Cruelty is the Point

Some news stories just make you weep with sadness and rage. That’s how I feel about the story of L.B., a 17-year-old high school student in Mississippi. 

L.B. was scheduled to graduate with her class from Harrison Central High School in Gulfport, Mississippi on Saturday, May 20. She didn’t. She couldn’t. I know how she feels, now, in the aftermath, because I still feel that way decades after I was kept from my rightful place at my high school graduation, also.

A Black teen with long black hair and a flawless complexion, L.B. missed this once-in-a-lifetime milestone, missed having her parents, Henry and Samantha Brown, taking photos with a tear in their eye as their daughter crossed the stage to get her diploma.

L.B. didn’t attend her high school graduation because she was ordered, first by the school district and then by a federal court, to crossdress for the event. To come as a boy, not a girl. 

L.B. is trans. For four years she has gone to all her high school classes as herself — dressed as a girl, not a boy. 

Yet just days before the graduation, L.B. was told that she must adhere to “the HCHS gender-based dress code policy for graduation, which provides that girls must wear a white dress and dress shoes and that boys must wear a white button-down shirt, black dress pants, black dress shoes, and a tie or bowtie.” 

L.B. had her white dress and shoes ready. She doesn’t own boys clothes. She hasn’t dressed as a boy in years. 

L.B., whose parents are withholding their daughter’s full name for privacy and safety reasons, told CNN she would “rather stand up for what’s right than be humiliated.” 

She chose not to attend her graduation rather than “show up and be forced to wear something that’s totally different from myself — my character.”

She said, “It was detrimental to know that I won’t be able to experience my graduation the way I had envisioned it and planned it for so many years — and I’ve been going to this school actively being me with my teachers, my peers, the other students in my class.”

Henry and Samantha Brown filed a lawsuit, backed by the Mississippi ACLU, after Samantha Brown had an exchange with school district Superintendent Mitchell King on May 10 “to request clarification on the School District’s dress code policy for graduation,” according to the ACLU filing. 

Samantha Brown told CNN that the confusion began because she and her daughter had naturally followed the guidelines for girls. “She identifies as female, so we went by the female dress code,” L.B.’s mother told CNN. “We felt like we were abiding by the dress code.”

The ACLU filing states that in the call with Mrs. Brown and the superintendent, “Defendant King said that L.B. ‘is still a boy’ and that ‘he needs to wear pants, socks, and shoes, like a boy.’ Ms. Brown asked what would happen if L.B. wore a dress to the ceremony, and Defendant King stated that she would not be allowed to participate.”

As the basis for the Brown family’s lawsuit, the ACLU cited violations by the school district and King specifically against L.B.’s rights to the First Amendment guarantee of free expression, the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits “discrimination under any education program or activity” “on the basis of sex.”

Despite hours of testimony on May 18, U.S. District Court Judge Taylor McNeel, a Trump appointee, ruled for the school district, ostensibly granting a court order to the school to force L.B. to attend as a boy. 

In a lengthy Twitter thread on May 22, Mississippi ACLU wrote, in part, “The court’s decision to uphold the school district’s explicit discrimination of our client is deeply disappointing and concerning. Our client should be focused on celebrating this life milestone alongside her friends and loved ones.”

The thread ended: “To trans youth in Mississippi and beyond: 

You are seen, valued, and celebrated. We remain committed to standing against the erosion of bodily autonomy and freedom of expression.”

I feel tremendous empathy for L.B., kept from one of the best days of her life by bigotry and bias and I wrote about it on Twitter

There was no other reason to target L.B. It was punitive and cruel and solely to insist she is something she is not.

When I was expelled from Philadelphia High School for Girls for being a lesbian, I disrupted a family tradition. My grandmother, mother and sister all graduated from the noted academically singular high school for girls. The expulsion changed my life on a myriad of levels — none of them good. I was placed in a psychiatric ward for conversion therapy, popular in the 1970s as an “answer” to teens who “thought” they were lesbian or gay. 

It was a traumatic experience that put me on an activist trajectory, but it also harmed me, both psychologically and emotionally. It shattered my trust in adults and it left me with PTSD. What it did not do was make me heterosexual.

Forcing L.B. to crossdress as a boy to attend her own graduation — a right she had earned by attending classes and completing courses over four years — was a humiliation and punishment. It was a state-sponsored attempt at converting her back to the sex she was assigned at birth, which she quite obviously is not. 

That the judge listened to her talk for hours in court and still found in favor of the school over this pretty young woman asking simply to attend her own graduation is impossible to understand. The cognitive dissonance one would have to employ to see L.B. as male is hard to fathom.

Insistence on heteronormativity and binary gender identities by courts and other institutions of authority is in direct contravention to how so many of us are leading our actual lives. Gender nonconforming women, lesbians, are being dragged out of bathrooms with claims they are trans while trans women are told to go to the men’s room and risk actual assault.

No one should have to suffer from these assaults on their personhood. It shouldn’t have happened to me, it shouldn’t have happened to L.B., and it shouldn’t happen to anyone else. That LGBTQ people are still being subjected to these attacks is reprehensible. All we can do is fight back in the courts and at the ballot box. But the damage being done is incalculable. And there is no legal remedy for that.

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