During a period between semesters of my freshman year of college, students were obligated to volunteer in an area of interest. My interest at the time being my boyfriend (misguided, but true) who was at Harvard, I finagled a position as a teacher’s aide in a second-grade classroom at a private day school in Cambridge known for its devotion to the arts, multiculturalism and diversity.
On my first day in the classroom, I met 8-year-old Clare. He was funny, bright, obstinate — all "snips and snails and puppy dog’s tails." I remember thinking his name was unusual, but chalked it up to family history; maybe his parents came from Ireland.
A few days later, the classroom teacher pulled me aside at recess with a "let me educate you" look. "So ..." she said, pausing. "So ... I think maybe you ought to know this: Clare is a girl."
She explained that Clare had insisted from early childhood that he was a boy and Clare’s parents had allowed their child to dress and act in a way that felt most natural. The other kids had both accepted that Clare was a "she" and also that Clare dressed and behaved like the other boys in class. They’d also learned that calling Clare a girl was the only way to upset their classmate — so they didn’t.
The year was 1974 and in my admittedly sheltered experience, I’d never heard of such a thing. Tomboys, sure — my sister was one of those — but this was different. I couldn’t let it go so easily.
"But what will Clare do as an adult?" I asked awkwardly. "What will she ... um ... he ... become?" The teacher smiled and patted my arm. "I’m sure Clare will find a place in the world," she said.
Last weekend, for the first time in decades, I wondered whether Clare had ever found that place. I was at the Suncoast Youth Shine 2018 at Venice High School, a first-ever summit that brought together local high school GSA leaders (that’s Gay/Straight Alliance or Gender/Sexuality Alliance), as well as teachers, parents, fellow students and social workers with an interest in supporting LGBTQ youth. Hosted by ALSO Youth, the daylong session was meant to strengthen connections and strategize ways to create a safer and more supportive environment for gender-diverse students.
Nathan Bruemmer, ALSO's executive director started with a story about a first-grader he’d recently met who introduced himself simply as Cooper, "a boy who likes to wear dresses." "That was it — he didn’t know or need a label," Bruemmer said. "And his class loves and accepts him."
But for children like Cooper and Clare, between the innocence of early childhood and the antagonism of middle school, that acceptance can turn to exclusion — and often, much worse. Students who identify as being of a minority gender identity or sexual orientation — as many as 15-20 percent of the total population — are two to three times more likely to be bullied (in person and online), physically attacked and persecuted. That, in turn, leads to higher risks of suicide, depression, homelessness, drug use and dropping out of school.
At a time when, in the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy, all attention has been drawn to keeping students safe, LGBTQ students are being wounded every day by a barrage of "microagressions," Bruemmer said, from comments like, "That’s so gay!" or (after a discriminatory slur) "It was just a joke!" Worse, sometimes the aggression is macro.
"All youth need safety and love and the benefit of an inclusive environment," he added. "We have to create a more supportive environment and open a dialogue to get past these hurdles."
One of those obstacles is the current political climate. There are still 34 states in which someone can be legally fired from a job for being openly transgender and 29 where being openly gay can be cause for dismissal. In early 2017, Obama-era federal guidance on schools’ obligations to LGBTQ students was withdrawn, allowing 14 states to consider legislation to limit transgender students' rights.
Locally, when Pine View School changed its policies regarding bathroom use in 2016 after former student Nathan Quinn, who is openly transgender, was denied use of the men’s bathroom, school administrators were quick to assert the decision was "not a districtwide policy."
"Everyone is afraid of this issue because it’s been politicized," said Camille Chapman, an educator with SPARCC (Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center). "But safety is not a political issue."
As with same-sex marriage or the legalization of marijuana, "making a paradigm shift will take time," Bruemmer said, "but we are in that process." Recently, his organization provided "Ally 101" training to support staff at Sarasota County Schools and 11 teachers at Venice High voluntarily underwent unpaid training to become visibly identified mentors, committed to "changing the culture" at the school. School board member Shirley Brown, who attended the morning session, urged students to begin a "#MeToo movement of your own."
Here are a few other suggestions: Have all students participate in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, to collect accurate data on the numbers and needs of our local LGBTQ population. Augment district policies on harassment and bullying, which currently sidestep use of any LGBTQ language. Find a sponsoring teacher for Sarasota High, the only local high school that lacks a GSA group. And, as at Venice High, train a dozen educators in every school who will be visible allies, so students always have someone to turn to for help.
As for those of us of a certain age whose identity corresponds with the sex we were assigned at birth (that’s cisgender) and who grew up unaware or unaccepting of other orientations, it’s time to enter the 21st century. Reflect on your attitudes and assumptions, educate yourself about labels and language, consider the visible or verbal cues you emit and acknowledge your harassment-free privilege. Most of all, be aware you can never assume someone’s gender identity just by looking at them.
For some, these adjustments may not be easy. Even though I strive to accept and respect all people, I’ll admit using "they" to describe a single person who identifies as neither male nor female grates against my grammatical integrity. When I mentioned this to Hal Trejo, director of ARAY (All Rainbow and Allied Youth) in Charlotte County, whose card requested the use of "they/them" pronouns, they had a ready answer.
"When people argue with me about it," said Trejo, "I just say, ‘To each their own.’ That pretty much ends the discussion."
Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.