Marilyn Morrison thought that if the other girls at school just got to know her, they would love her.
The eight-year-old girl decided to go back to her Texas public school after her mother, Chelsa, pulled her out during the second grade to be homeschooled. Marilyn, who is transgender, was still presenting as a boy to her classmates, and every day she would complain to her mother of headaches and stomachaches — the stress of being someone she isn’t taking its toll. But after a year of transitioning at home, Marilyn decided to return to school as her true self, wearing dresses and skirts. Chelsa says that the principal was supportive and even excited to have the young girl back in the classroom.
“It was amazing,” the 43-year-old said. “The school was fully on board.”
Although Chelsa believed her daughter would be allowed to use the girls’ bathroom — along with her peers — she claims Marilyn was forced to use the nurse’s office, which was often locked. There was another facility in the school library, but faculty, many of whom didn’t know Marilyn was transgender, would allegedly stop her and inform her that it was for “adults only.” Chelsa claims that a teacher even complained to her that her daughter was using the restroom too often.
“She asked me over the phone how many times I thought she should go,” Chelsa said. “I told her, ‘As many as she wants.’”
The first three weeks that Marilyn, a bouncy little girl with dark brown hair, attended her new school, Chelsa claims administrators told her that the district received a complaint about her daughter “every single day.” But it wasn’t nearly as bad as the bullying from other students. One girl, who Marilyn calls “the girl with purple shoes,” has allegedly harassed her on numerous occassions, telling her that she’s “disgusting” and that her parents are probably “at home freaking out” about her.
One day Chelsa went to have lunch with Marilyn at school, and she says she warned her daughter to never go in a restroom — on or off school grounds — if she sees that girl in there. Marilyn told her that she checks for the purple shoes every single time.
A bill being considered by the Texas legislature would make it more difficult for girls like Marilyn to do something as simple as go to the bathroom in their school. State Bill 6, which is currently being debated by the state’s General Assembly, would mandate that transgender people use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender marker listed on their birth certificate. If schools choose to ignore state law, they would be fined up to $1,500 on the first violation and up to $10,500 for each additional incident. Parents say it would make what’s already a difficult, stressful situation for their children even worse.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced last year that passing SB 6, also known as the “Women’s Privacy Act,” would be a top priority for the 2017 legislative session. That bill is a repackaged version of earlier efforts to strike at transgender protections in the state, which were ramped up following the issuance of guidance from the Obama administration in 2016 instructing schools to allow students to use whatever facilities are most comfortable.
Chelsa claims that SB 6 “changed everything for us.” Announced the first day of school, the district vowed to follow those guidelines, even though the bill hadn’t yet been enacted as law.
This meant the school — who had allegedly assured Chelsa they would do everything to support her daughter — went from being affirming and inclusive to what she calls “a waking nightmare” overnight. Chelsa says that she met with an administrator who refused to change Marilyn’s name or records in the system, which meant that even if teachers called her by her chosen name, she would still be forced to encounter her birth name constantly, such as on school identification.
“It didn’t feel good,” Marilyn said . “I felt like I shouldn’t be there and that everyone was just staring at me.”
After she claims that a group of students cornered her daughter on the playground — telling her that she was a boy and that they would never call her Marilyn — Chelsa decided to pull the girl out of school yet again, just weeks after they had been so hopeful this time would be different. She said it’s been difficult to explain to Marilyn why she can’t go back to class to see her friends. How do you explain to an eight-year-old why people are discriminating against her?
Rachel Adams-Gonzales, a 33-year-old mother in Dallas, hasn’t had that kind of experience. Her daughter, Libby, began transitioning in school a year ago after asking Santa for a unique present for Christmas: She wanted to be a girl. This request wasn’t a surprise to her parents, as Libby had been wearing dresses and fairy costumes at home since she was three. Rachel sent the other parents in Libby’s class a text message to let them know that her daughter, who is now seven, would be coming to school as a girl; she claims it was a “non-issue” with her peers and with school administrators. Libby was fully embraced for the young woman that she is.
All of that would change, though, if SB 6 were passed. It would not only prevent Libby from using the girls’ bathroom at school but would block her from doing so in all buildings owned or operated by the state — including city parks and libraries.
“The whole thing is ridiculous,” Rachel said . “They’re creating a problem where there is none and targeting a very vulnerable population that wants to pee. It’s hard enough to take three little kids in public and have to take everyone to use the bathroom. Now you’re telling me that I’m going to have to take my little girl into the men’s room alone? I don’t think so. That’s going to remove my entire family from public life.”
“Everything’s totally good for my daughter now, and it would fuck her life,” she added.
Matt Nurkin knows first-hand how difficult that is. Matt and his family live in North Carolina, who enacted similar legislation last year. House Bill 2, a controversial bill pushed through the General Assembly last March, blocks trans people from using the public restroom that corresponds with their gender identity in schools and government buildings. It also prevents local legislatures from enacting their own nondiscrimination laws to protect their transgender residents.
His daughter, Sarah*, began transitioning in the second grade, and Matt claims that she became a whole new person.
“Overnight she went from being a shy, withdrawn kid who didn’t want to invite her friends over to play to being very outgoing,” Matt said. “We had neighbors come up to us proactively and say it was like seeing a different child. For the first time in three years, she had a birthday party with 15 of her friends.”
When Sarah came out in school, Matt says that teachers and administrators tried to do the best they could for his daughter, but that’s difficult under a law that singles her out for discrimination. Sarah has to use the restroom in the nurse’s office on her campus, which reminds her that she’s “not like other kids” every time she uses the bathroom. Although she’s just eight years old, Matt explained that his daughter is already “very conscious” of the fact that people treat her differently just because she’s transgender.
“After all that we’ve been through to get her into school as a girl,” he said, “she asked my wife, ‘Mom, when I get to junior high, can I finally be a real girl?’”
The worst part of it, Matt argued , is that there’s absolutely no evidence that forcing Sarah — or any other transgender student — to use a different bathroom makes anyone any safer. Of the more than 200 cities and legislatures that allow trans kids like Sarah to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, there hasn’t been an outbreak of sexual assault as a result. This contradicts the Republican myth, propagated by supporters of HB 2 and SB 6, that respecting Sarah’s dignity will lead to “women and children” being targeted in public bathrooms.
“In a situation where you’re sending transgender kids into bathrooms that don’t correspond with their gender identity, the reality is that the person in that situation who is not safe is the transgender child,” Matt said. “These bills put my daughter at risk.”
Statistics from UCLA’s The Williams Institute, a pro-LGBT think tank, show that 70 percent of trans people report being harassed, attacked, or denied entry when using public restrooms.
The Texas legislature, which is currently debating SB 6, is expected to hold a hearing about the bill this week. Chelsa and her daughter will be in attendance to testify against the legislation, but their work was made even harder last week when the Trump administration revoked the Obama guidelines for trans students. Although Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — which prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of gender identity — still stands, it becomes much more difficult to implement without federal best practices on the subject.
Chelsa believes that getting through to legislators is of critical importance for a youth population that faces a disproportionately high risk of self-harm and suicide.
“We all know what support means for this community,” she said. “It’s everything. It’s the difference between life and death. Our kids are so terrified because of what’s going on politically right now. It’s horrible for them... and the parents are having a hard time, too. We’re all trying to put one foot in front of the other, speak out where we can, and let people know that our youth need to be protected.”
Marilyn, though, just wants to be back in school with her friends and be treated like she belongs. “I want to go back so bad,” she said. “They’re scared of me, but why would they be afraid? I’m just like any other girl.”
*name changed out of respect for child’s privacy