More Than a “Bathroom Battle”: The Rights of Transgender Children At School

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Earlier this week, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction that (1) allowed Texas and other states to force transgender students to use bathrooms that do not match their gender identities and (2) prevented the United States government from investigating this type of discrimination across the country. This preliminary injunction remains in effect until that same Court rules on the merits in the case. Basically, Texas and other states claim that the word “sex” under Title IX, the civil rights law pertaining to education, refers to a person’s genitals, not their gender identity.

This lawsuit, one of several across the country, comes after the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice released a guidance document in May of 2016 in which they clarified that Title IX prohibits schools from discriminating against students on the basis of their gender identity, defined as “an individual’s internal sense of gender” that “may be different from or the same as the person’s sex assigned at birth.” They stated:

As a condition of receiving Federal funds, a [public or private] school agrees that it will not exclude, separate, deny benefits to, or otherwise treat differently on the basis of sex any person in its educational programs or activities… The Departments treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for the purposes of Title IX and its implementing regulations. This means that a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity.

Regarding bathrooms, the Departments said: “A school may provide separate facilities on the basis of sex, but must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity.”

Thus, according to the Obama administration, a school that forces a child who identifies as female to use the boys’ restroom has violated Title IX.

Texas and other states, however, disagree. Technically speaking, the Court hasn’t ruled on the merits of the case, but the Court so far agrees with the states. In its order on the preliminary injunction, the judge wrote: “It cannot be disputed that the plain meaning of the term sex… meant the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students at their birth.”

So, basically, according to the states and to this judge, all the matters is what’s between our children’s legs. That’s pretty creepy when you think about it.

It’s also concerning to me that the Court seemed to think that the “injury” to the states — that schools might risk losing federal funding because they can’t stop obsessing about what lies between children’s legs and forcing them to use the corresponding bathroom — outweighs the harm to the child of being forced to use the wrong bathroom.

Not only does being forced to use the wrong bathroom isolate and stigmatize transgender children, but it is also hazardous to their health.

Recently, I saw a reference in literature to this issue in Alex Gino’s George, in which a child who identifies as female must use the boys’ restroom:

[George*] stumbled, sobbing, into the bathroom—the boys’ bathroom. Her lips trembled and salty tears dripped into her mouth. George hated the boys’ bathroom. It was the worst room in the school. She hated the smell of pee and bleach, and she hated the blue tiles on the wall to remind you where you were, as if the urinals didn’t make it obvious enough. The whole room was about being a boy, and when boys were in there, they liked to talk about what was between their legs. George tried never to use it when there were any boys inside. She never drank from the water fountains at school, even if she was thirsty, and some days, she could make it through the school day without having to go once.

No child should go all day without drinking water or using the bathroom because their schools force them to use the wrong one. It’s heartbreaking, and apparently, at least for the time-being, legal in the United States under Title IX.

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*I inserted “George” at the beginning of the quote because that is the name that appears throughout the paragraph. However, Melissa is the name the child prefers to use. For more on the recalcitrance of the name “George,” see George or Melissa? It Matters.

George or Melissa? It Matters.

George

Have you read George by Alex Gino?

If not, you should. It’s a heartwarming middle grade novel about a child who wants the world to recognize that she’s a girl. “George” is her given name, matching the gender her parents thought she was at birth, but that’s not who she is. She is Melissa:

They would ask her name, and she would tell them, My name is Melissa. Melissa was the name she called herself in the mirror when no one was watching and she could brush her flat reddish-brown hair to the front of her head, as if she had bangs. ~Chapter 1

However, if her name is Melissa, why is “George” the title of her story?

According to NPR,

“j wallace skelton [who studies transgender representation in children’s literature] says calling the book George when the main character identifies as Melissa effectively reinforces a sense of the child as a boy, rather than the girl she knows herself to be.”

NPR includes Gino’s response to this criticism:

“If I were going to name [the book] now, I would not have done that” […] Because it is the assigned name, not her chosen name. When I started the book in 2003, the name of the book was Girl George — which was clearly an homage to Boy George. And then when Scholastic got it, one of the first things they did was, they cut off ‘Girl’ because they wanted to open up the audience. And I didn’t even notice, in all of the things that happened, that I have effectively dead-named my main character.” By dead-naming, Gino means using the name that a person does not want used. “So I do feel conflicted about that.”

So the publisher chose the title of the book “because they wanted to open up the audience”?

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I can only assume the publisher felt the “audience” it needed to “open up” to was boys, who might be less likely to read a book with a “girly” name like Girl George or Melissa. But that stinks. There shouldn’t be “boy’s books” and “girl’s books.” Books are for everyone.

George is certainly cutting-edge for its portrayal of a transgender child in a book intended for a young audience. However, the story behind its title suggests that it might not be as big a step forward as it could have been.

