Friday, Feb. 17, the John Boswell Initiative sponsored a panel discussion titled “Trans Youth: Pasts, Presents, and Futures.” The event featured Shannon McKay, the Executive Director and co-founder of He She Ze and We, Vivian Hamilton, Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Center for Racial and Social Justice at the College of William and Mary and Dr. Samantha Rosenthal, Associate Professor of History at Roanoke College and co-founder of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project.
Senior Lecturer in history Dr. Jerry “Jay” Watkins III introduced the panel and discussed his current biographical study of John Boswell ’69.
“First, I want to thank some of the folks who have been involved in this,” Watkins said. “There’s of course the Boswell Initiative, the GSWS, and Outlaw and Center for Racial and Social Justice, as well as the National Lawyers Guild and all of the other folks who have contributed their time to putting this event on and organizing it.”
After Boswell graduated from the College in 1969 and obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1975, he took a teaching position at Yale University. Boswell’s first book, “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality,” was published in 1980 and left a lasting impact on the literary world.
“He wanted to be remembered most for his faith, but I think few have had such an impact on the field and have so profoundly shaped how we understand sexuality in the world. His memory is commemorated in a variety of ways across campus and across the world. One of the accomplishments I am most proud of is getting a building named after him.”
“This book was really quite monumental,” Watkins said. “The heart of the book is of course that Christianity has not always been so hostile to homosexuality and that homophobia is more socially constructed than divinely ordered.”
Boswell’s book has been reprinted multiple times and has recently celebrated its 35th year anniversary of publication with a 2015 reprint. By 1986, Boswell was one of the first openly gay professors and department chairs on a national scale. He also founded the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale in 1987, which became the Research Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies by the 1990s.
“He wanted to be remembered most for his faith, but I think few have had such an impact on the field and have so profoundly shaped how we understand sexuality in the world,” Watkins said. “His memory is commemorated in a variety of ways across campus and across the world. One of the accomplishments I am most proud of is getting a building named after him.”
Hamilton began the panel discussion by addressing statistical data on transgender individuals in the United States and legislation surrounding transgender policies nationwide. According to the data shown, 1.5 million people ages 13 and older in the United States currently identify as transgender. About 300,000 of these people are transgender youth from ages 13-17.
“Overall, from data collected between 2016 and now, the number of trans adults has remained fairly steady, but better data collection on youths’ gender identity has given researchers better information than what was previously available for estimating the youth population and now they know that youth comprise a larger share of the trans identity population than previously estimated. Now, they comprise about 18% of trans identifying people in the U.S.,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton discussed issues facing the transgender community in the current day, including bans on gender-affirming medical care and laws and legislation limiting discussion of sexuality and gender such as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida.
Additionally, efforts are underway to limit transgender youth participation in school sports and the frequent banning and censorship of books containing topics such as gender, sexuality or individuals of color.
“Young people have a right to see themselves reflected in their classrooms and in the books that they’re reading,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton noted a report from the American Library Association, which found challenges against 1597 individual books last year, which is the highest number since we began tracking book bans 20 years ago. She added that a PEN America report found that of these books that have been banned, 379 have had LGBTQ+ characters or themes, 84 centered on transgender characters and 460 had BIPOC protagonists.
“So, students and their parents are facing these censorship efforts that restrict their First Amendment rights. Their First Amendment protects educators and students’ rights to exchange information. It also protects students rights’ to learn free from viewpoint based discrimination,” Hamilton said.
“It’s really just kind of stunning how much time, resource and political capital is being expended on this issue. The Virginia High School League has already implemented rules that were implemented in 2014 that allowed trans student athletes to participate with certain provisions.”
In the Virginia Senate, two bills targeting transgender students failed on Feb. 16. The bills would have restricted the participation of transgender students in school athletics and required school officials to inform parents if a child presents themselves as transgender in a school environment. The bills passed in the State House but did not receive sufficient support in the Democratic-controlled State Senate.
“It’s really just kind of stunning how much time, resource and political capital is being expended on this issue,” Hamilton said. “The Virginia High School League has already implemented rules that were implemented in 2014 that allowed trans student athletes to participate with certain provisions.”
McKay then introduced herself and described her work as the executive director and founder of the He She Ze and We program.
“What He She Ze and We does is really work to empower families on this journey of gender identity,” McKay said. “And we work to support them, to educate them so that they know how to be accepting and supportive to their kids of all ages. And we also advocate for the rights of transgender individuals.”
As the mother of a transgender child, McKay mentioned her personal connection to the issues discussed, as well as to families that may be grappling with their child’s gender identity or hostile environments for transgender youth.
“Your ego, your belief system, your biases, leave it all there and come on in and open your door so that you can meet the person in front of you and help them with whatever it is they need help with,” McKay said.
