Britain Hall has been in Waco for three years. He’s been a barista at Dichotomy Coffee & Spirits for close to a year and has been married for three months. He moved from the Lubbock area after his father got a job in town. And so far, Hall has been enjoying his new life.
“It’s been good, but I think I’m a little too liberal for Waco,” Hall said. “I met my wife here and ended up staying. But I think we’re going to leave pretty soon to go to Denton. But I’ve met a lot of really cool friends in Waco, and it’s been a great place to work.”
But as a man who was born female, when he stops to think about transgender rights up for debate at the federal and state level, he said more could be done at the local level simply by showing a willingness to understand the transgender community.
This includes schools doing enough to protect students’ rights, especially after President Donald Trump’s administration lifted federal guidelines regarding bathroom use for transgender students Feb. 22, he said.
Trump’s administration will let states and local school districts interpret whether federal sex discrimination laws apply to gender identity, according to a letter distributed by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The decision at the federal level doesn’t look like it will kill a Texas bill that would force people to use public bathrooms in schools and state and local government buildings that correspond with their biological sex, according to multiple media reports. The Texas Privacy Act, or Senate Bill 6, sits in the Senate State Affairs committee for Texas’ 85th Legislature and is expected to be the subject of a public hearing Tuesday.
Last May, Midway and Waco Independent School District officials spoke up about how their districts would handle federal guidelines passed under former President Barack Obama’s administration. Since Trump’s reversal, officials with the county’s two biggest school districts have said they will wait to see what happens at the state level.
Work with students
“Right now, we just work directly with students for any kind of an issue, whether it’s transgender privacy issues or medical issues or anything like that,” Midway spokesperson Traci Marlin said. “We just work with students one on one to make sure they feel their needs are met and we work with their parents, and that’s been working for us. So we’re going to continue that for now.”
When the Obama guidelines were announced, Midway and Waco ISD officials said they were fielding many phone calls from parents about transgender issues, and both districts stated they were already following most of those guidelines.
Midway ISD officials said they would have had to change policies to comply with the new guidelines, but almost a year later, Midway ISD has clarified the stance. Marlin said if the guidelines had been an actual change in law, the district would have had to consider policy changes.
“We’re not going to need to change policy because we don’t have a written policy about it, and everything’s going just fine. We haven’t had any issues or any calls about it this year at all,” Marlin said. “We abide by laws and UIL regulations. So right now we don’t have a written policy, and there’s not a change needed either way.”
Waco ISD has a similar stance that it will maintain the status quo and watch the state Legislature.
“If we have a transgender student on a Waco ISD campus, we work with that child and their parents and address any concerns or questions on an individual basis,” Waco ISD spokesperson Bruce Gietzen said. “We will continue that practice, which to this point has been very successful at meeting the needs of all our students.”
Gietzen couldn’t say how many students in the district identify as transgender, citing privacy and nondiscrimination policies. The district’s nondiscrimination statement says Waco ISD is an equal opportunity educational provider and employer and doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sex or genetic formation.
‘Separate but equal’
States can take actions that protect transgender students, but Senate Bill 6 isn’t one of them, Hall said. And the decision to lift federal guidelines sends a message that the federal government doesn’t care about this part of the nation’s population, he said.
“It seems like there are individuals who do feel uncomfortable using certain restrooms, and so they’re kind of telling them they have an option to use a restroom that is in the nurse’s office or some alternative restroom that is single-stalled so they can use the restroom by themselves to feel safe,” Hall said. “My problem with that is, it’s separate but equal. That defeats the purpose, and they should be able to use the restroom of the gender they identify with. If I was a trans student and someone said, ‘So you don’t feel comfortable using those restrooms with the gender that’s on your birth certificate? You can use this restroom,’ it would make me feel like a freak or like I didn’t deserve to use the public accommodations everyone else does.”
An estimated 700,000 transgender individuals live in the U.S., according to a 2011 report from the Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles, which may be the latest data available. But a 2015 New York Times article states the transgender population is difficult to estimate for several reasons. The U.S. Census Bureau and other record keepers don’t ask about gender identity, and many gender identity distinctions don’t have clear definitions, according to the article.
“Texas is not very nice to LGBT people, especially right now to trans people,” Hall said. “I think a lot of people react the way they do, in the South particularly, toward trans people because they are afraid of them. They’re different, and they’ve probably never known a trans person. It’s easy for people to demonize other people when they haven’t had interactions with them or personally know them.”
To most, Hall still passes as a woman, he said. He keeps his hair long as a personal preference and binds his chest every morning to give himself a more masculine look until the day he can have reconstructive chest surgery. He’s been taking hormones for six months to start his official transition, he said.
“Now that my voice has started to drop and I’m starting to grow hair literally everywhere and becoming more masculine, it’s kind of frightening to say the least,” Hall said. “I don’t feel safe in men’s restrooms, just because I feel I would get harassed just because of how I look.”
