Fighter for Trans Youth: Priya Shah [People Issue 2019]

Priya Shah wants every child to be safe. Photo by Michael Ziobrowski

Professor Priya Shah became the pupil when lecturing during a gender-studies course at UC Irvine a decade ago. A trio of students approached her with LGBT Center letters in hand, asking her to use different names for them than those on the roll sheet. “What I didn’t understand was why that was so urgent or why other professors were saying no,” Shah recalls.

But that came with time.

Raised in San Ramon, Shah moved to Orange County to attend UCI herself, and she completed all her degrees there, earning a doctorate in 2008. Shah then taught at UCI, where she met the young activists who taught her everything about queer theory. One student stood out in particular: Christien “Glitch” Rodriguez, a gender queer undergrad who transitioned during the time they forged a friendship. But he took a leave from UCI in the fall of 2012, just a few credits shy of graduating.

And then, on March 8, 2013, Rodriguez flung himself from the Social Science parking structure. His suicide sent shockwaves through the campus. “What a loss,” Shah says. “This young, brilliant life cut short.”

Shortly after, she came across an article in Guernica magazine that placed trans life expectancy at 23, a benchmark Rodriguez made by only one day. Shah’s grief morphed into resolve. “It’s not up to cisgender people to identify the movement, but we can’t be on the sidelines,” she says. Shah wanted to do everything she could to prevent another such tragedy—only she didn’t know her biggest fight would also be closest to home.

One morning, Nicole, her second-born child who was assigned male at birth, walked toward her with something urgent to say: “Mom! I’m a girl.”

The revelation didn’t come as a total surprise; Nicole told her parents as much in other ways before her seventh birthday. “Because of what happened to Christien, I was so scared of what it meant,” Shah admits. “As a parent, you never want your children to struggle, to suffer. What we came to realize [was that] by not acknowledging it, that suffering would be so much more profound.”

The family found a therapist to help with Nicole’s transition. But classmates bullied her at Heritage Oak in Yorba Linda, and administrators wouldn’t recognize her transition—from preferred pronouns to school uniforms—in any meaningful way. And then, Nicole admitted to suicidal thoughts. “I didn’t send her back to school after that,” Shah recalls.

Instead, the family sued the private school, using Nicole’s full name in the complaint. The suit settled quietly last year; Shah can only state that both parties are content with the terms. But a quick look at the school’s website shows an updated anti-discrimination and bullying policy that now includes “gender identity” and “gender expression” protections.

Nicole, now 9, enjoyed a fairly tranquil third-grade year at her new public school, but the fight for trans rights continues. When not teaching gender and queer studies at Saddleback College and Cal State Fullerton, Shah is creating community. Last year, she organized “Our Stories OC,” an alternative book fair for youth in Yorba Linda that highlighted stories about autistic, refugee and LGBT kiddos. “Actually, that’s the work I love the most,” Shah says. “I hated the legal battle.”

It’s a small step in the creation of an inclusive world for all children, including her own.

“My dreams for both my daughters are the same, and that’s part of my dream for Nicole,” Shah says after a pensive pause. “I just want for them to take on the world but be secure in who they are wherever that takes them. I want that for every child.”

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