***PLEASE SEE INFORMATION ON THE CHRO SYMPOSIUM CONCERNING TRANS STUDENTS IN CT PUBLIC SCHOOLS BELOW***
It is a strange thing to have to be reminded that words could and do, in fact, “matter.” This seems obvious. And yet it was just this contention—this ordinary fact—which formed the kernel of a press conference organized at the Capitol last week in response to the recent suicides of two transgender and one gay youth here in Connecticut.
“A lot of us have grown up with the adage: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” said Robin McHaelen of Hartford-based advocacy organization True Colors at the briefing. “It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.”
LGBTQ advocates and allies, including U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, joined McHaelen to demand accountability not just for the deaths of the three teens in question, but for the lives of all young people whom identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender, questioning, or any form of the broadly defined, “queer.” “I am speaking to adults,” said Kamora Herrington, director of youth programming at True Colors, “and I’m saying what are you going to do to stop this?”
Speakers highlighted anti-LGBTQ discrimination and harassment in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump, including the assault of a 26-year-old black gay man in New Haven last Thursday. Tony Ferraiolo, a transgender man and activist, emphasized the particular challenges faced by transgender youth, 51% of whom, he said, attempt suicide at least once. “What can I say to them when they ask me: ‘Why is my government against me?’” he asked.
Ferraiolo’s comments disrupt straightforward narratives of “progress” for LGBTQ folks in the U.S. in the past several decades. Such narratives, often figuring a monolithic queer “community” for whom the marriage equality decision of 2015 represented the epochal triumph, can tend to belie the real and profound discrimination and violence to which many LGBTQ people have been and continue to be subjected. This is especially true for those experiencing double and triple marginalization along the lines of race, class, indigeneity, disability, national origin, and gender.
One recent development signaling the tenuous character of the gains afforded queer folks in the past several years has been the Trump Administration’s rolling back of Obama-era guidelines allowing students in schools across the country to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws have protected gender identity and expression since 2011. Just the fourth state to provide these protections, Connecticut stands out as a leader in a nation sharply divided on the issue of transgender rights.
Yet it would be a fatal error to subsume our responsibility to trans youth, alongside many other marginalized members of our society, under the rubric of anti-discrimination legislation alone. As trans legal scholar Dean Spade has argued, such laws may even constitute a “narrowing” of political resistance based on the “false impression” that trans folks—“previously excluded or marginalized”—are now equal, “that fairness has been imposed, and the legitimacy of the distribution of life chances restored.”
A 2014 survey found that 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide in their lifetime, as compared with just 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population, and between 10 and 20 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. We are very far from the “fair” distribution of life to which Spade refers. Despite advances in recent years, we must face up to the reality that the two transgender and one gay youth who chose to take their own lives here in Connecticut in the past several months were not exceptions to an otherwise just and equitable order. Their choice was horrifyingly ordinary.
The question is not how to speak for queer youth here in Connecticut, who will continue to face disproportionate intimidation, harassment, and violence for their sexual and gender identities. It is how to stand with them. The latter requires not only that we learn to speak out when those whom we love are threatened. Just as important is that we learn how to listen with compassion in the first place.
In accordance with its mission to eliminate discrimination through civil and human rights law enforcement, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities vehemently condemns bullying and harassment against LGBTQ youth. The CHRO invites any and all with interest to attend the following symposium:
July 27 from 3:00 to 5:00 PM
The Old Judiciary Room (Third Floor), Capitol, Hartford
“Advocates Condemn LGBTQ Bullying After Suicides,” The Hartford Courant, July 5, 2017, http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-transgender-teens-suicide-bullying-20170705-story.html.