My Husband Sees Himself In My Villains

Both of us Ten years agoTomorrow is my tenth wedding anniversary, the year of tin or diamonds, neither of which excites me much. The only gift that matters is knowing I’ve been lucky enough to have a partner who supports everything in my life from raising our kids together to giving me the space to develop my legal career and hobbies.

Our marriage, like most relationships, has had its ups and downs. My rocky pregnancies, the extreme prematurity of our twins, and a couple of tumultuous career changes challenged us over the years, but we got through it together. Now, I look back on the past ten years without regrets–except for one.* I really wish I hadn’t made the villains in my books the same height as my husband.

The fact that they are exactly his height is merely a coincidence, a byproduct of my unoriginality.  It hadn’t occurred to me that it was a problem until, one day, Mr. AMB noted the similarity (and the fact that well under 1% of the population is exactly that height) and asked me why I’d based my villains on him. In my opinion, the villains bear no other resemblance to the man I married, and the fact that he thinks they *might* probably suggests more about the way he sees himself than about how I see him. The fictional characters in other people’s books that remind me of my husband — such as Rainbow Rowell’s Lincoln, who is “built like a tank, dressed like he just won the science fair,” and Kate Bracy’s Buddy, who has the same taste in music as my husband have been good guys.

My husband’s question also says something about how he sees the relationship between books and their authors, a view many of us may share. I often read books looking for a connection to the author, thinking there is a piece, perhaps a large piece, of the author (and others in their lives) in the characters. When I was a kid, I remember thinking I knew L. M. Montgomery, who died four decades before I was born, because I counted Anne Shirley among my best friends. I thought Montgomery and Shirley were one and the same.  Fiction is supposed to be fictional, but it comes from somewhere or something real — or at least for the sake of authenticity, it should.

I’ve been thinking about the sources of fiction since reading Amie Barrodale’s Why Life and Writing Are Inseparable, in which she explains:

My work comes from my life. But after my first collection of stories, I made a vow to myself: no more of that. I began to think about writing a novel about a pedophile who undergoes some kind of elective treatment, some kind of brain surgery, some kind of stimulation of his illness that forces him to basically go through the hell of his own mind, his own sickness, to come out cured. I began to read about pedophiles. But on the side, as I worked, another story emerged, about a miscarriage, a miscarriage I had last year.

What I mean is that for me, for better or for worse, my life presents itself as a story sometimes.

My stories come from my reality too. I use writing to process what I experience in my profession and in my personal life, making it no coincidence that my characters often have a legal background and confront issues related to ones I’ve had to face. Aspects of my husband’s experiences and personality have also seeped into my stories. Without him, my heroes probably would’ve been professors, rather than the type of lawyer he is, and the stories would’ve centered around a different type of litigation. Without him, my villains probably would’ve also been shorter, but I wouldn’t read too much into their heights. After all, the stories are fiction. Mostly.

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(I don’t know why everyone looks so grim!)

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*Okay, maybe a couple of regrets, but I’ll save those for another time.😉

Motherhood: A Gap In The Literary Record & In Public Life

Recently, in the LA Review of Books, Lily Gurton-Wachter discussed her observation that there is a dearth of literature about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, saying:

We have a rich, challenging, and complex canon of war literature… The same cannot be said about a literature of pregnancy or childbirth or parenting, though these are also extreme experiences that stretch our understanding and push us beyond comfort or even comprehension.

Little Z and MeWhile I won’t go quite so far as to analogize pregnancy to combat, I agree with Gurton-Wachter that motherhood — however it happens — is a transformative experience. My pregnancies were terrifying, so much so that it was almost a relief when the doctors wrested the little beings from my body at 26 weeks for my twins and 34 for my singleton. Since then, parenting has had its lows and its highs, from the helplessness and fear I felt while watching my twins struggle to survive in the NICU to the joys of sharing my favorite children’s books with them and collaborating with them on an Anne of Green Gables-based writing project that reflects our heritage and community.

The experiences of motherhood are life-changing and deserve to be discussed and memorialized in writing. I’m sure we can all think of a few books that focus on the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood — Gurton-Wachter mentions what she calls “the emerging literature of new motherhood,” including Eula Biss’s On Immunity (2014) and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) — but it seems literature (of the “literary” and “serious” variety) has largely avoided these subjects. I haven’t seen empirical research on the issue, but Gurton-Wachter’s observations are certainly plausible when, as she notes, “most philosophy and literature has, historically, been written by men.”

A dearth of honest literature about motherhood would also reflect our societal norm of silencing women by censoring our bodies. Pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood are inherently tied to women’s bodies, a subject that is taboo because our society ascribes a sexual meaning to it (at least in the United States).

We’ve come a long way since the days of women “wearing wool all summer long” (19th Century), breast cancer being described as a “disease of the chest wall” (1950s), and school districts forcing female teachers to leave the classroom as soon as their pregnancies were showing (which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 1974), but censorship of the female body is a cultural norm that simply refuses to disappear entirely.

