When Mike Currie was making the transition from being the girl he was born as to the boy he identified with, he found support in an unlikely place: within his school.
There, at Farmington High School, administrators did what a proposed policy being debated by the State Board of Education recommends: They made sure teachers referred to him as a male and that his student e-mail address reflected his male name — affirmation that was crucial to a teen going through a gender transition.
Now 16 and a junior, he said he didn’t think school administrators would be so accepting. Because of it, he said, his grades improved during that freshman year — from C’s, D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s.
“I wasn’t expecting them to be like, ‘OK … you obviously are distraught by this. We’re going to help make it better.”
The proposed state policy is aimed at ensuring that students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning their identity (LGBTQ) have a safe and supportive school environment.
But it has quickly become a lightning rod for debate, notably the parts of the policy related to transgender students.
Some Republicans lawmakers have strongly criticized it, particularly provisions allowing students to use restrooms and locker rooms that align most closely with their gender identity.
Others have taken issue with language allowing students to be referred to by the gender they prefer, whether their parents are aware or not. And many of those who have commented on an official website have taken the department to task for the proposal.
Schools increasingly are being confronted with the needs of LGBTQ students. And increasingly, those needs are raising sensitive issues. The guidance from the state is designed in part to combat data that show LGBTQ students are more likely to commit suicide, be bullied or drop out of school.
“It is a pretty active national conversation right now. It’s something that a lot of districts are looking at,” said Nathan Smith, director of public policy for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, a national organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students.
Already in Michigan, schools are providing training for their staff, designating gender-neutral bathrooms for transgender students who don’t want to to use the regular restrooms and updating their anti-bullying policies to ensure they cover sexual orientation and gender identity, state officials say.
“We’re pretty proactive with how we’ve been addressing things,” said Naomi Khalil, director of instructional equity for Farmington Public Schools. “We’re a community that prides itself on our diversity.”
The proposed guidelines are similar to what exists in other states. Massachusetts, the top-performing education state in the nation, and New York have issued guidance that includes examples of how local districts have addressed such issues. They include a school that installed curtains that could easily provide privacy for a transgender student who was given access to a female locker room, a school that went from separate-colored graduation gowns for boys and girls to one color for all and a school that honored parents’ requests that only a few people at the school know the biological sex of their transgender child.
The debate in Michigan schools mirrors debates reflected elsewhere.
In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory recently signed legislation that requires transgender people to use bathrooms that match their sex at birth and bars local communities from adopting anti-discrimination ordinances to get around the law.
Last week, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that would allow individuals, businesses and faith organizations to deny services to people based on religious beliefs — a bill many said would allow for discrimination against LGBT people.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has made it clear that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects transgender students. In December, the department’s civil rights division reached a settlement with a school district in Illinois, requiring it to provide access to girls’ locker rooms to a transgender student.
Lilianna Angel Reyes, youth program manager at Affirmations, an LGBT community center in Ferndale, said the proposed policy will ensure that LGBTQ students can be “authentically themselves.”
“This allows people to be safe and to be honored in who they want to be without having lot of red tape stop that,” Reyes said.
Affirmations works regularly with school districts across the region, including Farmington, to help them address the needs of LGBTQ students.
How districts have handled LGBTQ issues varies. Many schools have gay-straight alliances — clubs for students who raise awareness of LGBTQ issues. In Van Dyke Public Schools in Warren and Center Line, staff members are being trained on how to provide a safe and supportive environment, respectful ways for students to speak with one another, and respectful ways for staff to address inappropriate behavior by students, said Piper Bognar, an assistant superintendent.
In 2013, Ann Arbor Public Schools updated its nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Some of its schools have gender-neutral bathrooms as an option for students who prefer them. There, and in many other districts, the focus is on addressing LGBTQ issues on a case-by-case basis.
“We’ve worked intentionally and quietly and respectfully with families to make sure we meet the students’ needs,” said Andrew Cluely, spokesman for the district.
Peter Tchoryk remembers clearly the day his son Jacq took the final step in his transition from being the girl he was born. Jacq — formerly Jacqueline — was already wearing boy clothes and had a boy’s haircut. But on this morning, Tchoryk had asked his 4-year-old son whether he should tell day care staff to call him by his boy name. Jacq, who’d told his parents with no uncertainty when he was 2 1/2 that he was a boy, said yes. Then everything changed.
“All the angst, all the pain, instantly went away. It was immediate,” said Tchoryk.
Tchoryk and his wife, Sarah, had already made the difficult decision to allow their son to transition — a decision made after lots of research and trips to doctors and counselors. They were convinced that Jacq wasn’t just going through a phase, that he wasn’t just exhibiting signs of being a tomboy.
“We decided that there’s so much harm that can be done if you keep trying to keep a child that has their own identity in the wrong gender.”
A key part of Jacq’s transition has been his school, Cornerstone Elementary in Dexter Community Schools. Principal Craig McCalla, whom Tchoryk describes as “absolutely a hero,” knew little about transgender issues when the Tchoryks came to him months before Jacq started kindergarten. But he didn’t flinch from what could have potentially been a touchy issue, saying, “The principal’s job is to advocate and take care of all kids. All means all.”
