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Trans students say they are nervous to go to school under anti-trans legislation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This year, a record-breaking number of bills have been introduced across the country targeting the rights of transgender kids. That includes Pennsylvania, where earlier this year, legislators attempted to ban trans girls from competing on girls' sports teams. Michaela Winberg of member station WHYY checked in with some trans and non-binary kids to see how they're feeling about going back to school in this climate.

MICHAELA WINBERG, BYLINE: Owen prepared for school pretty much the same way many kids did - by stocking up on school supplies and setting goals to get better grades. He's 16, and he's a junior this year at a public school in Philadelphia. He came out as trans when school was still virtual in 2020, and he says that was easier.

OWEN: Yeah. It's way better online when it comes to that. Maybe because, like, people don't, like, see me. But, like, in person, I still, like, kind of look feminine. Then it's like, oh - and then you can tell.

WINBERG: We're not using Owen's last name to protect his privacy. Owen says sometimes school is OK. He likes his Spanish and history classes. He's in chess club. But often, it's not OK. Owen says he gets bullied for being trans. He says he's been denied access to the gender-neutral bathroom on campus and turned away from the locker room and gym class that match his gender.

OWEN: And the staff would be like, you can't go in here. You look too feminine, or your voice is too high, or the guys are going to feel uncomfortable. And I'm just like, well, for me, it's uncomfortable to go into the girls' bathroom.

WINBERG: This stuff matters. When queer and trans kids are denied services that align with their gender identity, it can have a major impact on their mental health. It can increase anxiety and lead to depression, substance use and even suicide. Over the summer, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill that would have banned trans girls from competing on girls' sports teams. Then Democratic Governor Tom Wolf vetoed it. But with an election coming up in November, it's unclear whether the next governor will be willing to protect trans rights. That's unsettling for kids like Jordyn, a 17-year-old non-binary student.

JORDYN: It's very pressuring, especially because I know that my state, like, Pennsylvania, it's not, like, a very open state. The rights for trans kids are still legal here. So it kind of feels like they're, like, being threatened, I guess.

WINBERG: Philly schools have a progressive policy that's supposed to guarantee certain rights for LGBTQ students, like using the names, pronouns, bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. But sometimes, the policy works better on paper than it does in practice. Bathrooms are a prime example. Jordyn says the only gender-neutral bathroom at their Philadelphia public school is far away from the men's and women's rooms - so far that they can't make it there between classes.

JORDYN: So that wears you down. I feel like the way that they place these things, it would put too much pressure on other trans children or other trans kids or, like, teenagers or whatever because, like, the bathroom is kind of hidden away.

WINBERG: A Philadelphia school district spokesperson said that if LGBTQ students have issues at school, they should report them through an online form. They insisted all reports will be, quote, "thoroughly investigated." When Jordyn gets frustrated, they lean on their LGBTQ teachers for support.

JORDYN: Really, it's just, like, the queer teachers who are, like, very openly there for other queer kids, especially them.

WINBERG: And school isn't all bad. Both Jordyn and Owen say their parents don't really accept their identities. So sometimes, school actually feels like a respite. At least when someone bullies Owen at school or uses the wrong name, he can turn to his GSA.

OWEN: Gender Sexuality Alliance - and I really like that and the people that was in there 'cause they made me feel comfortable about myself. And I'm, like, more energetic. And it's like, yay, I'm so happy to be at school.

WINBERG: This year, Owen says he's looking forward to his psychology class. He wants to be a therapist when he grows up. For NPR News, I'm Michaela Winberg in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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