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Wisconsin Schools 'In a State of Transition' to Accommodate Transgender Youth

At least four transgender people have killed themselves in Wisconsin since 2013, two of them from the same high school. Yet emerging in unlikely places are pockets of support for transgender youth across the state.

The transgender community has been gaining a lot more visibility recently. Celebrities such as Laverne Cox are starring in series roles, and the original Amazon series Transparent took home several Emmys for its depiction of an older father coming out as transgender.

However, transgender youth have not been in the media spotlight. This is true in Wisconsin school districts as well. There currently are no numbers for how many transgender students are in the state because there is no official way of collecting this data.

The state of Wisconsin collects data from the Youth Risk Behavior Assessment every two years, and recently this survey included questions pertaining to lesbian and gay students. However there are no questions in this survey that relate to transgender students to include them in calculating the overall LGBT student population. 

It is known that since 2013 at least four transgender people have killed themselves in Wisconsin - two of them from the same high school in Racine. Most recently, a Madison West High School student and trans teen activist Skylar Marcus Lee committed suicide last month.

Freelance writer Zach Brooke was alarmed by the transgender suicides in the state and was prompted to look further into what trans students face and how school districts are helping or hindering accommodations for their students.

His article on transgender bullying in Wisconsin schools, called In a State of Transition, is in the October issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

"When you look at one high school with two transgender students who both killed themselves that seems to be a bit unusual," Brookes says. "At the same time I wanted to look at how the state was handling transgender students overall."

Brooke discovered that transgender policies in schools different from district to district. "The Wisconsin Pupil Nondiscrimination statute protects against things like sex, religion, race, and it also protects against sexual orientation,"he explains. "However it does not protect against gender identity."

Transgender students are at a higher risk of bullying and stress, he says, because gender identity seems to require other people's consent and is much more exposed compared to sexual orientation.

"The second that you start presenting yourself as your gender identity or your gender expression that is not your biological sex you run into all sorts of problems," Brooke says. "They start just from being out on the street, you can encounter the micro aggressions. But it really, really ramps up a notch when you try to do certain things specific to gender like use a restroom or use a locker room in high schools."

Despite the unique stressors LGBT students face that can contribute negatively to life outcomes, Brooke did find some unlikely places with pockets of support for transgender youth.

Madison was among the first of the state school districts to include language that accommodate trans students into their policy ten years ago, but did not move to implement their policies until recently.

In the Milwaukee area, the Shorewood school district has been a true leader in transgender policy. When enacting their policy two years ago, they provided concrete guidelines, underwent a promotional blitz and lobbied state-wide school board association to develop a model policy for trans students.

"They really pushed the ball forward on this one," says Brooke.

While transgender policies remain under a district's discretion, transgender bullying and suicides are an unfortunate drive for schools to be more proactive in creating a safer and more inclusive space for all of their students.

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.