacement therapy or puberty blockers would thus be illegal drug use and fall under other reporting requirements, there is no other need for such a law to “protect children” from medical intervention. It is fair to conclude, then, that this law was passed not out of a desire to protect children, but because of a desire to punish them for daring to identify as anything other than their natal sex and not conforming to rigid gender stereotypes.

That is a profoundly dangerous proposition for LGBTQ youth, though, as the growing number of studies suggest. According to the US Department of Education’s National Center for Homeless Education, 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. One study found 33 percent of unhoused LGBTQ youth report being thrown out by their parents, compared to only 20 percent of non-LGBTQ unhoused youth. Another study found that 67 percent of unhoused transgender youth and 55.3 percent of LGBQ unhoused youth were forced out by their parents or ran away because their sexual orientation or gender identity was not accepted at home. And the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Youth website cites a study that found “78 percent of LGBT youth… were removed or ran away from foster placements because of the caregiver’s hostility toward their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

54 percent of transgender individuals experienced “a low amount of family rejection,” while 15 percent experienced “a high amount of rejection”, a study conducted by researchers at the City University of New York found. Unsurprisingly, the study found a correlation between this rejection and suicide and substance abuse, with 42 percent of participants having attempted suicide and 26 percent reporting abusing of drugs and alcohol. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that 73 percent of transgender adolescents report psychological abuse, 39 percent physical abuse, and 19 percent sexual abuse – consistently reporting higher in all categories than their cisgender counterparts. And though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that their Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance studies have historically excluded transgender respondents, it finds that “having a school that creates a safe and supportive learning environment for all students and having caring and accepting parents are especially important.”

Yet that is the opposite of what is happening in North Dakota. This law strips children of their most basic agency, determining when parents – parents in all likelihood the teacher and school administration have had minimal contact with – are told that their child is transgender. As these studies demonstrate, that can have catastrophic consequences for the child.

Coming out is an incredibly personal decision, one that should never be stolen from the individual the way that it is now being stolen from students in North Dakota schools. This is a lesson I had hoped we learned in 2010, when 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi killed himself after being outed by two of his classmates. In 2016, after an arduous and lengthy legal battle, one of those students plead guilty to attempted invasion of privacy, a third-degree felony in New Jersey.

Clementi was barely older than the students who will be most affected by this odious North Dakota law – a law that unnecessarily puts children at risk of rejection and violence in their own homes. After all, if a child has not told their parent about their gender identity, there is likely a reason for it. Schools and children may benefit from educators learning what that reason is, but they do not benefit from violating the privacy of children when the most harm being observed is a change of name, pronouns, or fashion.

What makes this even more concerning is that in outing children to their parents, schools risk damaging the trust of those students – students who may otherwise need to rely on education professionals if those parents become abusive or throw them out. This law undermines the relationship students have with teachers and administrators, making it harder for those trusted adults to know when there is something actually warranting school intervention.

I am not someone who holds grudges, but I do hold a grudge against the girl who outed me. She violated my trust, took away my agency, and made my life hell for the next three years by broadcasting my deepest truth to the entire town, which then went on to bully me relentlessly. It was a deeply wounding and disempowering experience, one that left me more vulnerable and lonelier than I have ever been before or since.

Now, in North Dakota, countless young people will be left feeling exactly that and worse. Thanks to this law, schools are being forced to abdicate their role as safeguarding institutions in favor of becoming the gender conformity police. It is a reprehensible dereliction of their duty of care towards these vulnerable children – one being forced upon them by a legislature intent on making transgender people’s lives as hard as possible simply because they can.

I was lucky that my family accepted my sexual orientation, so had my school notified them I would have been okay. Not every child is so fortunate. Even though it all worked out, though, the anguish of being outed has not left me. Thanks to North Dakota Republicans, another generation of LGBTQ youth will be forced to experience that same traumatic and humiliating violation – all because Republicans can’t stand the idea of a boy in a dress.