For example:

Additionally, new mothers venture into the public sphere at their own risk:

  • Mothers who want to express milk in the workplace — which, in many (but not all) cases is their right under the law — often face resistance from their employers;*
  • Just this week, Donald Trump shamed a mother who brought a baby to one of his rallies, saying, “I love babies. I hear that baby cry, I like it… What a baby. What a beautiful baby. Don’t worry, don’t worry. The mom’s running around, like, don’t worry about it, you know. It’s young and beautiful and healthy and that’s what we want [But then saying, less than two minutes later…] Actually I was only kidding, you can get the baby out of here … I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking. That’s OK. People don’t understand. That’s OK.”

Clearly, for mothers to get the respect we deserve, our society must change how it views our bodies and our roles in society. It’s telling that, even among one of the supposedly most educated and sophisticated groups of people, i.e., the publishers of serious literature, there seems to be a hesitation to address one of the most common and fundamental human experiences. Hopefully, filling in the “motherhood gap” in the literary record will be a step in the right direction. I’m going to keep an eye out for these books.

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*This is one of many examples of how our modern workplaces fail to acknowledge and accommodate the reasonable needs of working parents, but I won’t go into that subject right now.

It’s Really a Beautiful World

Shortly after the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five Dallas police officers in July, I wrote:

It’s times like these when I retreat into books, into the comforting fiction that helps me hide from our hate-filled world.

This is when I read old favorites like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, books that don’t directly address the racism of their eras and were written when assault rifles didn’t exist.

However, this time, I can’t read fiction, at least not today. I have to face reality, and I encourage others to do so too.

I have since returned to the comfort of fiction, specifically to L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, as I continue to work on my Anne-based writing project with my children.* While re-reading these classic stories, I’ve realized how much I’ve needed Anne’s relentless optimism lately. I was becoming too much of an “Eliza” — and not the “Anne” or “Catherine” I prefer to be — as the news displayed story after story about societal racism, sexism, and violence.

In case you don’t know your “Elizas” from your “Annes” and  “Catherines,” I’m referencing Anne of Avonlea, when Anne and Diana go door-to-door to raise money to paint the town hall. They start with the “Andrews girls,” a pair of sisters who “had been ‘girls’ for fifty odd years and seemed likely to remain girls to the end of their earthly pilgrimage”:

Eliza was sewing patchwork, not because it was needed but simply as a protest against the frivolous lace Catherine was crocheting. Eliza listened with a frown and Catherine with a smile, as the girls explained their errand. […]

‘If I had money to waste,’ said Eliza grimly, ‘I’d burn it up and have the fun of seeing a blaze maybe; but I wouldn’t give it to that hall, not a cent. […] I don’t see the necessity. We didn’t gad about to halls and places when we were young… This world is getting worse every day.’

‘I think it’s getting better,’ said Catherine firmly.

‘YOU think!’ Miss Eliza’s voice expressed the utmost contempt. ‘It doesn’t signify what you THINK, Catherine Andrews. Facts is facts.’

‘Well, I always like to look on the bright side, Eliza.’

‘There isn’t any bright side.’

‘Oh, indeed there is,’ cried Anne, who couldn’t endure such heresy in silence. ‘Why, there are ever so many bright sides, Miss Andrews. It’s really a beautiful world.’

I agree with Anne and Catherine. The world is — overall — a beautiful one. I am best able to appreciate its “many bright sides” when I look at my children, who are always able to make me smile, for example, by opining on the literary merits of Supreme Court decisions and by imagining Anne’s Avonlea to be a culturally and racially diverse community like the one we live in instead of the homogeneous one Canadian author L. M. Montgomery created in 1908.

We’ve come a long way since 1908 in Montgomery’s country and also in my own. Within the last century, women in both countries gained the right to vote and now, in the United States, a woman has finally become a nominee from a major party to our highest political office.

Whatever you may think of Hillary Clinton, whatever your political leanings, you have to admit that her nomination is a big deal. It means a lot to me, and it means a lot to my girls.

Progress is slow, so slow that sometimes it doesn’t look like it’s even there, but it is. I am sure of it. Today, I am a Catherine. How about you?

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*We’re editing Anusha of Prospect Cornerour multicultural take on Anne of Green Gables, while continuing Anusha’s story in Anusha of Melrose Square.

Two Lovely Berries (New Adult Fiction): “Character-driven, Compelling, Beautifully Written”

Two Lovely BerriesToday, Monika from Lovely Bookshelf included my New Adult novel, Two Lovely Berries, as one of her Ten Favorite Underrated Books. She wrote:

“A. M. Blair from The Misfortune of Knowing self-published this New Adult novel about two twin sisters and their struggle for individuality. Character-driven, compelling, beautifully written– this book brought me out of a huge reading slump!”

It’s wonderful to hear how much she enjoyed it. Thank you, Monika!