When Grace Dolan-Sandrino, now 16, was in middle school, she went to a summer camp in New York state that changed her life. She'd always felt like she was a little different from her classmates—from a young age, she identified as gay. But then she met a transgender girl in her boy's cabin at summer camp, and something clicked.
“They were like, 'I am a girl. A transgender girl.' And then I realized that’s who I was," she says, speaking from an empty office in her high school in Washington, DC She's thoughtful and energetic over the phone. "It was a good feeling, and then it was kind of scary,” in part because school administrators didn’t even know what being transgender meant.
What followed was a frustrating process of getting the school acknowledge her gender identity and then support her transition, something that transgender students around the country struggle with, despite Title IX laws written to protect young people against discrimination on the basis of sex. Getting administrators’ support is already a challenge, but with the Trump administration’s gutting of federal guidelines instructing schools to to support their trans students, it could get much worse.
Trans students, their parents, and advocates worry the rollback could give schools an excuse not to acknowledge trans students or provide for their needs, a particularly daunting challenge for young people coming out at a time when they’re navigating the vulnerability and awkwardness that goes along with adolescence—and that’s on top of well-founded concerns about their physical safety.
It’s still very dangerous to be trans in America, and Dolan-Sandrino, as a woman of color, is statistically even more likely to be at risk. Born to a white mother from Massachusetts and a Cuban–African father who worked the sugar cane fields in Cuba, she says “having two different heritages, two different life experiences in my house really gave me a well-rounded view of the world.” And unlike many young people seeking to transition, she was lucky to have her mother's support.
At first, says Dolan-Sandrino, school administrators at her Maryland middle school told her it would be too “disruptive” for her to transition. She did it anyway. Shortly after, photos of her body post-transition were leaked by a student. “It was terrible,” she says, but at that point, “I was like, everybody already knows who I am. So I’m going to live my truth.”
Now she’s at a high school in D. C., where her mother chose to enroll her specifically because state laws explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, even though it means she has to commute from Maryland every day. The staff and her student identification use the feminine gender pronouns she identifies with, and she is allowed to use the girls' bathroom and changing facilities. For the first two years of high school, she felt she didn't ever need to discuss her gender identity at school.
And then last summer, she stood in front of a crowd of educators at a White House summit for LGBTQ youth and told them about her experience as a young trans woman of color. That, she says, was a turning point—it’s when she realized her advocacy “was going to be more powerful, and could reach more people, if it had a face to it.”
Since then, she's adapted an essay she wrote about black trans lives for Black Enterprise magazine into a theatre piece, which she performed with Yo-Yo Ma for the Kennedy Center, and started working with advocacy and leadership groups like the Aspen Institute and Gender Spectrum.
“When we can tell our own stories and when we can tell the stories of others, we're able to build empathy and understanding and educate through art," she says.
Things have been going well for her at school in a state that explicitly protects trans people in its laws. But she knows that's not the case for all trans students everywhere. The battle will continue for some time to come, playing out in local and state courtrooms across the country.
The Supreme Court last week sent what was set to be a landmark trans rights case, Gloucester County School Board v Gavin Grimm, back to a lower court off the back of the Trump administration's change in federal guidances. And two weeks ago, three trans teens in Virginia won their case against their school district, which changed its policies last year to say that trans students could no longer use the bathroom that matched their gender identities.
Elissa Ridenour, 18, a high school senior and one of the students involved in the Virginia case, says she was relieved to have won the court case before graduating, but she knows the issue is far from resolved outside her own school district.
“It’s stressful and difficult because I’m going off to college next year so it’s like, ‘Will they go along with what the president says?'” she said, the day after winning the case. "Even if it’s temporarily dealt with at the local level, we still have this one big fight to fight. … We've been through this long enough."
Another young trans woman, Kylie Clifton, 14, had a school district in Michigan that was willing to engage and help her but had no idea where to start, she says. Being able to use the appropriate bathroom was the result of a long negotiation between her family, a local LGBT center, and the school. She’s concerned that rescinding federal guidelines will make schools less likely to prepare for trans students.
And for these teenagers and other young trans Americans, the battle is about more than just their rights to access the appropriate bathroom. It's about their place in the world.
"Like Laverne Cox said, this is about trans people's' right to exist in public spaces. This is creating a culture of exclusion around trans people," Dolan-Sandrino says. "Trump can't take away Title IX protections but now he is putting out justification for discrimination. He's letting people think they can treat trans people any type of way.”
"He's letting people think they can treat trans people any type of way.”
“This is not just about bathrooms,” she says. She’s acutely aware of the rising numbers of trans women of color being murdered every year. It's something she worries about when she thinks about her future: ideally, college in New York City.
"It's scary, and I'm afraid of what could happen to me on the streets of New York. There have been plenty of trans women of color murdered. Several women have already been killed in 2017 and we're two months in," she says.
She takes comfort in her belief that educating the public about trans issues will curb discrimination. Maybe if her middle school had known more about LGBTQ issues, she wouldn’t have had such a harrowing experience there. And she's using what power she does have to give others a voice.
“I have had the support of my mom, and I've never been homeless, and I've never had to fear that. In my stability I've been able to advocate for the stability of others,” she says.
And to other young trans women of color who might be struggling to find that support network, she has this to say: "You are part of a nation of trans women of color, and you are another sister. There is a network of girls who want to connect with you."