By Emma Niles

Ted Cruz at his rally in Frederick, Md. (screenshot via CBS News)

James Van Kuilenburg wanted to learn more about Ted Cruz’s politics firsthand, so he and his mother ordered tickets to a Cruz rally in Frederick, Md., on Thursday. Van Kuilenburg, a 16-year-old transgender student, arrived at the rally wearing a trans pride flag draped on his shoulders. Before the rally began, he joined a handful of peaceful protesters outside of the event. His homemade cardboard sign read “HUMAN RIGHTS ARE NOT UP FOR DEBATE.”

When the rally began, he left his sign outside, and he and his mother took their seats. But, Van Kuilenburg says, before they “even had a chance to see Cruz,” he was tapped on the shoulder and a member of Cruz’s staff asked Van Kuilenburg to leave. Van Kuilenburg wrote about the ensuing incident on Facebook:

The campaign staff member kept holding on to me, saying the “event staff were asking me to leave.” I then asked what the reason was, but he only repeated himself. When I asked for a reason again, he told us to follow him to the event staff. As we were walking down the aisle, I approached the press, telling them that I was being kicked out. The staff that were following us grabbed me again, and told me “ma’am I need you to cooperate and not shout.” I corrected him, telling him that I’m a boy, and he briefly apologized. When we met with event staff they told us that because we were in a private event, they had grounds to tell us we were “trespassing.” We explained that we reserved tickets, and they then went on to explain that they had “observed us taking part in a event outside.” I explained that we had been standing peacefully and caused no disturbance but they would not listen. We were then pushed out of the venue. When trying to explain what had happened to the Cruz volunteers outside, they laughed at us.

Van Kuilenburg also shared a brief audio clip of his interaction with Ted Cruz’s staffers:

In it, a staffer can be heard asking Van Kuilenburg and his mother to leave, citing “an incident” that the two were a part of prior to the rally. Cruz staffers removed them despite the fact that Van Kuilenburg’s earlier form of protest had been entirely peaceful. “When I asked for a reason for being kicked out, they told me I was part of an earlier incident outside,” Van Kuilenburg repeated to Truthdig. “I had held a sign peacefully on the edge of the street a few minutes before entering the venue. My signs were also peaceful. We placed them outside before went in. We followed every rule the campaign had, and had the strict intention of sitting in the event peacefully and listening.”

James Van Kuilenburg outside the Ted Cruz rally in Frederick, Md. (via Facebook)

Van Kuilenburg was forced to leave before Cruz spoke at Frederick’s Weinberg Center for the Arts, but he probably would not have liked what he heard. The Republican presidential candidate took the stage to lambaste Donald Trump’s recent remarks on North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill,” which was approved by Gov. Pat McCrory in March.

Trump recently expressed his opposition of the bill, noting the economic consequences of the law (companies such as PayPal have pulled out of doing business in the state since the law passed). Cruz, currently behind Trump in the race, jumped at the chance to attack Trump’s position. At Thursday’s rally in Frederick, he said:

Gosh, he thought that men should be able to go into the girls’ bathroom if they want to… Here is basic common sense. Grown adult men, strangers, should not be alone in bathrooms with little girls.

Additionally, on the day of the Frederick rally, Cruz’s official Twitter account was filled with original tweets referencing the “bathroom bill:

Although the bathroom aspect of House Bill 2 is receiving the most attention from conservatives, it infringes on transgender rights in more ways than just preventing transgender people from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. The Transgender Law Center writes:

The law forces transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities inconsistent with the gender they live as every day, putting student lives and billions of dollars in federal funding under Title IX at risk. The law also eliminates existing and prohibits future local non-discrimination protections for LGBT people and any local regulation relating to compensation, such as increasing the minimum wage or providing sick leave.

Cruz’s rhetoric in Maryland reflects his desire to single himself out as the truly conservative candidate and pull more support away from Trump. But while it may be a political move on Cruz’s part, this language has drastic consequences for the transgender community, as it encourages disrespect and even violence. More than 25 percent of transgender people have “faced a bias-driven assault,” reports the National Center for Transgender Equality, and that number is much higher for women—especially women of color.

Laws like North Carolina’s HB 2 have specific consequences, as shown by a 2013 study by the Williams Institute: 70 percent of transgender participants reported that they faced some level of discrimination while trying to use the restroom, and 54 percent reported serious health consequences (such as kidney infections) because they avoided or were denied access to restrooms. Transgender students, like Van Kuilenburg, may face a “health crisis” as a result of North Carolina’s bathroom bill. The Washington Post writes:

Currently, six U.S. states — Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — are considering, or have recently passed, “bathroom bills” that make it illegal for transgender Americans to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. Republicans have promoted these bills in the hope of energizing their conservative voting base in the November elections…

But even if these bills are ultimately ruled unconstitutional and overturned, they may still affect public health. Policies and people, like disparities and discrimination, do not exist in a vacuum but are part of encompassing institutions, structures and environments. Anti-LGBT legislation has serious and enduring consequences, not just in overt actions but also the messages sent to LGBT people. These bills send negative signals and stir up a frenzy of negative attention. That risks increasing suicide and self-harm among already fragile transgender adolescents.

Van Kuilenburg felt the effects of Cruz’s transphobic position firsthand when he attended the Frederick rally. He spoke with Truthdig about the “overwhelming experience” of being in an oppressive climate:

I was singled out in a crowd based solely my gender identity. … I was completely peaceful inside, and I interacted with no one but my mom and my phone. The response I received from the Ted Cruz campaign staff was both incredibly aggressive and unnecessary. The level of disrespect was astounding, and something I want people to know. I’m only a teenager and yet the Republican Party and the Cruz campaign believed me to be a threat. They hated me without even knowing me. … I have a strong interest in politics and as a trans teen, they have a big influence on my life. I was condemned for sitting there and doing nothing.

Kuilenberg’s mother shared her support of her son with Truthdig, saying, “I am very proud of my son and the courage it took to sit a room full of people who deny his very existence. James’s primary goals were to learn, and gain a better understanding of the Cruz campaign (particularly its rhetoric against trans teens), and to bring visibility to the trans community.” However, she added, “before he could accomplish any of these goals, he was forced out by campaign staff.”

The other protesters who held their ground outside of the Cruz rally were compelled to do so for a variety of reasons. One woman noted that Cruz was “a really terrible person,” while another man, holding a sign reading “Ted Cruz the Christian Carpet Bomber,” stated that Cruz is “an extremist and a huge hypocrite.”

Truthdig reached out to the Ted Cruz campaign about the incident but has not received a response. Although Van Kuilenburg will not be able to vote in Maryland’s primary Tuesday, he wants others to know how the Cruz campaign (and its supporters) sees the transgender community. “I never even got to see Ted Cruz,” Van Kuilenburg says. “The only thing I learned from this is that he thinks I’m a second-class citizen.”

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