Synthesis of Organizing

This page of the website seeks to synthesize the grassroots organizing in Portland and nationally in response to the challenge of supporting trans youth in school.


Though trans people have always been organizing and fighting for their rights, a discussion about trans rights in and outside of school was catapulted into the national spotlight after a ground-breaking case in the Colorado Civil Rights Division when a 6-year-old transgender girl, Coy Mathis, was granted the right to use the female bathrooms in school (Buckley, 2016). Shortly thereafter, North Carolina passed HB2, a bill that prohibited trans people from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Though HB2 has since been repealed, the Colorado case and North Carolina’s law triggered a nationwide debate and mobilized many states to try and enact similar discriminatory laws. To this day, trans people and trans students are tirelessly fighting to protect their rights, including their rights to bathroom access.

Who is Involved?

The majority of organizing for trans rights happening across the country (and in Portland specifically) is being orchestrated by coalitions of transgender folks. For example, the trans-inclusive school policy that was recently passed in Portland was the culmination of tireless efforts by Equality Maine and Maine Trans Net, two organizations led by and for LGBT Mainers. However, other allies and stakeholders have also become a part of the fight. Specifically, some parents have become key allies and proponents of more rights for their transgender children. This was true in the groundbreaking Colorado case–Coy Mathis was six years old when her parents challenged the Colorado courts and secured her access to the correct bathrooms.

How Have They Organized?

Izzy Smith (left), and Alex Fitzgerald at Deering High School. Photo courtesy of Portland Press Herald.

Having transgender people’s stories, experiences, and struggles has been a key tactic for organizing in Portland and across the country. Alex Fitzgerald and Izzy Smith, two seniors at Deering High School, were key organizing force in the success of Portland’s trans-inclusive school policy. Fitzgerald, who is trans, spoke candidly and openly about his experiences throughout the organizing process. He worked directly with board and school officials in doing so, and his involvement and vulnerability provided a window through which policymakers could understand the struggles and needs of trans students, as well as the undeniable importance of trans-inclusive legislation on LGBT youth (Gallagher, 2017). This was of central importance in the successful efforts to make Portland schools more trans-inclusive.

What are the Intersections?

Two of the major intersections in terms of organizing for trans rights are parents’ rights and anti-bullying efforts.

Parents’ rights intersect with the fight for trans rights in school because those who were fighting against Portland’s efforts to become more trans-inclusive claimed that the new school policy would trample on parents’ rights. According to the media outlet One News Now, the Portland’s policy “tells [administrators] to defy parents’ wishes when it comes to raising their children” (Haverluck, 2017). The rhetoric of parents’ rights has become a means through which anti-trans rights advocates can claim that greater protections for trans people is an unfair imposition on school communities.

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The efforts to organize for more trans-inclusive schools align with movements to curb bullying of LGBT kids. Gia Drew, the Program Director at Equality Maine, runs a leadership program for LGBT youth, and has frequently spoken publicly about the prevalence of bullying and harassment for LGBT youth in Maine schools (Brogan, 2015). By creating trans-inclusive school policies, school districts are not only making school procedures more welcoming to gender-expansive youth, but shifting school climates to be more tolerant and accepting, which goes hand-in-hand with efforts to stop LGBT bullying in school.

What are the Obstacles?

As mentioned above, one of the biggest obstacles in enacting trans-inclusive school policies in Portland and nationwide are advocates of parental choice, who claim that the advancement of trans rights in public schools “trash parental rights” (Haverluck, 2017). The question of trans rights and parental rights recently emerged in Rocklin, California, a suburb of Sacramento, after a Kindergarten teacher read a book about a transgender child to her class. Parents were outraged, with one mom claiming that “I want [my daughter] to hear from me what her gender is” (CBS Saramento, 2017). According to these parents, it is their right to teach their children about gender in the way they want to, and trans-inclusive school policy tramples on those rights. Across the country, the expansion of rights for trans kids is being blocked under the guise of “parents’ rights”.

Effects and Impacts

A photo of the Portland, Maine school board in conversation about the trans-inclusive school policy. Photo courtesy of Maine public.

Nonetheless, tangible, positive change has emerged from national and local efforts to expand trans rights in schools. Portland, Maine now has one of the most inclusive trans-rights policies in the country. The policy requires staff training around trans issues and trans identities, mandates the usage of a student’s preferred name and personal pronoun, and requires schools to take the student’s side at school if there is disagreement with a parent’s wishes. These changes will have far-reaching, positive impacts for trans students, who now have grater protections in school and can hopefully be at school to focus on learning (Gallagher, 2017).

Portland’s admirable efforts to organize and advocate for transgender rights hopefully sets a powerful national precedent, and inspires other urban schools to protect their transgender students.