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Tennessee will soon be able to pull funding from schools that defy anti-transgender laws. Where does that leave transgender youth?

The majority of Tennessee's anti-transgender laws target K-12 students.
Marianna Bacallao
The majority of Tennessee's anti-transgender laws target K-12 students.

For the second year in a row, Tennessee has passed a host of bills limiting what transgender youth can do. Some schools have refused to enforce them, but their refusal will soon have financial penalties.

Lennon Freitas, 15, is a rising sophomore at Nashville School of the Arts — a school that has so far been able to ignore the state’s anti-transgender laws.

He went to five different schools before finally landing at NSA.

“I went to a school once, and my first day, they were like, ‘Can you tell the class about LGBTQ and trans youth?’ I was like, ‘I just got here,'” Freitas said. “But at NSA, I’m just like a normal kid.”

At his school, trans kids can use the bathroom they want, hear their preferred name called over the intercom and see it printed beside their picture in the yearbook. It is audition only, though. That’s why Freitas tried for both its theatre and art conservatory.

But it’s not like transphobia doesn’t exist there, and even if it didn’t, Freitas says it’s hard to ignore how state lawmakers are chipping away at his rights.

“They don’t know what it’s like to shower in the dark,” Freitas said. “They don’t know what it’s like to get physical pain whenever someone says the wrong name, and they don’t understand what it’s like to be in public and to feel just so unhappy because of the way that people perceive you. They don’t get to speak on behalf of trans youth when they have no idea what they go through.”

Republican lawmakers have been considering a bill that would make it harder for trans people to medically transition. For Freitas, that means he wouldn’t be able to take testosterone.

The measure didn’t pass this legislative session, but like so many anti-trans proposals, it didn’t fail, either.

“It’s difficult with all these laws passing, You’re like, ‘Oh, I might lose my ability to be myself.’ And I feel like I’m going backwards now,” Freitas said.

That backsliding has some educators worried. As a counselor, and as a non-binary person, Will French is concerned about the wave of bills restricting gender expression. He says even though Metro Nashville Public Schools hasn’t enforced the state’s anti-trans laws, kids are not shielded from them.

“That shows up for me in my counseling office … for some of them, you know, just increased suicidal ideation. That’s certainly come through my office more, even though structurally at school, nothing necessarily has changed for them,” French said. “It’s still the feeling that they don’t belong in their home state.”

French is concerned about one measure that would’ve protected teachers from federal discrimination laws if they refer to a student with the wrong pronouns.

ACLU advocate Henry Seaton testified against it before the General Assembly.

“Children should be free to pursue education without fear for life, like I did. Teachers should not have the right to put students into danger by encouraging bullying like HB2633 does,” he said. “I cannot express enough the idea that teachers do not have the right to endanger a child.”

That measure didn’t pass, but only because lawmakers decided to revisit it next session. What did pass was a measure expanding the state’s ban on trans athletes from public K-12 schools to college sports.

“So, it’s not only a risk to young people that just want to play a sport, that just want to be in school and have community. It also targets our ability as a state … to hold NCAA championships, because we are directly going against what the NCAA has stated as policy,” Seaton said.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the trans athlete ban on behalf of a Knoxville student last year. Despite the case still making its way through the courts, the General Assembly also passed a law that withholds state funding from public schools if they don’t enforce the ban.

Seaton says that means trans students are missing out on the physical and mental health benefits of playing on a school sports team. That’s important for trans kids. More than 40% report having attempted suicide, according to the Trevor Project.

“The worst part of that being is that that’s the lowest number I’ve seen in years,” Seaton said. “It disturbs me to no end.”

To the next generation of trans students, Seaton says: It does get better — with a disclaimer:

“It’s hard to tell someone it gets better when they don’t see that path, because I definitely didn’t growing up. I know that it sucks. And like, people don’t want to say that, like, it sucks … But you are seen and you are so respected and loved by thousands of people across the state and across the nation. And, you know, I don’t want to say it gets better because it is a cheesy, cheesy phrase, but there’s a lot of life left to live.”

If you or a trans loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call The Trevor Project for help at (866) 488-7386.  

Copyright 2022 WPLN News. To see more, visit WPLN News.

Marianna Bacallao
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