canada africa partner reservation Is Connecticut a ‘safe haven’ for transgender youth? For some, not safe enough

Is Connecticut a ‘safe haven’ for transgender youth? For some, not safe enough

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When LGBTQ+ activists, lawmakers and students gathered at the Capitol on Feb. 28 to honor the life of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager from Oklahoma, their loss felt a lot closer to home than the nearly 1,500-mile distance. 

“We gathered together today as a community to grieve the loss of Nex Benedict, a beautiful 16-year-old child, and to try and make sense of what is absolutely senseless,” said Rev. Aaron Miller of Metropolitan Community Church in Hartford. 

Benedict, who used both he/him and they/them pronouns, died by suicide a day after getting into an altercation with three girls in an Owasso High School bathroom, according to the Oklahoma Chief Medical Examiner. Their death has sent shockwaves across the country, causing LGBTQ+ activists to renew scrutiny of Oklahoma’s anti-transgender school policies.

Gov. Ned Lamont, one of more than 100 attendees at the Hartford vigil, vowed: “We’re not going to let that happen in Connecticut. That’s not who we are.”

But many advocates say state leaders could be doing much more to support Connecticut’s LGBTQ+ students.

Among state lawmakers, the debate is far from settled. Connecticut has some of the most comprehensive legal protections in the country for transgender individuals, yet for the past two years, Republican lawmakers have supported legislation the LGBTQ+ community takes issue with — for example, banning trans athletes from competing in school sports and mandating schools to notify parents when a child starts using different pronouns. 

For a state often labeled as a “safe haven” for trans children, many LGBTQ+ students say they still face hatred in school based on their identity. 

Surviving school

Ace Ricker, an LGBTQ+ advocate and educator, says “navigating” life as a queer person in Connecticut was far from easy. 

Ricker grew up in Shelton. He came out as queer at 14 years old to his family but only told a few friends about his identity as a transgender man.  

Everyday in high school, he would show up with his hair in a slicked back ponytail, wearing baggy T-shirts and jeans. 

No bathroom felt safe to Ricker in high school. At the time, he only used the women’s bathroom, where he says he experienced verbal, physical and sexual abuse. 

“The few friends I had, I was telling them, ‘Hey, if I go to the bathroom and I don’t come back in 10 minutes, come and check on me,’” said Ricker. 

One year in high school, he opened up to his civics class, sharing that he was a part of the LGBTQ+ community. He said he thinks that led school administrators to assign him to what he called “problem student” classes. 

“I was seen in school as a rebel or a problem,” said Ricker. “I barely got through graduating because through school, it was about surviving— it wasn’t necessarily learning.” 

Ricker graduated in 2008, but stories like his are common among LGBTQ+ students in Connecticut. 

Leah Juliett, a nonbinary activist who uses they/them pronouns, graduated from Wolcott High School in 2015. Like many trans and nonbinary students, Juliett originally identified as queer and later came out as nonbinary at 19 — the year they found out what “nonbinary” meant. 

“I came out in high school. I was relentlessly bullied,” said Juliett, “My school binders were thrown in the trash and had milk poured over them. My school locker was vandalized on my birthday. I would get harassing messages and things like that on social media.” 

Juliett says they were one of the few openly gay kids in school who not only had to deal with bullying but watched as local lawmakers proposed legislation to limit their rights. 

“It becomes deeply hard to exist,” Juliett said. “I was engaging in self harm, suicidal ideation. All of this is a result of not being supported by my town, by my community, by my peers, by my family— all of it.” 

In recent years, parents of LGBTQ+ students in Connecticut have brought their concerns to the federal Department of Education.  

In 2022, Melissa Combs and other concerned parents reported Irving A. Robbins Middle School in Farmington to the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights after school administrators declined to investigate an incident where students ripped a Pride flag from the wall and stomped on it. 

Combs is the parent of a transgender son. During her son’s time at the middle school, she said he faced relentless bullying, where he dealt with students telling him to kill himself, getting called slurs and was assaulted by a student. 

Two years later, the OCR investigation is still ongoing.

“We entered into this knowing that it was going to take a lot of time,” said Combs. “We entered into it with the hope that we could make some positive changes to the school climate in Farmington.”

Since opening the investigation, Combs tried to reenroll her son in Farmington public schools, only to pull him back out again. She says not much has changed in the school culture. 

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Combs. “It was, again, a horrible experience.”