Hall is supported for who he is at work, but he has an employee restroom available if he’s uncomfortable. However, this can still create a separate but equal mindset when he thinks about it, he said.
“It’s not about whether people should be afraid of trans people,” Hall said. “People should be talking about how trans people are afraid of other people.”
Hall grew up in a small town near the Panhandle, and he said the majority of Farwell, Texas, has probably voted straight-ticket Republican the past 40 years. Texas has been a Republican state for the past 40 years, last backing Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976, according to the Texas Tribune.
Beyond knowing others are either afraid or unwilling to learn about the transgender community, the hardest part for Hall is running into people who judge him before getting to know him, he said.
“I try to volunteer and contribute to society, try to educate myself and feel like I am an educated person,” Hall said. “A lot of people don’t realize I’m trans. They’re just uncomfortable with the fact that what they see me as an extremely masculine woman, even though that’s not how I identify. They automatically assume I’m a masculine female and are uncomfortable. You can usually tell by the way people look at you, and sometimes in public, people are confused why I’m so masculine.”
Hall hasn’t experienced much bullying in Waco, he said. The worst incident he’s faced was when a local pharmacy technician snickered and made snide comments behind the counter as he bought his hormone pills, he said.
Other than that, conversation about the transgender community doesn’t come up a lot, except on social media. He mostly stays away from negativity on Facebook, but saw a post recently on a transgender student-wrestler from Fort Worth. The comments were disheartening and ignorant, he said. People defined the student as “it” and stated “it” should be put into a mental hospital, he said.
“That’s the inherent problem people have, an idea of what should and shouldn’t be,” Hall said.
That’s also part of the issue with Senate Bill 6 and the Trump administration’s recent decision, he said.
But while it’s important to know the decision by Trump’s administration and Senate Bill 6 are connected, the two issues have separate ramifications and what local schools are doing right now is reasonable, InterWaco Chairwoman Carmen Saenz said. InterWaco is a local LGBT advocacy group affiliated with Equality Texas, the largest statewide organization dedicated to equality for the LGBT community.
“From what I know, our local school districts are making accommodations that seem fair to families and the administration,” Saenz said. “We have an active, vibrant transgender community here in McLennan County, from kids at 13 to adults in their 70s.”
The Trump administration’s recent letter rescinds guidelines clarifying that federal protections based on sex extend to transgender students, Saenz said. The letters from both administrations were only guidelines though, and don’t change protection laws already in place, she said.
“Our focus is now on watching the nominations and letting our national officials know we’re watching the nomination process for U.S. Supreme Court,” Saenz said. “That’s where it’s going to play out. Because, again, neither letter had the power of enforcement behind them.”
Shortly after his inauguration in January, Trump nominated appellate Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court position that has been open for more than a year, since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
And with the opening remaining, Trump’s new guidance may give the court “an easy out if they’re seeking to avoid a major ruling on transgender rights,” in a case from Virginia expected to be heard soon, according to the Associated Press.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a press release Feb. 22 praising the Trump administration’s guidance and saying the issue should be left to states. Republican Sen. Lois Kolkhorst filed SB 6 shortly before the legislative session started, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s support. Since filing, 14 others have signed on as co-sponsors, including McLennan County’s Republican Sen. Brian Birdwell.
Patrick also sent a press release after the Trump guidance was published, praising its embrace of state control.
But Hall said the bathroom bill battle is just a pawn. The debate is more about the rights of transgender people to exist in public space, he said.
“If you take away access to public accommodations, you’re telling trans people they don’t need to be public because they can’t use those accommodations everyone else is using,” Hall said. “People should be treated equally to do whatever they want to do. I don’t know any trans people who go into restrooms to harm other people. Trans people have enough anxiety about passing as the gender they feel like they are in public restrooms without having some sort of violent act toward another person. I personally feel trans people are portrayed as child molesters or there’s something wrong with them, or they’re sexual deviants, and that’s simply not the case.”
Certain issues shouldn’t be left up to states, and transgender rights fall into that category, Saenz said. The role of the federal government is to protect the rights of the minority against the will of the majority when that will would take rights away, Saenz said.
“If it were left up to states, there would still be states where interracial marriage would be illegal, and race wouldn’t be a protected class,” Saenz said. “Both, too, had federal rulings to act on.”
While officials wait to see what happens on the state level, Saenz said InterWaco has a strong relationship with the city and county governments. She knows her group can always turn to community leaders if there’s an issue, she said.
“The reality is, the transgender people have been using the bathroom for years and years and years, and it’s never been an issue,” Saenz said.
No matter how the bathroom debate pans out though, Hall said he isn’t going stop telling his story. The right to use a public restroom is too important to not talk about in the face of a much larger issue, he said.
“There are trans people here. It’s not just happening in big cities or places that are more liberal. There are trans people everywhere. They’re just afraid to come out or they’re afraid of rejection or hatred or literally being killed because of it,” Hall said. “Because people still get killed for being trans. To me, people need to know trans people are normal, and they could be making your coffee every morning. They literally could be the people you interact with every day.”