(The following excerpt from For Transgender Students, Schools Craft Policies Of Support by Angie Leventis Lourgos that recently appeared on chicagotribune.com can be viewed in its entirety by clicking on the link below.)
The eighth-grader fidgeted nervously during an impromptu meeting with the principal of Haven Middle School in Evanston just before the start of first semester.
While classmates and teachers had long known the student as a girl, the 13-year-old actually identified as a boy and was starting to make that transition. He explained that he’s transgender and asked to be called Avery from now on instead of Sarah, the name on his birth certificate.
Principal Kathleen Roberson commended him for his bravery and openness. Avery was shocked.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really heard about a positive reaction from a school,” he recalled. “I was so scared she was going to be like ‘no, you can’t do that.’ ”
Avery Kaplan is Haven’s first openly transgender student, so he, his supportive mother and Roberson crafted a plan. It included staffwide diversity training, specific instruction on transgender issues for his core teachers, meetings with the school psychologist and — at his request — a private space where he felt comfortable changing clothes for physical education class.
Schools across the Chicago area and the nation are grappling with these kinds of decisions as they address the needs of students who don’t fit typical gender norms, with policies spanning a spectrum of tolerance and support. While there are no definitive statistics on transgender students in the Chicago area, about 0.5 percent of adults identify as transgender, according to a Massachusetts phone survey published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2012.
Chicago Public Schools in October adopted its first guidelines for supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students. It includes affirming the right of students to wear clothing, attend classes and use names and pronouns that reflect the gender they identify with; restroom and locker room use are determined on a case-by-case basis. CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said all schools will be trained on the guidelines.
But sometimes even well-meaning educators can go awry. East Aurora School District officials about two years ago approved anti-discrimination rules that included allowing transgender students to use locker rooms and bathrooms of their identified gender, but rescinded it just days later in the wake of community backlash. The policy was pulled on Spirit Day, a day when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender supporters wear purple to take a stand against bullying, though school officials said the timing was coincidental.
And nationally, the LGBT community was livid when Kentucky lawmakers recently attempted to pass legislation that would have forced transgender students to use separate single-stall bathrooms and locker rooms while barring them from facilities that correlate with their gender identity, though the bill died in March.
While this relatively new area of school policy can be controversial, advocates for transgender youth stress that school support is critical to the safety and emotional health of this group often referred to as the minority within the LGBT community.
“Take away the politics or the emotions people might feel about transgender individuals and let’s boil it down to something that I think every parent can understand,” said Dr. Robert Garofalo, pediatrician and co-director of the Gender and Sex Development Program at Lurie Children’s Hospital. “And that’s that every child deserves to go to school in a safe and nurturing environment.”
As for Avery, he said he’s more excited to go to school since coming out. He walks more confidently through the halls of Haven this year, his blond hair cut short and swept to the side, his gray eyes framed by unisex glasses.
When a few classmates have made rude inquiries about his gender or questioned why he’s singing with the boys in the school play, Avery said he simply responds “because I am a boy.” Close friends who dubbed themselves the Avery Defense Squad are quick to correct anyone who addresses him with the wrong pronoun or his former name.
He started the year using single-stall bathrooms that are open to anyone at school but recently began going to the boys restroom, which he said hasn’t been an issue.
And Haven formed its first gay-straight alliance this year. Co-sponsor and school psychologist Allina Nikolopoulou said Avery was the catalyst for the club, which now has about a dozen consistent members.
“Avery has been very thoughtful in helping us transition as well,” Roberson said. “I think we had more anxiety at the beginning of the year, just not knowing. As soon as we got into it a month or so, Avery is just Avery.”
The one glitch came in the fall, when he was proud to make the honor roll but dismayed to read his old name, Sarah, on the certificate.
“I felt a little rejected,” he said.
He was gratified that school officials fixed the problem when he made the honor roll again in March. And Roberson said he will receive two diplomas when he graduates in June — one with the old name because it’s still his legal identity, the other honoring him as Avery.
“This year is the first year that I transitioned; I kind of want to remember that,” he said. “And now I’ll have a diploma with my name on it.”
