NCTE @ the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention

March 29, 2011

I was honored to participate in the historic White House for a Conference on Bullying Prevention on March 10 on behalf of NCTE. At the White House’s invitation, I joined about 150 students, parents, researchers, policymakers and education leaders in a day long discussion that focused on the causes, effects, and solutions to bullying for all students. The vulnerability of LGBTQ youth was a major focus of discussion, as was targeting of students based on disability, religion and ethnicity, and the importance of strategies for ensuring that all students are respected and protected.


Harper Jean Tobin at White House Conference on Bullying

Harper Jean Tobin (directly behind First Lady Michelle Obama) listens to President Obama's opening remarks

The morning started – as many events at the White House do – with more than an hour spent waiting in line, going through security, and being escorted to the right room. This was not dead time, however – there were a lot of introductions and conversations among attendees who came to the problem of bullying from a variety of different points of view and expertise. It wasn’t until a few moments after sitting down in the East Room that I realized I’d chosen a seat just a few feet from the podium where, shortly, the President and the First Lady arrived to deliver opening remarks. The First Lady noted that:

As parents, it breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom, or on the playground, or even online. It breaks our hearts to think about any parent losing a child to bullying, or just wondering whether their kids will be safe when they leave for school in the morning.

The President issued a call to action:

We’ve got to make sure our young people know that if they’re in trouble, there are caring adults who can help and young adults that can help; that even if they’re having a tough time, they’re going to get through it, and there’s a whole world full of possibility waiting for them. We also have to make sure we’re doing everything we can so that no child is in that position in the first place. And this is a responsibility we all share — a responsibility we have to teach all children the Golden Rule: We should treat others the way we want to be treated.

A panel discussion by leading researchers was followed by break-out discussions led by key administration officials. Mine was led by Russlyn Ali and Tom Perez, who head up civil rights enforcement at the Departments of Justice and Education. The discussion was free-flowing, informative and inspiring. Even more than the words of the President and the First Lady, I was moved by the courage of the parents and students in attendance who had felt the impact of bullying in their own lives and acted to prevent it from happening to others.

For me, the best part of attending the conference was having the opportunity to meet and have conversations with leaders representing government, teachers, parents and youth across the country about the challenges and hazards that transgender and gender non-conforming students face. According to research by GLSEN, nearly half all of transgender students say they’ve been physically assaulted at school; nearly half say they’ve recently skipped school because of mistreatment; and more than one in three had heard staff make negative comments about their gender expression. The risks trans youth face are exacerbated when they are singled out by teachers or administrators over issues such as they way they dress or which restroom they use; more than 50% of trans students say they’ve avoided restrooms and locker rooms out of fear or discomfort. And research conducted by NCTE and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force shows that bullying significantly increases trans youths’ risk for attempting suicide. Addressing these serious risks requires that educators and policymakers understand the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming youth.

In order to prevent bullying and protect youth, we need to create a culture of respect in schools and ensure that all students are included as equal members of the school community – regardless of their gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, religion, race, ethnicity, disability or any other factor. And we need to involve all parts of society in the solutions. Toward that end, the conference was used to announce the launch of no fewer than ten new anti-bullying campaigns and resources by participating organizations ranging from Facebook to the National PTA to, a federal website bringing together key resources, including resources on protecting LGBT youth. NCTE, together with our allies at GLSEN, PFLAG, the Trevor Project, and other LGBT advocates, will continue to work with agencies across the federal government to ensure that the Obama Administration does everything it can to protect and support our youth.

NCTE and allies urge TSA to treat trans travelers fairly

January 4, 2011

Just before Thanksgiving we provided a travel advisory for transgender people in light of invasive new TSA screening procedures. Unfortunately, in recent weeks we have been hearing disturbing reports from some trans people about how they have been treated at the airport. While most transgender people have traveled without incident over the last month,  these stories confirm that TSA’s current policies not only violate the privacy of all travelers but create serious risks that trans people will be detained, humiliated and harassed. Today NCTE joined with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Transgender Law Center in sending a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole urging immediate action to ensure transgender people do not encounter abuse at the airport.

