Alex Howe dreaded the long walk he had to take just to use the bathroom at his Texas high school — two unisex stalls in the middle of the sprawling building, far from his classrooms.
Because he’s a transgender boy, his school district barred him from the much more convenient boy’s restrooms. “It was isolating and alienating,” Howe, who was identified at birth as female, told POLITICO, the first time he has spoken publicly about being a transgender high school kid. And it didn’t stop there.
Conservative parents told the debate coach they didn’t want Howe sharing a room with their sons on trips to competitions. The frustrated coach argued that Howe should be treated the same as the other kids, but school administrators sided with the parents and wouldn’t budge. He roomed alone, singled out again.
Howe struggled with depression and his mother, Stacey Burg, said the treatment at school took its toll. “He would see his therapist and they would increase his antidepressants,” she said. “He would say it’s schoolwork and debate, but I thought it was more. He was stressed all the time. He was upset, he was depressed, he was anxious. He would get angry at home.”
After his graduation in 2017 Howe filed a complaint with federal civil rights officials at the Department of Education, hoping to ease the way for other transgender students at his school to use the bathrooms of their choice. But an examination of federal records by POLITICO shows that his complaint is one of at least five involving transgender students denied bathroom access that was thrown out by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has halted such investigations.
Another transgender student interviewed by POLITICO and also speaking publicly for the first time said his bathroom-related complaint hasn’t been dismissed, but his case has stalled for three years. He doesn’t know why.
Both Howe and the second student, who wants to be identified only by his first name, Drake, described the human cost of DeVos’ decision to turn down and hold off on their appeals for help. While high school isn’t easy for many kids who don’t fit in with the herd, for transgender students it can be so much worse.
Burg said the Trump administration “has absolutely no clue” what families go through when their transgender child isn’t treated equally at school. “Think about, what if it was your kid? How would you feel?” she said.
The Education Department declined to answer questions about its handling of transgender cases, but, after this story was initially published, released a statement saying it is “committed to defending the civil rights of all students and ensuring all students have an equal opportunity to learn in an environment free from harassment and discrimination.” It said it would continue to use “current law and current regulation to determine if any child in school is being harassed or discriminated against due to race, sex or disability.”