The pronoun cup
Teachers and administrators milled around the hallways during a break at a seminar in Naperville in late February, chatting about everything from single-stall bathrooms to appropriate pronouns to gender-neutral uniforms.
The conference, called “A Day in the Life of Transgender Students,” explored policies and cultural changes to promote transgender inclusion in elementary, middle and high school, sponsored by the Naperville Community Network for Professionals Serving LGBT Youth. It was the third-annual seminar of its kind, attended by roughly 150 educators from 23 school districts in DuPage, Kane, Cook and McHenry counties.
A kindergarten teacher asked for advice on how to respond when parents would ask whether a student was a boy or a girl, because the child was consistently bucking gender stereotypes. One participant lamented how even innocuously starting the day with “hello boys and girls” can be rough for kids who aren’t sure where they fit.
A west suburban mom spoke of her son who is now in college, noting that it was a third-grade teacher who persuaded the mom to stop forcing her son to wear “girl” clothes, and it was a fifth-grade teacher who explained to her that her child was transgender.
“You educate the parents as you educate the kids,” she said. “You are the front line.”
Then a student spoke of the pain of living in a body that seemed foreign.
Adam Beaty, a junior at Naperville North, came out at school last year. He said he contemplated switching schools to make a clean break, but he decided to stay after a transgender friend at another school reported being bullied so badly that he dropped out.
In an interview at his Naperville home, Adam said he’s glad he stayed. He found a strong ally in his school nurse. After he came out, he said she took a little paper cup and labeled it a “pronoun cup,” agreeing to pay him a dollar for every time she messed up and called Adam “she” or “her.”
“It wasn’t like she cared about the money,” he said. “I didn’t care about the money. It was just the fact that she realized it was so important.”
Adam used to wear an elastic binder that flattened his chest before he had “top surgery,” the surgical removal of breast tissue, in December. When the binder’s constriction caused him too much pain to run the mile in gym class, he said the nurse understood and wrote him an excuse note.
He’s had his name legally changed. His voice is deep due to regular testosterone injections; his brown hair is cut short and a scruff of beard lines his jaw.
Blue and pink
Adam said sometimes he’s had to be his own advocate, like the day he said an administrator told him he couldn’t use the boys restroom because another student felt uncomfortable.
“I told him ‘I’m going to use the guys’ bathroom.’ And they just kind of stepped off,” he said, adding that no one has reproached him since.
Spokeswoman Michelle Fregoso said school officials weren’t aware of the circumstances of that incident. She said the school doesn’t have a policy on the matter, but decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. She added that the district hosted a speaker to talk to staff last month about transgender youth, and staff members have had previous training on LGBT issues.
“Accommodations are made by working with students and their families for the best, most appropriate outcome given the circumstance,” she said. “Our objective is always for all our students to have a supportive environment in our schools.”
The Illinois Human Rights Act protects students from discrimination based on gender identity, but there hasn’t been a case in Illinois that specifically addresses bathroom and locker room use, so the law needs clarification, said Owen Daniel-McCarter, policy and advocacy director of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.
But Daniel-McCarter believes that under the act students should be allowed to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity and cites a 2014 Maine Supreme Court case that ruled a public school discriminated against a transgender girl by barring her from using the girls bathroom and requiring her to use a unisex staff restroom.
In Illinois, about 80 percent of adults who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity reported harassment in school, and 33 percent said they were physically assaulted in school, according the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Ten percent of survey respondents said harassment was so severe that it led them to leave a K-12 school or higher education.
Adam said he’s lost some close friends since coming out — including one who started calling him “It.”
“A lot of people avoided me,” he said. “They just didn’t want to have to deal with it, so they didn’t.”
But his mother, Liza Beaty, pointed out that he’s also gained “a truer class” of friends.
Adam has a girlfriend now. They’ve been dating for about four months. He said his gender identity isn’t really a big deal in their relationship.
“As a society, we’re so programmed to think in pink or blue,” he said. “It’s so hard to break out of those binaries and realize there’s more than that.”