Wisconsin Judge Obstructs Trans Students’ Rights to Be Recognized

A controversial ruling in Wisconsin has placed this topic squarely back on our collective table, demanding our attention and action.

In Waukesha County, Circuit Judge Michael Maxwell chose to stand in alliance with parents who, instead of embracing their child’s journey, decided to sue the Kettle Moraine School District back in November 2021. Their gripe? The school district dared to use the student’s chosen name and pronouns without seeking parental consent – a clear indication of respecting the student’s gender identity and expression.

Cue the outrage from Erin Reed, a transgender activist, who accurately dubbed this ruling as “Horrific…This is compelled speech and forced outing of trans youth.” Indeed, the apparent demand for parental control over a young person’s identity expression demonstrates a crushing blow to the progress we’ve seen in recognizing and respecting trans identities.

Zooming out, the parents were represented by two conservative legal entities: the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). WILL has quite the record in its opposition to gender-affirming policies, championing anti-trans “parental bill of rights” legislation, while also crafting a model policy that could stamp out the usage of preferred names and pronouns without guardian approval.

As for ADF, they’ve been flagged by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, actively supporting a variety of regressive and harmful policies towards LGBTQ+ individuals. This ranges from advocating for the decriminalization of consensual LGBTQ+ acts, defending enforced sterilization of trans folks in different nations, and perpetuating harmful and unfounded stereotypes about the LGBTQ+ community.

In stark contrast, other judges nationwide have leaned into a more affirming stance regarding gender-identifying policies for trans students. An enlightening example comes from U.S. District Judge Mark G. Mastroianni, who so eloquently encapsulated the essence of the matter: “Addressing a person using their preferred name and pronouns simply accords the person the basic level of respect expected in a civil society…”

The stakes here are not just societal norms or conservative values versus liberal ones. It’s a matter of life and death for some. The Trevor Project highlights that just about half of transgender and nonbinary young individuals regard their school as gender-affirming, but those in supportive environments report significantly lower suicide attempt rates. Moreover, a 2018 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health illustrates a sharp contrast in mental health between trans students who can use their chosen name and those who cannot – revealing a drastic reduction in symptoms of depression and suicide attempts in the former.

In the midst of this, Cameron Overton, executive pastor at Zao MKE Church in Milwaukee, shares a personal perspective: “As a trans person myself, I know that it was really important for people to see me the way that I always had seen myself as a child.” It highlights a universal truth, that having our identity recognized and respected is vital in forming healthy relationships with ourselves and the world around us.