Events like this pushed Combs to take the issue up with the state legislature. Combs founded the Out Accountability Project that has the goal of “understanding” local issues affecting  LGBTQ+ youth. She says she’s been having these conversations with lawmakers. 

“I’ve spent a great deal of time in the LOB (Legislative Office Building) so far this session,” Combs said. “What I’m sensing is not only support, but a sense of urgency in terms of supporting families — families like mine across the state.”

The legislation

Republican lawmakers in state houses across the country have introduced a variety of legislation targeted at LGBTQ+ students. In 2023, more than 500 of these bills were introduced around the country, with 48 passing. Since the beginning of this legislative session, Benedict’s home state of Oklahoma has considered over 50 different pieces of legislation regarding LGBTQ+ children.

In Connecticut, the “Let Kids be Kids” coalition, a group of elected officials — including legislators Mark Anderson, R-Granby, and Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly — and religious leaders and parents advocated for two bills for the Education Committee to consider. 

The first piece of legislation would have forced teachers to disclose to parents if their child started using different pronouns at school. The other would have required student athletes to participate in sports with members of the gender they were assigned at birth. 

“Kids are best protected when parents are involved,” said Peter Wolfgang, the president of the Family Institute of Connecticut, during a February Let Kids be Kids press conference at the Capitol. “The state should not come between parents and their children.”

The Education Committee declined to raise the bills, and neither concept got public hearings. This hasn’t thwarted future plans by the coalition.

We’ve seen undeniable research that trans students face an inordinate amount of bullying and stressors in their lives.

– Rep. Sarah Keitt, a Fairfield Democrat

“I am actually very encouraged, because we grew awareness at the General Assembly this year,” Leslie Wolfgang, director of public policy at the Family Institute, wrote in a statement to the Connecticut Mirror. “This session was just the first step in a multi-year process to grow awareness and look for ways to balance the needs of all children and their families in Connecticut.” 

Debates during the current legislative session have revealed nuanced views among lawmakers on transgender rights. General Assembly Democrats sparred over gender neutral language in House Bill 5454, which seeks to direct more state and federal funding toward mental health services for children, caregivers and parents. Members of the Appropriations Committee debated whether to use the term “pregnant persons” or “expectant mothers,” with two Democrats calling for an amendment to include both terms, saying they felt the bill was more inclusive that way. 

Still, the legislature has advanced several bills this session that propose to expand rights and protections for LGBTQ+ individuals in Connecticut, and they heard testimony from the public on an effort to extend Shield Laws — laws meant to protect individuals who seek abortions from other states — to include gender-affirming care.

On April 10, the Senate passed Senate Bill 327, a bill aimed at creating a task force that would study the effects on hate speech against children. 

The legislation calls for the group of educators, social workers, religious leaders and civil rights experts to file a report by the beginning of next year with their research and recommendations. The group would also study the environments students where face the most hateful rhetoric and examine if hate speech is primarily conducted by children or adults.  

“We’ve seen undeniable research that trans students face an inordinate amount of bullying and stressors in their lives,”  Rep. Sarah Keitt, D-Fairfield, said in an interview with the CT Mirror. “A lot of that comes at schools and we need to do much more to protect them.”

The bill is currently on its way to the House.

In February, Senate Bill 380, An Act Concerning School Discipline, passed out of the Education Committee. The bill includes proposals that would require services for the youngest children who receive out-of-school suspensions and continues work initiated last year to collect survey data from schools on the “climate” facing their more vulnerable student populations. This year’s bill would also require school administrators to clarify the motivations for any bullying incidents — if they’re due to a student’s race, gender or sexual orientation, for example.

Another proposal comes as an amendment to the state constitution that would prohibit the discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity under the Equal Protection Clause. While Keitt expressed support for the amendment, she was doubtful on the likelihood of it passing. 

“It is such a short session, we have very little time, and if we were to take up the constitutional amendment, it would mean that we wouldn’t be able to get other more pressing needs — not to say that those protections aren’t important.” Keitt also pointed to the statutory protections already in place statewide. 

Another piece of legislation, House Bill 5417, would require local and regional boards of education to state a reason for removing or restricting access to public school library materials and prohibits such boards from removing or restricting access to such materials for reasons based on race, political disagreements or personal discomfort. 

Book bans, primarily targeting novels about people of color and LGBTQ+ community, have increased over the past few years in towns like Suffiled, Newtown and Brookfield.  

“I think that it really protects gay and transgender authors of color,” Keitt said. “It allows our children to have a broader educational experience and protects our libraries from political attacks.”

