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Transgender rights: There is still no smooth path

Stand up for and with LGBTQ people in your neighborhood, your workplace, your school, and your faith community. Their lives just might depend on it.

I’m a member of the Minneapolis University Rotary Club, one of 34,000 member clubs in this worldwide service organization. Our club is a small one, about 25 members, and we’re a diverse group: people from eight different countries; many faiths; and a range of ages, occupations, and lifestyles.

A few years ago, Erica Fields was president of the club. Erica owns and runs a successful grain marketing business and she is involved in many local activities. Erica has an unusual story.

From the time she was very young, she knew she was a girl – but she was assigned male at birth and was raised as a boy. She grew up in the Twin Cities, became involved in business and community issues, married, and had children. She followed this expected path because of the social and personal perils of acknowledging her identity, which she hid until she was in her 50s. Her subsequent courage and honesty with friends, family, and business associates helped smooth her journey, and today she is a leading advocate for LGBTQ rights.

Our Rotary club features a speaker at every weekly meeting, an expert in politics, sports, business, public affairs, etc. One week, Erica invited Leslie Lagerstrom to speak.

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Leslie talked about her child Samantha, who at age 4 announced that she wasn’t a girl; she was a boy. Samantha’s assertions continued as the years went on. Leslie and her husband listened – and took their child to the University of Minnesota, where Samantha’s eventual transition to Sam was guided by world-renowned specialists. Today Sam is a successful Minnesota business professional, leading the life he was meant to have.


Leslie founded the organization Transparenthood. She speaks to educators, parents, and medical professionals about challenges facing young people and their families during gender transition and how to support individuals, families, and communities.

Leslie Lagerstrom
Leslie Lagerstrom
One of the young people in my family is a transgender woman, a journey she began when she was in college.

There is no good time and no smooth path. For many transgender people, life is extraordinarily difficult.

A pending case against the Anoka-Hennepin School District and School Board illustrates the bullying, isolation, alienation, and marginalization that many transgender youth and adults experience regularly.

N.H. is a transgender man who came out shortly before he began his freshman year at Minnesota’s Coon Rapids High School in 2015. Before N.H. started school, the principal and other staff assured N.H.’s mother that he would be safe and the school community would be respectful of his transgender status. N.H. joined the boys swim team and used the boys’ locker room with his teammates without any problems.

In February 2016 the School Board held a closed meeting and decided to prohibit N.H. from using the boys’ locker room that he had used for months.

His mother repeatedly asked the School Board to follow gender-inclusion policies like those of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools districts but the board refused, insisting that N.H. would be disciplined if he used the boys’ locker room. The School Board forced him to use a changing facility that no other student had to use.

This segregated N.H. from his classmates. He had been doing well academically and socially until the intervention from the Anoka-Hennepin School Board, which triggered bullying and threats from classmates.

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Many leave school

This harassment led N.H. to multiple hospitalizations for trauma, and he eventually switched schools, which Sam had also done. National data show that 78% of youth who express a transgender or gender non-conforming identity while in grades K-12 experience harassment, and that harassment is so severe that almost one-sixth had to leave school. Fully a third of the youth report physical assault.

The American Civil Liberties Union-MN and Gender Justice are suing the Anoka-Hennepin School District and its School Board for discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act and violating N.H.’s rights to equal protection and due process under the Minnesota Constitution.

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board’s policy regarding N.H. is much more than a local locker room issue, and it is not unique. The district was previously under a five-year consent decree to deal with allegations of anti-LGBTQ harassment following a different lawsuit after at least eight students committed suicide in two years.

Approximately 40% of transgender adults and youth will attempt suicide in their lifetimes. Experiences that amplify the risk of suicide for transgender people include alienation and marginalization, the lack of systems of support, and a lack of acceptance at school, in outside activities, and at work.

The U.S. context

FBI hate crimes data for 2018 showed a 34% increase in violent hate-based attacks on transgender people over the previous year. Yet, as of fall 2019, Minnesota is one of only 20 states and Washington, D.C., with laws that address hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
Only 10 states ban the “LGBTQ panic defense,” a legal strategy used to justify violent crimes against someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The accused perpetrator claims that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity explains and excuses the accused’s loss of self-control and the subsequent assault. The panic defense is legal in Minnesota despite legislative efforts to ban it in 2018.

Stand up for and with LGBTQ people in your neighborhood, your workplace, your school, and your faith community. Their lives just might depend on it.

You can learn more at a public Zoom program, “Challenges of Transgender Rights from the Holocaust to Today,” Tuesday, June 16, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Registration and information is here.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 

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