Florida State University Team Promotes Transgender Equality
The struggle for transgender equality has recently been illustrated by the high-profile case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender teenager in Virginia. Grimm, who was assigned female at birth but has legally and medically transitioned to male, challenged a school board policy that was enacted to prevent him from using the boys’ bathroom. As advocacy groups across the nation weigh in on issues of transgender rights—and the courts considers whether existing law bars discrimination against Grimm and other transgender students—a team of FSU faculty, students, and alumni has been working to help ensure equality for transgender people.
The multidisciplinary group of social workers, lawyers, and medical professionals is working through the Institute for Family Violence Studies at the College of Social Work (the IFVS). Last fall, the FSU team began to work with Lambda Legal, a renowned civil rights organization that fights to secure recognition of LGBTQ people’s equal dignity. Lambda Counsel Tara Borelli served as one of the coordinator of the amicus, or “friend of the court” briefs in support of Gavin Grimm at the U.S. Supreme Court. (The justices recently sent the case back down to the lower court for further consideration in light of the Trump administration’s opposition to federal protections for transgender rights.) She worked with FSU faculty and students at the Institute, as well as the Colleges of Social Work, Medicine and Law. These students and faculty members assisted Lambda with background research for a number of the amici briefs. These included the medical, law enforcement, and anti-domestic and sexual violence briefs that will help the Court understand the needs of transgender children and youth. As Kirsten Castillo, CSW 2016, emphasized, “We offered to do whatever we could to help.”
"FSU’s Institute team came on board early to help with the research and gathering signatories. It was so gratifying to have the support of the enthusiastic and dedicated faculty and students who wanted to assist with our team's efforts to stand with the transgender community," said Lambda’s Borelli.
The IFVS’s Social Work students researched studies about the importance of providing—and the dangers of not providing—support to transgender children. Ember Urbach, MSW, a 2013 FSU graduate who now works at the University of Kansas, said about the project: "I volunteered to help because social workers want to improve the lot of vulnerable and marginalized groups. We're advocates. I worked in the Institute when I was a student, and I'm so proud that FSU is continuing to fight for those who have no voice." The Institute’s team also contributed to a law enforcement brief by inviting various partners of FSU’s Law Enforcement Family Partnership to lend their support as signatories. That brief emphasized that transgender individuals are not a physical threat to others. Suzanne Leonard Harrison, MD, Professor of Family Medicine & Rural Health at the College of Medicine, and medical student Alan Chan contributed research on the medical issues pertaining to transgender children. The American Medical Women’s Association, for which Harrison serves as President, was also a signatory to the medical brief about health issues affecting transgender individuals. Students at the College of Law conducted legal research in support of transgender children. Law student John Edwards believes that “this research group is putting legal principles into action. Laws are not just abstract ideas; they are living tools, and they can change as society changes.”
Under President Obama, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice issued a letter in 2016 affirming that under Title IX—a federal civil rights law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex—schools must treat students consistent with their gender identity. After the Trump administration rescinded that federal guidance last month, President Thrasher responded affirming FSU’s commitment to transgender equality:
This federal action has no impact on FSU’s commitment to support and protect transgender people on our campuses…All members of our community are free to use a restroom that aligns with their gender identity…Our commitment to this work will not be deterred and our efforts to ensure diversity and inclusion will continue… Again, I want to assure transgender members of the campus community of our unwavering support for you.
The IFVS team was energized by and extremely proud of President Thrasher’s dedication to transgender students and to safeguarding their safety in our community. The team is continuing the work begun with Lambda by developing a new large data set of the voices of children and youth regarding their attitudes about transgender and non-binary classmates. The voices of these young people are drawn from thousands of digital high school newspapers representing all 50 states. The data will constitute an invaluable resource for policymakers moving forward as they make decisions that will affect transgender youth. College of Social Work Dean Jim Clark said, "In the tradition of the Institute, we're examining a critical social justice issue with the understanding that our law and society must continually evolve toward a more inclusive conception of dignity and equality. Our young people are at the forefront of this evolution, and I'm confident that the law will eventually catch up to them." Ann Perko, Director of Special Projects at the IFVS, agreed: “Generation Z [the 13-20 age group] thinks very differently about LGBTQ issues than other generations. These kids are much more accepting and less afraid of people who are different.”
Karen Oehme, Director of the IFVS said “Our modest team is in the background, doing what we can. But we are committed to ensuring that President Thrasher’s statement of unwavering support for transgender students’ safety and inclusion becomes a reality across the state and nation.”