How to Ensure a Safe School Year for Michigan’s Transgender Kids

This week, our two youngest children boarded the bus for the first day of school. My husband, Pete, and I waved good-bye through the school bus window, and hoped that this school year will be as good as the last. That their school will continue to be a safe place where they feel comfortable being their authentic selves.

As a teacher myself for more than 20 years, I know these are the hopes of most parents. Our desires as parents and our children’s essential needs are universally felt despite the diversity of our families and our children. That is why I am so confused and heartbroken by the controversy surrounding transgender children. My son Jacq is transgender; assigned female at birth, but asserting insistently, consistently and persistently that he was a boy as soon as he could speak. After educating ourselves as parents through reading and visits with mental health professionals, Jacq socially transitioned to live as a boy at age 4.

More: 10 things you need to know about the new school year in Michigan
More: Michigan’s transgender community faces poverty, bias, study shows

The August before Jacq began kindergarten, Pete and I met with our school’s principal, Craig McCalla, whose life’s work is creating a school environment where all students feel safe.  McCalla worked with us to ensure that Jacq’s essential needs would be met, so he could focus on learning and developing lasting friendships. With such caring and inclusive educators, it’s no surprise Jacq loves school and is thriving academically and socially.

Unfortunately, not all transgender kids have quiet heroes disguised as principals leading their schools — a heartbreaking 82% of transgender youth feel unsafe at school, and with good reason.  Michigan’s LGBT students are surrounded by homophobic language and transgender slurs on a daily basis, often from the very teachers charged with educating them. Nearly all transgender youth have been verbally harassed at school, over half have been physically harassed (pushed or shoved), and 26% have been physically assaulted (punch, kicked, or harmed with a weapon).

With this painful reality, it is no surprise that transgender students are more likely to miss school, be less academically successful and have lower academic aspirations than their peers. Students whose main concern is maintaining their safety while at school simply cannot focus on learning.  Safety is a prerequisite for learning.

The daunting challenges of school, often coupled with lack of parental and/or community support can lead to depression, anxiety, self-harm and all too frequently, suicide.

The realities for transgender students may seem bleak, but they don’t have to be.

 Research shows enacting practices like those outlined in the Michigan State Board’s Guidelines for Safe and Supportive Learning Environment for LGBQT Students can reduce incidences of bullying and harassment, allowing all students to thrive. These practices include anti-bullying policies which specifically name sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.  They include enacting policies that allow students to use bathrooms and facilities that match their gender identity. Best practice also encourages the creation of affirming student clubs like Gay Straight Alliances.  Another integral component in creating safe and affirming schools is providing professional development for educators on creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students.

And guess what?  These inclusive policies not only benefit students who identify as LGBTQ, they have been shown to reduce bullying for all students. When parents and educators prioritize the value of diversity, our children and our students follow our lead.  As we prepare for another school year, we must remember that the need to be valued for what makes each individual unique is a universal need our children share. Our differences are the common thread that unites us and collectively make us stronger.

Sarah Tchoryk is an elementary school instructional coach. She lives in Dexter with her husband, Pete, and their children. 

A Letter To Texas On Spaceflight, Dreams And Transgender Kids

How many of our kids dream of going into space? How many dream of just getting through the next day?
As a kid of the 60’s, I’ve been inspired by NASA and the space program for as long as I can remember. It was the reason I went into engineering. I dreamed of endless possibilities.
But for many, the possibilities were far from endless. It was a daily struggle to survive. It still is.
I was born a couple weeks after Dr. King gave life to the Dream – and only a couple days before the horrific bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church and vicious murders that ended the lives of four little girls and two young boys.
As a nation, how do we reconcile our ability to land a man on the moon within a decade and our inability to end the systematic, violent oppression committed over centuries?
How is it possible for otherwise loving people to ignore the dehumanizing effects that result from segregating and isolating others? People who say they harbor no ill-will against the oppressed, but perpetuate a culture of ill-will.
Dr. King spoke of the strange paradoxes of a nation founded on the principle that all men were created equal, fighting to maintain a culture of institutionalized segregation and discrimination.
This culture persists today.
On what is being called “Discrimination Sunday,” Texas legislators would have made their Jim Crow-era counterparts proud. One of the bills passed by the Texas House, SB2078, includes an amendment preventing transgender K-12 children from using bathrooms matching their gender identity.
Perhaps we should not be surprised.
Bathrooms and public spaces were used like a weapon during the Jim Crow era, as segregationists preyed on fears that African Americans would assault white women and children or pass on diseases. Many of the same scare tactics used to justify segregating African Americans are being used today against transgender people, including children.
These scare tactics were used to great effect in Houston and North Carolina and adopted as a model by other states trying to pass anti-transgender legislation.
How is it possible states can pass this type of legislation despite the overwhelming evidence debunking false claims about safety?
This is not just about bathrooms. And we’ve been here before.
In her enlightening book, Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly introduced us to the extraordinary contributions African American women made to NASA and our space program. It was also a stark reminder of the culture of normalcy around segregation and discrimination that endured into the Space Age.
African American women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson made great contributions scientifically – and in breaking down barriers of segregation and discrimination. They took a stand.
I ask that the people of Texas take a stand – this time with transgender children and their families.
“All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation … ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. [MLK]”
Segregation and “separate but equal” are a thinly veiled rejection of the truth that we are all created equal. Segregation dehumanizes. It isolates and denigrates – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston spoke passionately against the legislation:
“White. Colored. I was living through that era…bathrooms divided us then, and it divides us now. America has long recognized that separate but equal is not equal at all.” “I can also tell you that separate restrooms for transgender kids, which is what we will be discussing for this bill, are also based on fear and not fact.”
Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of nine African American students who integrated Little Rock Central High School, told TIME that she agrees transgender children should be allowed to use bathrooms matching their gender identify:
“I grew up in a Jim Crow environment where you had one sign that said, ‘Colored’ and one said ‘White.’ Here we are looking at some of the same situations … To me, it’s just going backwards. I think that they should demand their rights.”
Thankfully, the lessons of the past are not lost on all.
Businesses including IBM, Dell, Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and many others recognize the value of diversity and signed a letter opposing this harmful legislation.
As a parent to a young transgender child and the CEO of an aerospace company, I appeal to the millions of companies and organizations in Texas and elsewhere to do the same.
To those who may have been silent about injustices in the past — it is never too late to speak out.
To those who may have made the wrong choice in the past — it is never too late for redemption.
And as we speak out against injustice, we know of a wondrous power:
“For nonviolence not only calls upon its adherents to avoid external physical violence, but it calls upon them to avoid internal violence of spirit. It calls on them to engage in that something called love … When I say ‘love’ at this point, I’m not talking about an affectionate emotion. It’s nonsense to urge people, oppressed people, to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. I’m talking about something much deeper. I’m talking about a sort of understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men … And isn’t it marvelous to have a method of struggle where it is possible to stand up against an unjust system, fight it with all of your might, never accept it, and yet not stoop to violence and hatred in the process?”
So now, through this redemptive power of love, we can dream of endless possibilities.
Peter and Sarah Tchoryk live in Michigan and have three kids and three grandkids. They strive to create meaningful opportunities for all kids — and fulfill the Dream.