NCTE and our allied organizations will continue to oppose intrusive and ineffective TSA practices and to work for appropriate policies and staff training to prevent harassment and abuse of transgender travelers. If you have encountered mistreatment by airport security staff, we need to hear your story. NCTE, NCLR and TLC have created a simple web form where you can share your airport experience. Please note: This is not a legal intake form – these stories will be used to advocate for changes in TSA policies and procedures.

In addition to completing our incident report form, we strongly encourage you to file a complaint directly with the Department of Homeland Security, Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on their website.

Communication at the airport

November 23, 2010

While many Americans have general privacy concerns about new airport security procedures, there are many groups of travelers whose concerns about privacy or insensitive treatment by TSA personnel are especially acute, including religious minorities, transgender people, and people with a variety of medical conditions, disabilities, or assistive devices.

One specific concern shared by many of these groups involves communicating with TSA officers about sensitive personal or medical matters in the often noisy, crowded, and rushed environment of security checkpoints. To give travelers an additional option for addressing these issues, TSA has developed a standardized notification card that anyone can use to discreetly inform officers about any disability, medical condition or medical device that could affect security screening.

Notification cards front and back

Front and back of the Notification Cards

Travelers simply write their personal information on the wallet-sized card and hand it to the security officer. These cards are purely optional, and they do not exempt anyone from security screening. However using the card should make it clear that officers should handle your condition or item in a sensitive and discreet manner. It also allows you to inform the officer without having to make verbal statements that could be overheard by other travelers.

No one is required to use this card, but you may choose to carry it and present it at any time. For example, you may wish to present it if an officer asks about an item on your person that may require additional screening. If this seems useful to you, simply print out the card and complete it, writing clearly a brief word or phrase to describe your condition or item in the blank. You may use any term you feel is appropriate to communicate with the officers.

NCTE has issued information and resources to help transgender people understand the new procedures and prepare for holiday travels. For more information, including how to file a complaint or take action, please follow this link.

We Salute Kye Allums and Trans Student Athletes

November 5, 2010


George Washington University junior Kye Allums is one courageous basketball player. Though he debuted as a GW player in November 2008 (by scoring 12 points against Coppin State University), this month he’s making another and even bigger debut – as the first openly transgender athlete on an NCAA Division I team. Transitioning from female to male on a women’s basketball team may seem like a daunting challenge, but the university, the NCAA and Kye’s teammates are behind him, according to reports that were all over the media this week. Under current NCAA policies Kye isn’t eligible to compete on a men’s team, and he still has has a scholarship to play on the women’s team. Though this will probably take a little getting used to for some, the GW Colonials are setting an example for other teams but respecting Kye (and referring to him) as the talented young man he is. Soon enough, the press attention will pass, the season will get going, and Kye and his teammates will keep focusing on their game and their studies – which is the way it should be.

Pursuing athletic competition and being part of a team are a dream for many young people. Yet transgender athletes face numerous obstacles, including lack of understanding and acceptance from teammates, coaches or opposing players, to organizational rules that frequently exclude them altogether. Fortunately, a growing number of school athletic organizations – such as the high school athletic associations in Washington and Colorado –  have begun to develop new policies to include and support trans students, and the NCAA has announced it is revising its own policies. A new report issued by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Women’s Sports Foundation last month outlines best practices for providing equal athletic opportunity at all levels of student competition. The report explains that schools must act affirmatively to ensure that trans students are included and treated equally, and to protect their personal privacy. It also explains how concerns about trans students having an unfair competitive advantage are either unfounded or exaggerated, and urges the development of comprehensive national standards that would give every student the opportunity to compete.