She also discussed He She Ze and We’s impact on a broader scale, mentioning that she has presented in front of the Virginia General Assembly to advocate for the rights of transgender youth and share her child’s story.
“Isn’t that more of what we’re trying to do?” McKay said. “Basic respect, making people feel comfortable and welcome no matter how different they are from us. And if we’re all the same, it would be so boring, it would be so boring for all of us. But that is what we’re up against. Our families are struggling. Our kids are struggling in school.”
Rosenthal then introduced herself and began by reading an excerpt from her book, “Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City.” The excerpt discussed Rosenthal’s time hosting workshops for transgender youth in Southwest Virginia. The excerpt later described the challenges and importance of discussing queer and transgender history. Many of the youth Rosenthal has worked with identified with some aspects of the stories they were exposed to.
“We had created a space in which young, queer trans people can act out not just the historical trans experience, but also the words and lived experiences of older trans people to inspire them to explore their own teenage, transgender lives,” Rosenthal read. “This was a powerful demonstration of just how transgender history matters to young people today. Young queer people, young trans people, are able to see themselves in relation to that history in a way that allows them to bravely tackle the issues that they themselves face.”
“Unfortunately, usually kids are doing okay with their level of acceptance. They get it, if they would allow us to have representation in schools. It’s the parents and the messaging they’re sending to school with their kids. That is the problem.”
The panel then opened up to previously submitted questions and questions from audience members. The first question was in regard to the importance of legislation and how it can protect transgender youth.
“Unfortunately, usually kids are doing okay with their level of acceptance,” McKay said. “They get it, if they would allow us to have representation in schools. It’s the parents and the messaging they’re sending to school with their kids. That is the problem.”
Hamilton followed with a comment on how representation matters within politics.
“We need affirmative policy,” she said. “We need policies where teachers and counselors do receive education and are given guidance on in-classroom best practices and how to support students. And in terms of curriculum development, developing a curriculum that is inclusive and educates all kids.”
Hamilton then asked her fellow panelists about the history of transgender medicine and the growing public fear regarding puberty blockers for youth. Rosenthal responded with her personal experience as a transgender woman who transitioned in her thirties and discussed the importance of hormone replacement therapy and validating medical care.
“We also have a history of prescribing hormones and puberty blockers with cis kids long before this became an issue,” Rosenthal said. “You may not be aware of this, but it has been in practice and medical ethicists and parents and everybody thought it was a fine idea that if a young boy was growing up and was too short, that they would prescribe a hormone to that kid to be taller because it’s more socially acceptable.”
Rosenthal discussed how the historical use of hormones and puberty blockers strongly correlated with typical societal gender norms, often prescribed to allow a child to conform to normative standards.
“It’s perfectly fine to do hormones and surgeries on kids to make them conform with our weird cultural ideas about the right way to be a boy, the right way to be a girl,” Rosenthal said. “But if a young, trans kid was to use these same tried and tested procedures to make their body not conform with the idea of girl or boy based on outside sex, then this is why we’re so scared.”
Later in the discussion, Hamilton answered a question regarding student and teacher rights in and out of the classroom. She emphasized the importance of freedom of expression and the panelists discussed the intricacies of teacher rights.
Hamilton cited the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case during the Vietnam War, in which the Supreme Court ruled that students were entitled to wear black armbands to protest the war because they were exercising their freedom of expression.
“Students don’t shed their right to free expression at the door,” Hamilton said. “So long as students’ expression does not unduly interfere with what is otherwise the educational mission of the school or the educational daily practice, then students have a constitutional right to engage in that expression.”
Since teachers are employees, Hamilton highlighted some of the complications regarding school policy, such as not being able to speak out against certain policies inside the classroom.
“They can do it when they’re speaking in the context of being a citizen as opposed to being a teacher because they’re required to teach whatever the curriculum is, whether it’s their favored curriculum or not,” Hamilton said. “So there are all sorts of things that limit teachers.”
McKay mentioned that many teachers fear losing their contractual benefits due to speaking out against school policy, and Rosenthal emphasized the importance of making pedagogical resources to create trans-affirming educational opportunities both inside and outside the classroom.
“I think it’d be great to be creative,” McKay said. “There’s so many states now that are limiting what teachers can say, but it’s still so important that we have that content in U.S. history classes or oral histories, social studies classes, and English. So I think it would be great for people to work on creating pedagogical resources to get that queer content in there in a way that feels safe for everyone.”
Watkins concluded the conversation by introducing upcoming GSWS events at the College. On Feb. 21, GSWS will be offering an event on “Performing Queerness in Singapore Beyond Illiberal Pragmatism and Cane” with a Zoom guest speaker Zihan Loo. Additionally, on Feb. 24, the “A Home for My Heart” event will address film screening around trans experiences in South Asia.