LGBT Youth Considers How Life May Change Under 'RFRA Fixes'

Jan 29, 2016

Gay-Straight Alliance is a student organization advocating safety and rights of LGBTQ students. One chapter holds meetings at North Putnam High School.
Credit Gay-Straight Alliances / Facebook

For the second straight session, lawmakers are discussing the balance between religious liberty and protections for LGBT Hoosiers. There are a number of bills circulating and young members of the LGBT community are trying to figure out if their lives will improve if any of the so-called fixes are implemented.

“Sometimes people just hear what you’re yelling and they don’t listen.”

“And it makes me think I’ve taken it for granted.”

“It really can be a terrifying thing for us and it means a lot to us and our identity.”

Darvëll Barger, Emily Eltz and Jaxon, who asked we not use his last name, aren’t strangers to the kind of discrimination the Statehouse is addressing this session.

The North Putnam High School students are members of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and walk the halls as advocates for the LGBT community. Darvëll and Jaxon are transgender students in the eleventh grade and Emily identifies as a “straight ally.”

Jaxon calls the club a “safe space,” in a time some other areas aren’t.

“It’s a place of learning and it’s a safe place for me and it really means a lot to me in terms of being around people that I know accept me and being able to be myself completely,” Jaxon says.

There are three bills this session that deal with the issue of what’s a “safe space.”

Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Markle) authored two of the bills. The first protects Hoosiers from discrimination of grounds of gender identity.

Holdman says he didn’t speak with members of the LGBT community while drafting the bill, but knew of those who had.

“I did not personally with folks I knew of. I had discussions with folks sympathetic to the LGBT community and I don’t know to the best of me if those folks were gays or lesbians or transgenders as we talked,” Holdman says.

The bill prohibits discrimination in real estate, housing, education, public accommodations, employment, credit extension and public contracts based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Two practices the bill says aren't discriminatory include enforcement of a gender-normative dress code and establishing bathroom rules based on sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.

But IUPUI Law Professor Robert Katz such provisions still open the door to discrimination.

“Almost precisely where it makes the most difference – how you dress, does it reflect your gender identity and which restroom or changing facility do you use,” Katz says.

Student Darvëll Barger says he’s been turned away from a bathroom for looking more masculine than feminine – even before he started identifying as male.

“They told me to get out, that I’m not allowed in that restroom at that time,” Barger says. “Even though I told them multiple times, numerous times that I am a female, they told me, ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

Barger says if that kind of behavior is allowed by law, he worries future confrontations could get physical.

The other protections bill Sen. Holdman authored omits wording about dress code or bathroom rules and sends transgender protections to a summer study committee. It’s a bill neither side is happy about. Democrats say the issue doesn’t need more study, while evangelicals argue the rights shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) has introduced a similar bill that would grant LGBT protections with fewer carve-outs.

Gay-Straight Alliance member Jaxon says Holdman’s initial protection bill is forward-looking, but problems like the restroom debate would linger.

“That would definitely be something we’d have to work for along with this,” Jaxon says. “But, otherwise, I feel like this would be a good thing to pass and I think it would be a really huge step forward for the government, Indiana and overall.”

School GSA coordinator and North Putnam teacher Sheri Roach says while lawmakers figure out how to protect the LGBT community, she hopes schools like hers – which was the subject of scorn a few years ago when the school board initially ruled the Alliance could not exist – can lead the discussion.

“We know that when there are GSAs in a school that the bullying begins to diminish – not just for LGBT kids, but for all kids,” Roach says.

Jaxon, Emily Eltz and Darvëll Barger all say that would be a change for the better.