We hope that the NCAA will incorporate the principles in the report, and that being part of the team will soon be easier for all transgender students. We salute Kye and the GW Colonials, and all those who have supported Kye in approaching this very public transition — and wish them a very good season.

A Historic Federal Grant to Help LGBT Foster Youth

October 8, 2010

The Department of Health and Human Services has awarded a $13.3 million competitive federal grant to a coalition of groups, led by the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, to develop a model program for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth in foster care. NCTE applauds this historic grant award and the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, PFLAG and the nearly 20 other organizations who will be undertaking this important project.

This is big news, not only because it is the largest ever federal grant for an LGBT-focused project, but because LGBT foster youth are in such dire need of caring and supportive homes and services. It is by now well documented that LGBT youth are disproportionately in out of home care, and that these youth face high levels hostility, discrimination and abuse in care. In addition, transgender foster youth struggle daily with their very identities being disregarded. While the Child Welfare League of America has worked hard together with LGBT advocates to educate providers and promote best practices, the difficulties faced by LGBT foster youth remain pervasive. With the support of the federal government, this model project  could lead the way for agencies and providers around the country who are responsible for the safety and well-being of LGBT youth.

Claim your right to equal education

October 5, 2010

When it comes to schools, as in many other areas, federal law does not yet fully protect LGBT people – yet there are some legal protections in place that many people are not aware of. The US Department of Education has authority to investigate and address bullying, harassment and discrimination against LGBT students in some circumstances. If you or someone close to you has experience bullying, harassment or discrimination in school, you can file a complaint with Department of Education. PFLAG and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) have launched a campaign to encourage students to do just that. You can find information about filing a school civil rights complaint on PFLAG’s website.

This campaign to engage students and the federal government comes on the heels of GLSEN’s tenth annual National School Climate Survey, which finds continuing threats to the safety, well being and education of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender non-conforming students. NCTE urges students who have faced bullying or discrimination, and those close to them, to heed the call and file a complaint with the Department of Education today.

88,500 Sexually Abused in US Prisons and Jails

September 10, 2010

At the end of August the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) release the latest in a string of damning reports showing the prevalence of sexual abuse in U.S. prisons,  jails and detention facilities. The new government report finds that at least 88,500 adults were sexually abused in U.S. prisons in jails last year, a number that included 4.4% of all prison inmates and 3.1% percent of all jail inmates. This follows a BJS report from January finding that more than 12% of youth in juvenile detention in the United States had been sexually abused in the previous year.

Although previous research led the National Prison Rape Elimination  Commission to conclude last year that transgender people are at especially high risk for sexual abuse in confinement, BJS does not collect data on gender identity, so we do not know how many transgender people were sexually abused in confinement in the United States. While a major California study recently found that as many as two thirds of transgender inmates in California had been sexually abused, we have no such data at the national level. However, BJS does track inmate sexual orientation, and we also know that most transgender inmates are identified in surveys (accurately in some cases, and not in others) as having “a sexual orientation other than heterosexual.” The BJS found that these “non-heterosexual” inmates were more than twice as likely to be sexually abused by prison staff and more than eight times as likely to be abused by other inmates; numbers for jails were similar. This data confirms that all LGBT people are at extreme risk for sexual abuse behind bars, and underscores both the need for federal data collection on transgender people and for prevention strategies that address the specific vulnerabilities of these inmates and detainees.

In May, NCTE joined hundreds of other organizations in filing formal comments urging the Department of Justice to adopt strong national standards to prevent sexual abuse in prisons that would specifically address the extreme vulnerability of transgender people in institutional settings. In June, the Justice Department missed the legal deadline for it to promulgate these much-needed standards. Meanwhile, incremental reforms being undertaken by some state and federal agencies, such as U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), fail to address the far-reaching scope of the problem. NCTE continues to work with allied organizations to urge the Department of Justice and ICE to take strong and decisive steps to prevent the abuse of transgender people and to address the extraordinary harms caused by sexual abuse.