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article imageTrans teen in Chicago: From surviving to thriving

By Nova Safo, Derek Henkle (AFP)     May 29, 2016 in World

Sixteen-year-old Arthur Brown is finishing his second year in high school in a suburb of Chicago. While his peers are looking forward to summer days at the local mall, Brown knows navigating that simple ritual of American teenage life will be fraught with complexities.

"You calculate when you're going to be out, and you pray that you're not going to have to be going to a bathroom when you're in public," said Brown, who is transgender -- born female but now identifying as male.

For transgender people, hodgepodge solutions to the lack of full access to public facilities are now giving way to discussions about basic rights. In many US public schools, those discussions -- and attempts to accommodate trans youth -- pre-date the controversies making headlines in North Carolina and elsewhere.

To avoid using public, gender-specific bathrooms, transgender people have resorted to various coping mechanisms, including not eating or drinking while in public, or keeping note of single-person bathrooms in public areas.

But these solutions are not ideal, at best.

"We see much higher instance of things like bladder infections, UTI's, disorder eating," among transgender young people, said Jennifer Leininger, program manager at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago's gender and sex development program.

Brown's own solution for visiting the mall is to frequent a 'family' bathroom. "I've had people yell at me for going in the family bathroom," he said.

- 'Safe passage' -

Robert Garofalo, who heads a clinic for transgender children at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, says the bathroom issue is a genuine concern for his young patients.

Arthur Brown  who is transgender -- born female but now identifying as male  speaks with his father ...
Arthur Brown, who is transgender -- born female but now identifying as male, speaks with his father in their kitchen in Chicago, Illinois on on May 17, 2016
Derek Henkle, AFP

"Not infrequently I write what we call a 'safe passage' letter for my transgender patients, in case they get harassed by something like the police for entering a bathroom."

"It all starts with school safety," Garofalo said. "You can't have a discussion about learning, and healthy growth and development, if a student has concerns about their safety and well-being."

Brown's current high school has made significant efforts to accommodate him and other trans students. The school in Deerfield, Illinois -- a village community seven square miles in size with a population of 18,000 -- created gender-neutral bathrooms on campus to allow Brown safe access to facilities and a place to change into exercise clothes.

"I was able to focus on school, instead of just surviving. I was able to actually pay attention in class, instead of worrying about what I would do for gym class, where I would go to the bathroom at school," he said.

Deerfield may seem a far cry from the cultural battles taking place across the country over transgender people's use of restrooms. But it is just one of many examples of US schools working to accommodate young trans people.

Arthur Brown  who is transgender -- born female but now identifying as male   speaks to reporters at...
Arthur Brown, who is transgender -- born female but now identifying as male, speaks to reporters at his house in Chicago, Illinois on on May 17, 2016
Derek Henkle, AFP

Just a few miles away, the public school system in Chicago, which serves 2.7 million residents, has written guidelines for its school principals.

"What it looks like in our schools is that the principal along with the counselor, the student and their family will be making individualized plans to support the student, so that they feel comfortable in their school," said Janice Jackson, the chief education officer at Chicago Public Schools.

- Silver lining -

In its recent guidance to US schools telling them to accommodate transgender students, the Justice Department cited Chicago's efforts along with those of schools and school systems in Alaska, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington State, Kentucky and elsewhere.

In Los Angeles, the school district does not require students to have a medical or mental health diagnosis in order to have their gender identity recognized. In New York City, transgender students can participate in "sex-segregated" sports classes "in a manner consistent with their gender identity," according to the district.

These efforts are not without pushback. Officials from 11 states are now suing the Obama administration over its school guidelines.

In another Chicago suburb, there is a lawsuit over an agreement to allow a transgender high school student who was born male but identifies as female to use a private changing area in the girls' locker room.

Filed on behalf of 51 families, the lawsuit claims the agreement amounts to harassment and violates the "duty to protect the privacy, safety and dignity of all students," said Jeremy Tedesco of Alliance Defending Freedom, one of two religious freedom groups that brought the complaint.

For Garofalo, all this focus on trans people's use of bathrooms risks distracting from the deeper issues at stake.

"This is the civil rights battle of this generation to some extent," he said. "The fact that we're even talking about young people's genitalia around bathroom use, has in some ways perverted a political discussion."

But Garofalo also sees a silver lining in the current debate.

"I do think positive things are beginning to come out of it," he said, including more pediatric programs addressing the needs of transgender children.

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