Transgender Student in Tennessee Takes a Stand Against Invasive, Discriminatory Legislation

Henry Seaton • Hendersonville, TN

As a child, one of Henry’s strongest relationships was the one he had with his church. “I have been in church my whole life,” Henry said, “it has affected me deeply.” Henry grew up in a small town outside of Nashville, TN. When Henry’s parents divorced, his grandparents took him and his mom into their home for a short time. Henry’s bond with his faith grew stronger as Henry’s grandparents took him to their Baptist church every Sunday.

But today, after transitioning from a girl to a boy, all of that has changed.

Henry transitioned from a girl and now lives everyday as a boy. He transitioned so he could finally be the person he has always known himself to be. But Henry’s transition would have a monumental effect on his faith. His church had already kicked him out when he first came out as a lesbian. Today, Henry’s transition permanently sealed his exclusion from his church. “[That] was really difficult,” Henry said, “It was hard for me to find my identity outside of my church.”

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Henry says that, while his mom had always been supportive, she has struggled to know exactly how to support him. But the reaction from Henry’s grandparents was especially disheartening. He did not expect his transition to put a wedge between them. Henry recalls the first time he tried to explain his identity to his grandmother; she responded by pretending like it wasn’t happening. “[S]he had an anxiety attack. I didn’t come out to anyone else for a long time after that.”

But when Tennessee state lawmakers recently introduced anti-transgender legislation, House Bill 2414, Henry knew he couldn’t stay silent. The bill brought forward all the failings of his own school, which did not step in to stop the bullying he faced. Even teachers insulted Henry refusing to call him by his name or respecting his gender pronouns.

“When Tennessee state lawmakers recently introduced anti-transgender legislation, House Bill 2414, Henry knew he couldn’t stay silent.”

One teacher called Henry at home to tell him he was “unhealthy” because he is transgender. Henry points out that his transition didn’t affect his close friendships. Instead, his teachers had the most difficulty coping. “I expected them to be more professional but that is not what happened,” Henry said.

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With all that transgender students already faced in school, Henry had to take action. HB 2414 limits all students to use the restroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate or their sex at birth. HB 2414 has resulted in widespread backlash because it offers no guidelines for enforcing it and could also cost the state billions of dollars in funding for violating federal laws. More importantly, how would schools know whether a person’s sex matches their birth certificate? Would teachers be responsible for checking restroom users? How would they do that? HB 2414 is, by all measures, impractical and unenforceable.

With the support of the ACLU of Tennessee, GLSEN Nashville, and the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, Henry testified in the House Education Administration and Planning subcommittee against this bill. In that moment, “I felt like I was going to puke,” he said. “It was terrifying telling my story in front of one of our nation’s most conservative legislatures. But it was a really powerful moment for me and I’m glad I did it.”

Though the subcommittee moved the bill to the full committee, Henry didn’t realize he took home a major victory that day. In a later hearing with the full House Education Committee, Representative Mark White said it was Henry’s experience in school that convinced him to oppose the bill. That win reaffirmed for Henry the importance of transgender people telling their stories.

“It was terrifying telling my story in front of one of our nation’s most conservative legislatures. But it was a really powerful moment for me and I’m glad I did it.” -Henry, Tennessee

While that House Education committee vote technically killed the bill, a devastating backdoor procedural move brought it back to life.On Wednesday, April 6th, the House Education Committee will hear their motion to reconsider HB 2414. And the Senate Finance Committee is expected to hear the bill the week of April 11th. While the prospects of the bill are still unclear, Henry is standing strong. He plans to testify again and is hopeful that his state will finally put an end to HB 2414.

Henry is hopeful, too, for another victory — one closer to home. Without his prodding, Henry’s grandparents met a therapist to learn more about transgender people. “That gives me a little hope,” Henry said. “It’s good to see they’re coming around – to see positive change.”

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