He would have been the first person in his family to graduate from high school, but an insurmountable barrier stood in his way: four credits of gym class. The school would not give him a private place to change, and he couldn’t stand feeling like a “pervert” — a boy in the girls’ locker room. He gave up the diploma instead.
Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the Transgender Discrimination Study, a groundbreaking study of 6,450 transgender people was conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Published in 2011, it still stands as our most comprehensive look at the lives of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the U.S.
Its scope is breathtaking. Examining health, employment, family life, housing, public accommodations, identification documents, police and incarceration, and much more, the study’s authors concluded: “Transgender and gender non-conforming people face injustice at every turn — in childhood homes, in school systems that promise to shelter and educate, in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords, police officers, health care workers and other service providers.”
The report’s findings about education shed light on many of the other health and income disparities transgender people face. People who expressed a non-traditional gender in grades K-12 experienced very high rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent) and sexual violence (12 percent), from both student peers and staff. Six percent were expelled because of their gender identity or expression, and 15 percent left school or college because of the harassment they experienced.
Those statistics are reflected in Joey Clark’s story.
“I went to two different high schools and at each one I was picked on a lot. I was picked on verbally for being different, and other students would spread rumors about me. A few would try to physically hurt me, but I was able to protect myself in that way. I did not know at all how to protect myself emotionally. They called me a lesbian and a freak, and I didn’t even know how to explain what I was at that time in my life.”
The statistics show that trans kids who drop out of high school end up with high rates of homelessness (48 percent), more involvement in sex work or other work in the underground economy, and — probably because of that — they’re far more likely to experience incarceration. Trans drop-outs also have higher rates of HIV, use more drugs and alcohol, and more often attempt suicide than do trans people who manage to get their high school diploma.
Probably because he was so committed to being “a good father,” Joey followed a different path. “I never want my kids to use me not getting a diploma as an excuse,” he said, “so I started taking my tests and received my high school equivalency diploma the year after I would have graduated.”
He tried to go on to tech school, but many of his high school tormenters had moved there, too. “I was the talk of the school. Lots of people could not wait to point and tell anyone they could that I was born with female parts, but they did not say it that nice. I found myself not being able to stand up yet.”
Here’s where Joey’s story illustrates another finding of Injustice at Every Turn: Despite their traumatic experiences in high school, many more transgender people end up returning to college. Injustice notes, “Respondents reported considerably higher rates of educational attainment than the general population, with 47 percent receiving a college or graduate degree, compared to only 27 percent of the general population.”
Tired of dead-end jobs and wanting to teach his two children the importance of education, Joey tried again. With the help of what he calls an “amazing” counselor and his local transgender support group, he figured out “not only what I wanted in life, but also how to feel ‘safe and valuable.’” He not only re-enrolled in tech school, but took on leadership roles as well. He helped start the LGBT Club on campus, became its president, and then stepped up to preside over the student senate.
On May 17, 2014, Joey graduated from Moraine Park Technical College with an associate degree in Criminal Justice/Corrections and a GPA of 3.25. Besides continuing to be a great dad to his kids, his goal is to continue on to get his bachelor’s degree and work in or run an LGBT center in the Fond du Lac/Oshkosh area. He is also deeply committed to “doing all I can to help my transgender family to be happy and achieve equal rights.”
This PrideFest, Joey will be FORGE’s chief “free hugger.” Come by FORGE’s booth to receive your free hug sticker and congratulate Joey on his achievements.
Loree Cook-Daniels is policy and program director of FORGE, a national resource for transgender and elderly LGBT people that’s headquartered in Milwaukee.