He talked to teachers about Jacq, making sure they knew about his gender identity. He also is allowed to use the boy’s bathroom. Now in the second grade, Jacq freely talks to students about being transgender. Recently he asked his father to come talk to his class because some students just didn’t believe he’d been born a girl.
Tchoryk is a strong proponent of the Michigan Department of Education’s proposed policy, telling State Board members March 9 that it can mean the difference between life and death for transgender students struggling with their identity.
“We are very lucky,” Tchoryk said. “The problem is not everyone is lucky. Not everyone has a Craig McCalla.”
House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, is among those raising concerns about the proposed policy. Allowing students to change their gender identity at school, but without their parents’ knowledge, is wrong, Cotter said.
“Here we’re talking about students who are minors. Their parents have rights. In my opinion, they deserve to know if their child is changing their name and sexuality.”
LGBTQ advocates say it may be necessary in cases where students fear for their safety if their parents find out.
“That said, we do think when it is safe for that student to be out and affirmed at home, we think parental involvement is very important,” Smith said.
Cotter said it also would be an invasion of privacy if, for instance, a transgender student who is biologically a boy is allowed to use girls’ facilities. And he worries that having such policies would be abused by boys who just want to get into the girls’ locker rooms or restrooms.
“My hope is the board will reconsider and change course,” Cotter said.
The MDE, in response to the recent criticism, extended the public comment period until May 11.
Concerns similar to Cotter’s are echoed often at www.everyvoicecountsmi.org/, where people can have their say about the proposed policy. Nearly 6,000 comments had been logged by Friday evening, with opinions ranging from a parent who said, “We need to make the school a safe and comfortable place for all children including those who identify as transgendered,” to a teacher who said, “I believe this legislation will create many more problems than it will solve.”
Some critics say the state board should be focused on more important issues, an argument Zandra Gibson, 21, of Ferndale challenges.
“The suicide rates are kind of disturbingly high for LGBT kids,” said Gibson, who describes himself as a gay transgender male. “Are our lives less important than some of those other issues? We’re your future.”
Gibson, who regularly participates in programming at Affirmations, said the policy is just a first step.
Kourtney Hampton, 18, a high school senior who attends an alternative school in Ferndale, said training should definitely be done.
Hampton, who is bisexual, said that when she first came out in her early teens, girls would be scared to be in the bathroom with her out of fear she’d hit on them. Teachers did nothing to change that, she said.
“I’m not into every single girl in the world,” she said.
Another frustration, she and others said, is adults who tell them to “tone it down.”
“They say, ‘maybe you really shouldn’t be out there, maybe you shouldn’t be so comfortable with it,” Hampton said. “Why don’t you hide it? Why don’t you step back and stop being you?”
Jae’Lyn Ware, also a student at the alternative school, said there’s too much of a “kids will be kids” mentality surrounding bullying of LGBT students. What adults don’t understand, she said, is that kids who hear that message will continue to bully — even into adulthood.
“It excuses their behavior,” she said.
Taylor Little doesn’t get the controversy over whether transgender kids should be able to use the bathroom of their choice. To her, it comes down to one simple thing.
“At the end of the day … people just want to use the bathroom,” said Little, 17, a senior at Harrison High School in Farmington. She describes herself as queer, which she said means “not straight.”
Currie, the Farmington High student, said he usually avoids using bathrooms in school because he doesn’t feel comfortable in either the girls’ bathroom or the boys’ bathroom, and the gender-neutral bathroom is too far from his classes. Outside of his school, he said navigating life as a transgender teen can be stressful.
“If I’m in public … I have to look at the way I walk, I have to look at the way I talk, I have to look at the way I’m dressing. You have to think of every little thing. Can they see my chest? Can they see it’s not actually flat? Is my hair too long? Am I not passing?”
Despite that, he feels strongly about educating the public. He often tells classmates to come to him if they have questions or are curious.
“Nothing is off limits,” he said. “I would rather them be informed and know than have a bad misconception.”
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, firstname.lastname@example.org or @LoriAHiggins
A look at the state’s proposed policy
Here are some of the steps the policy would encourage local school districts to implement:
• Adopt and enforce policies that protect students from harassment, violence and discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.
• Provide professional development opportunities on issues affecting LGBTQ students to all district staff and school board members.
• Support the creation of extracurricular student-led clubs, such as gay-straight alliances or gender and sexuality alliances in middle and high school.
• Provide appropriate and meaningful family engagement and support.
• Encourage respect for the human and civil rights of all people, including those who are LGBTQ, throughout the curriculum.
• Provide developmentally appropriate information about LGBTQ issues in school libraries and in student and faculty resource centers.
• Designate a building-level staff member who is knowledgeable about issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
In addition, the document offers this guidance for schools:
• School staff should address students by their chosen name and pronouns that correspond to their gender identity, whether or not there has been a legal name change.
• When requested, schools should make a good-faith effort to change unofficial student records with the chosen name and appropriate gender markers to promote consistency among teachers, substitute teachers, school administrators and other staff.
• Students should be allowed to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, and alternative options such as an all-gender or single-user restroom should be made available.
• A student should not be forced to use a locker room that does not align with his or her gender identity. Locker room usage should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
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