It was against the backdrop of David Weinberg Photography's Transfluent exhibition that a panel of leading trans advocates put forward a grim cultural narrative during a discussion on transgender rights at Weinberg's gallery on Dec. 3 that the American Civil Liberties Union ( ACLU ) of Illinois organized.
ACLU Director of the LGBT and HIV Project John Knight, Illinois Safe Schools Alliance Policy and Advocacy Director and Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois ( TJLP ) collective member Owen Daniel-McCarter, alongside Chicago House Trans Life Center's TransLegal Director and Staff Attorney Maria Pahl, addressed a wide variety of topics before a capacity lunchtime audience including the rights of transgender students, access to healthcare and legal documents and the challenges transgender individuals still face when dealing with police and in the courtroom.
"It's important for us to frame this in the idea that there is an institutional problem here," Daniel-McCarter said. "We live in a society that, for the most part, does not anticipate that transgender people exist. So we have set up systems recognizing and supporting a very rigid gender binary including identity documents, medical systems, housing and employment."
At the time of the discussion, Knight was appearing after an apparent victory for his client who has been fighting for equal access to the locker rooms at Township High School District 211 in Palatine.
During the prior evening's school board meeting, a vote had been cast that apparently complied with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights ( OCR ) and that both Knight's client and all transgender students would be granted access to locker rooms that matched their gender identity.
"There was quite a level of organization among the opponents to treating transgender people fairly in schools," Knight said. "There were robocalls. People were spending money among groups associated with certain religious beliefs who feel like this is their mandate and are fighting on that basis. There are others who are just in need of a great deal of education. They have a knee-jerk reaction to the notion of having a transgender student in the locker room with other kids."
The school board stated the following day that the ruling was not in fact district-wide and only applied to the student in question. Furthermore she would need to use privacy curtains in the locker room and that "if this student doesn't comply, access will no longer be allowed."
"Young people are rarely the problem," Knight said referring to the Dec. 3 meeting. "The students who spoke up were all speaking in favor of our client. They get it and are much more accepting. They certainly get it if the school hasn't started out badly by putting out messages that shame transgender people or suggest that there's something wrong with them."
"Schools should be in the business of educating about the right way to do things and not about the wrong way to do things," Knight added. "We knew these would be hard cases a few years ago and we met with clients who were not just willing to give in."
An emergency school board meeting was held by District 211 Dec. 7.
In contrast, Daniel-McCarter noted some school districts like Berwyn South District 100 who were being proactive about their transgender students. "They have seen the impact that lack of support has on students," he said. "Students visibly shutting down, not engaging in their education and not coming to school."
"When we think about barriers to education, they create a snowball effect down the road," Pahl said referring to the horrendous poverty and homelessness transgender people face.
Pahl also listed a number of barriers facing transgender people who wish to change their legal documents to reflect a new name and preferred identity. "You can't [do so] under the age of 18 without a guardian's permission," she said. "If there's one parent who doesn't agree with the name change they have an opportunity to be present in court. So for minors it can be complicated. For folks who are 18 and older, you have to not have been convicted of a crime that would require you to register as a sex offender in this or any other state and you must not have been convicted of a felony with a sentence that was not finished in the last ten years."
Twenty percent of people who seek a name change through the TJLP's name change drive cannot complete their applications because of felony convictions.
"In the vast majority of the cases, these are survival crimes," Pahl said. "Felony convictions from long ago either for sex work or forgeries. They are low-level felonies so the rationale doesn't seem to make sense but the judge has zero discretion to make any kind of determination in specific instances that an individual wants to change their name in accordance with their gender identity as a safety issue."
For more information about the ACLU of Illinois, visit: www.aclu-il.org .