“[My teacher] gave me a new way of thinking about who I could be, beyond the defining checkboxes of my race and gender identity.”
As a 16-year-old transgender Latina, I’ve been through the wringer when it comes to harassment by my teachers, administrators and other students. Even living in California — a state with broad LGBTQ protections — I was bullied in fourth and fifth grade. While this was going on, I was also trying to stay on top of my homework and study for tests — and trying to understand who I was.
My teachers only made it worse.
Some made direct comments to me about being “too feminine.” Others cut me out of opportunities at school — including by blocking me from attending P.E. class. And too many stood idly by as I was harassed by my classmates.
At times, it felt like the world was against me. This feeling is all too common for LGBTQ youth. A new study of LGBTQ teens by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the University of Connecticut found that 70 percent of LGBTQ young people report feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness in the past week. Astonishingly, my school district even threatened to expel me — me! — in order to prevent this bullying.
Amid all this stress, I did have one amazing supporter — my mom. When my school district tried to kick me out, she reached out to the ACLU, which connected us with an attorney who worked on Seth’s Law. The California law, enacted in 2012, was named after a 13-year-old student who endured years of anti-gay bullying that his school failed to address. It requires public schools in my state to update their policies and programs to protect LGBTQ students. Under this law, my mom was able to file a successful complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, and I was able to stay in my school. I’m lucky to have this support — only one in four LGBTQ youth surveyed by HRC and the University of Connecticut say their families show them support by getting involved in the larger LGBTQ and allied community.
This experience makes it all the more painful to watch the Trump-Pence administration, and its Department of Education, abandon its commitment to stand up for all students — including and especially transgender students. As a young transgender person, I benefited from an administration that fought for me, and my whole life changed for the better. Because of my case, my teachers received training on how to support transgender youth like me, allowing me to walk into my first day of high school knowing that I was Zoey, and that no one could take that away from me.
Last summer I took a trip for LGBTQ filmmakers to Tacoma, Washington. There, I met people who treated me like more than just that transgender Latina kid, more than a curiosity. I stayed with a family who had a gender non-conforming child, and I felt for the first time like I was a big sister. I was supposed to stay with this family for a week — but I ended up staying for three.
My amazing host-family was interested in who I really was, in all of me, and, after years of hiding myself, I finally felt like I wanted to share that with them. After a long battle just to be respected in my school, this trip felt like rehab for my soul.
This trip to Tacoma helped me remember what my wonderful middle school drama teacher had taught me years before — that neither my gender identity nor my Latina identity define the whole of who I am. She made me feel valued not because I was the token transgender Latina girl — but simply because I am Zoey. She gave me a new way of thinking about who I could be, beyond the defining checkboxes of my race and gender identity.
A lot of transgender and Latinx kids see very limited possibilities for our lives. We see the stories of violence and trauma — and 83 percent of LGBTQ youth of color like myself say this racism causes them undue stress. As an HRC Youth Ambassador, I’m embracing my role as an advocate. Earlier this year, I spoke at the organization’s Time to THRIVE conference, where I told hundreds of teachers and youth-serving professionals about my fight, and why they must stand with the LGBTQ young people they serve. Sharing my story in this room filled my heart in a way that gives me hope for the future.
If I could send one message to teachers across the country who are no doubt reading about how the Trump-Pence administration is failing transgender youth, it would be this: All of you, and for all your students, be their special middle-school drama teacher. Create “Tacoma” trips that make trans youths feel safe. Embrace your duty to ensure that trans youth in your schools and in your communities know that they are not alone.
You can tell them that Zoey sent you.