Trans teen in small East Texas town has few options in her efforts to convince school officials to let her dress as a girl
WHITEHOUSE, Smith County —Sixteen-year-old Alexis Lusk says she’s been cross-dressing more subtly for about three years.
But one day a few weeks ago Alexis, a transgender female, took it a step further — donning a bra, a women’s blouse and ballet flats to accompany her flare jeans.
Alexis was called into the assistant principal’s office and told she was creating a disruption, even though there had been no incident. Not wanting to jeopardize her academic future, she agreed to remove the objectionable clothing and has been dressing like a boy ever since.
"All I really want to do is be myself," said Alexis, a junior at Whitehouse High School in East Texas. "I understand that in today’s world that’s complicated, but there’s a point where it’s not that complicated."
LGBT legal experts say federal courts have generally upheld trans students’ right to cross-dress at school, citing both first amendment protections for free expression and Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination. However, it’s difficult for trans students like Alexis to assert their rights in places like Texas unless parents are supportive.
Alexis indicated that her parents are only mildly accepting and would be unlikely to hire an attorney for her.
"If I’m not contacted by one of the parents, I’m not getting into it because I cannot risk a lawsuit over interfering with parental rights," said Phyllis Frye, a well-known transgender attorney from Houston.
A few years ago, Frye successfully fought the Fort Worth School District to allow a high school student to cross-dress. But Frye noted that the FWSD student had a supportive mother and was in a more progressive district.
Frye said another option would be for Alexis to seek emancipation from her parents.
"If she does that, that means she’s going to be out on the street," Frye said. "The other thing she can do is gut it out for another year. I’m not saying that’s a fun thing to do, but she’s only 16, and being on the street is a good way to die. … It’ s a really shitty situation."
Alexis agreed that emancipation isn’t viable. For one thing, she suffers from juvenile diabetes and relies on her parents for health care.
Ken Upton, a Dallas-based senior staff attorney for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said it’s hardly unusual for school administrators to react to cross-dressing by punishing the trans student.
"The schools just don’t get this," Upton said. "Instead of punishing the people who are disrupting, you punish the person who’s trying to exercise their rights. … We are seeing this more and more as students are starting to deal with this earlier and earlier and are less willing to take a lot of grief from administrators who are still in the last century."
Administrators at Alexis’ school didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Alexis said the assistant principal threatened to write her up if she’s caught cross-dressing again. She noted that the topic isn’t mentioned in the dress code, but she said she believes her assistant principal is relying on a provision that states, "Decisions on the appropriateness of school dress rest with the campus administration."
Upton encouraged Alexis to call Lambda Legal’s help line, but he noted the group would want to speak with one of her parents. He also warned that she could risk backlash from her parents, school administrators and the Whitehouse community.
"The law is really supportive, but the problem is that’s only part of the equation," he said. "You have to take into account the practical effect of raising a stink with the school."
Alexis said she isn’t worried about backlash — which is why she contacted Dallas Voice.
She said most people already know she’s trans, and her friends are supportive. In fact, this week several of them were tentatively planning to cross-dress at school in protest.
Alexis lamented that she won’t be able to wear a dress to her prom this weekend, because it’s a school function. She wants to become a pharmacist and a computer programmer, and she doesn’t want to risk getting in more trouble.
At the same time, she isn’t sure how long she’ll be able to toe the line. When she’s tried to give up cross-dressing completely in the past, it led to thoughts of suicide.
Alexis was debating whether to ask her mother about hiring an attorney. She said she hopes this article will draw attention to the issue and prompt school officials to reconsider their decision.
In addition to Lambda Legal, Dallas Voice provided Alexis with contact information for Youth First Texas.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 14, 2010.