Policy already in place 

While state lawmakers have been considering new legislation, many LGBTQ+ advocates say they’d like to see more enforcement of existing legal protections for queer people.

Public Act 11-55 was enacted in 2011, prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression. This, among other protections, is why Connecticut is often heralded as a “safe haven” for transgender and nonbinary individuals. 

But many advocates say the LGBTQ+ community, and those designated to protect them, are often uninformed of those legal protections.  

“You can pass all the laws you want, but if you don’t provide communities with resources to implement those laws, they aren’t as useful as they should be,” Matt Blinstrubas, the executive director of Equality CT, said. “We haven’t invested enough into educating people.” 

According to Mel Cordner of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Q Plus, one of the most concerning trends they see in schools is when educators are unaware of the protections students have. 

“I’ve had teachers (say) you can’t do any kind of hormone therapy or puberty blockers or anything until you’re 18. Or require kids to get parental permission to change their name in the school system, which you don’t need to do,” said Cordner. “Staff are either fooled by their administrators, or they just assume that kids don’t have certain rights.” 

When the Nex Benedict news hit, that rocked our whole network of career kids really, really hard because every single one of them went, ‘Oh God, that could have been me.’

While the Department of Education must keep a list of instances of bullying, advocates say many queer students do not report their harassment because they are not comfortable coming out to their families. 

“I’ve grown up with many trans kids who only felt safe being openly themselves at school,” said Juliett. “And even then they were subjected to bullying and harassment, but they couldn’t be themselves at home.”

“When the Nex Benedict news hit, that rocked our whole network of career kids really, really hard because every single one of them went, ‘Oh God, that could have been me,’” said Cordner. “There were a couple kids I was worried about enough to reach out to personally, because that was them — that exact situation of being cornered and assaulted in a bathroom physically has happened in Connecticut schools more than once.”

Filling the gaps

Bullying, isolation and lack of support from family members are few of many reasons why gay, bisexual and transgender youth have a disproportionately high suicide rate. 

According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit suicide prevention organization for the LGBTQ+ community, queer young people are “more than four times as likely” to attempt suicide compared to their straight, cisgender peers. In a 2023 study, the nonprofit found that 41% of LGBTQ+ youth have “seriously considered attempting suicide” within the past year. Youth of color who identify as trans, nonbinary and queer experience even higher rates.  

Concerning statistics like these are why many LGBTQ+ advocates have taken it upon themselves to create a community-based support system for queer youth. 

Miller, a Christian pastor from Metropolitan Community Church in Hartford, works with community members across the state to provide services like “Trans Voice & Visibility 365,” a ministry dedicated to helping transgender individuals get their basic needs, and at the Yale Pediatric Gender Program, a support center for people children exploring their gender identity. 

Miller creates a place at his church where he can “celebrate” transgender and nonbinary people and coordinates with other LGBTQ+ groups like Q Plus to throw events where kids can explore their identity by exchanging clothes and trying on different outfits. 

“Kids want to be themselves. We’re encouraging them to be themselves,” said Miller. 

It’ll never stop surprising me how many people work with teens and think they don’t work with queer teens.

While Miller helps build community for many transgender individuals, he finds himself on the front lines of many near-crisis moments. Miller said he once stayed up through the night talking a child out of killing themself after their family abandoned them. 

Miller’s church is part of a support network for families he calls “medical refugees” — transplants from places like Oklahoma and Texas, where they faced death threats and allegations of child abuse. The church community helps these families find housing, medical services and other support.

“The two greatest commands that we were given in a Christian understanding is to love God and to love each other as we love ourselves,” said Miller. “And yet, we’ve been telling people that they can’t love themselves or they’re not lovable, and that other people aren’t going to love us either.” 

Cordner founded Q Plus in 2019 “with the goal of filling gaps” for LGBTQ+ youth programs. Q Plus operates in nine towns and cities across the state while providing a variety of resources for students from support groups to game night. 

The organization also provides services aimed at adults that include programs that help parents better engage with their LGBTQ+ children as well as professional development trainings for school staff on the best ways to interact with queer students. 

“It’ll never stop surprising me how many people work with teens and think they don’t work with queer teens,” said Cordner. 

Q Plus also has a program where the organization is contracted by schools to “review and revise policies” to support LGBTQ+ students.  

“(The) bottom line is always listen to your kids,” said Cordner. “They will tell you what they need.” 

Connecticut Mirror is a content partner of States Newsroom. Read the original version here.