As the August nights begin to chill it means that back-to-school season is upon us. You cannot escape the displays, school lists and giant adverts of pencils and apples that have popped up in stores and online. Even if you’re decades removed from your own schooling, it is impossible to wade through the latter half of August and not remember the smell of new school supplies and shoes. Picking out the best outfit and packing your new backpack to the brim, and anxiously awaiting seeing your friends while wondering which teachers live up to their reputations. Young me usually spent the night before the first day back tossing and turning until my alarm went off in the morning.
In elementary school the energy was excitement, eagerness to see which of my friends would be in my class for the year. By middle school it had turned to sheer dread, puberty brought with it a whole mess of complications my baby-trans brain could not process. While my peers were eagerly growing up, I felt that middle and high school me was spent living behind a screen door. While my peers could see me, they could never see the real me, because he was hidden beneath an ill-fitting girl suit. With all of the information available to kids these days, they are able to articulate who they are as individuals in a way I could never have dreamed of a mere 20 years ago.
As a forever-Marylander, I am glad that Maryland Public Schools are leaps and bounds above the national average. Within Baltimore City, all single-stall restrooms are required to be labelled as non-gendered, and there are similar bills and ordinances in progress around the rest of the state. Even where single-stall bathrooms are not available, students are able to use the bathroom that affirms their gender. In addition, students in Maryland who wish to participate in interscholastic athletics are able to do so as the gender they identify as, and not just the one on their legal identification. Students in Maryland also have the right to be identified as their preferred name with correct pronouns by their teachers and administration. To know that students sitting in the exact classrooms I occupied are now filled with students who are able to at least be who they know themselves to be is why I do what I do.
However, just because the legal protections are stronger in Maryland than other places, does not mean we can rest, or even pat ourselves on the back. Students in surrounding states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia have no legal protections for their affirmations of self. The majority of states still do not offer any legal protections and rights for queer students. Queer students still face bullying and discrimination at highly disproportionate levels. Nine out of ten queer students said they face bullying form their peers. Kids can be cruel. I remember what it was like to be out and proud in school, and it painted a target on my back. Instead of them actually needing to find something about me, the individual, I was just ridiculed for my sexuality, and if kids are being made to feel unwelcome and unsafe in schools, their academics suffer and their self-esteem.
Until every student in this country is able to have the same protections as their Maryland peers, we are failing our children. Growing up queer was a dozen mixed bags of negativity until the last few years, and we owe it to our youth and the youth we used to be to make sure that school is safe, affirming and accessible to all of our students. Not only are our kids the future of our planet as a whole, but they represent the future of our own vibrantly diverse community, and we owe it to ensure our rainbow shines brighter than the day before.
- Asher Kennedy is a writer, activist, trans-man and cis-nerd living an hour outside of Washington in the Eastern Panhandle of WV. He proudly serves on the board of Hagerstown Hopes (hagerstownhopesmd.org) and has been featured on RoleReboot (rolereboot.org) and is on twitter @ItsAsherK