Small Towns Making a Big Stand

Post also found on Medium.com and HRC.org.

Terri and Jaimie are moms who live in Grass Lake, MI. When you live in a town as small as Grass Lake, everybody knows your name. Especially when you’re as active in the community as Terri and Jaimie are. It’s what makes towns like Grass Lake special. It’s what makes towns like Grass Lake the kind of place you’d want to raise a family.

Grass Lake sits in between two somewhat larger cities, Jackson and Ann Arbor. In some ways, Grass Lake is probably representative of most rural areas in the country. Not a lot of diversity in terms of race and ethnicity. But it’s more diverse than anyone thought. Terri and Jaimie are both moms to young transgender kids.

What makes Grass Lake not so typical is that the School Board recently decided to allow transgender children to use the bathrooms matching their gender identity. And they made it clear, posting the policy on their website.

At the Grass Lake Community School Board meeting on Monday, over 100 people were present to make their voices heard. I attended the meeting, along with about 75 others in support of the school board’s decision. We heard testimony from parents who love their children, on both sides of the issue.

What always strikes me about these meetings is how passionate the community is – and how are ultimate goals are the same. We all want our children to grow up in a world where they can learn and live peacefully and productively. That is a starting point for collaboration.

What also strikes me is the level of uncertainty some people have over what will happen if schools are inclusive toward transgender kids and the larger LGBTQ community. We don’t have to guess what will happen. We have evidence from years of successful practice and the experience of school systems, educators, medical and health providers, social workers, and of course families. In fact, when you create a safe, welcoming environment for LGBTQ children, you make the school safer and more welcoming for every child.

Allowing transgender people to use the bathrooms matching their identity will not make bathrooms unsafe for others – the fears are simply unfounded. There is much evidence debunking these bathroom myths.

People don’t often stop to realize that transgender people, transgender kids have been around as long as everyone else – they have just been forced to keep hidden. They have been using the bathrooms, facilities, and public spaces just like you and me. Many schools across the nation are already complying with Title IX – transgender children have been using bathrooms matching their identify for years. This includes Michigan schools.

And there has been no surge in assaults in the over 200 cities and 19 states (plus DC) that have ordinances allowing transgender people to use the bathrooms matching their identity. I can tell you where there has been a surge in crime, and that is against the transgender community, especially transgender people of color.

In spite of the evidence, the debunking of irrational fears, and the real experiences of millions of people, some still insist on denying basic human rights — bathroom rights included — to the transgender community. What is more worrisome is the continued dehumanization of our transgender community at the highest levels of government, federal and state. The resulting fear and uncertainty can cause otherwise caring people to ignore the evidence and circle the wagons around their own children.

This is what makes our public schools unique – and so valuable. Their mission is to ensure every single child, even those living on the margins, have a safe and supportive learning environment. Separate bathrooms and segregating transgender kids does not provide them with a safe or supportive environment – it does just the opposite. It endangers them and it dehumanizes them, just like it did with our African American community. Just like it did with anyone who lives on the margin. And schools across the country have successfully managed privacy for all students while allowing transgender children to use the bathrooms and facilities that match their gender identity. But it does underscore the need for guidance and education on these topics, which is what we’re all about.

Gender identity and sexual orientation are on a spectrum, like so many other things in life. We know that gender identity manifests as early as two years old. And we have on-going longitudinal studies that show transgender kids are not making this up. There are results in the Journal of Pediatrics showing that supporting transgender kids in their identity lowers their risk of mental health problems to the same levels as the rest of the population. It may ultimately have an impact on the 40+% of the transgender community that attempt suicide.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and every major medical and mental health organization recognize that affirming a child’s gender identity is critical to their well being. Pediatricians also recognize that legislation like bathroom bills put our kids at great risk – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Allowing transgender kids to live authentically will not only make a better, safer world for them, it will make a better, safer world for all kids. It will not only make the world safer in terms of physical threats, but mentally and emotionally as well. And when we educate kids on the truth of transgender and gender expansive kids, every child will benefit, because every child has differences and needs to know they are valued. This is how we make a better world.

And when we consider the goals of our educational system to prepare kids for life and for meaningful, productive careers, think about this:  the majority of companies in our country also recognize the rights of transgender people to use the bathrooms and facilities that match their identity. Diversity powers innovation, enlightenment, and groundbreaking discoveries. It’s one reason why companies signed on to a Supreme Court “friend of the court” brief supporting transgender student Gavin Grimm and against the “bathroom bill” in Texas.

As we approach the start of another school year, schools across the country are grappling with transgender policy. The Department of Justice, Department of Education and the current administration have made the situation much more dangerous for transgender youth and the entire LGBTQ community with its recent rescission of school guidance and rejection of supportive policies for transgender soldiers and their families serving in our military. The lack of guidance has also made it more difficult for school systems trying to be inclusive toward the LGBTQ community.

The current leadership in the State of Michigan has not stood up for equality of all its citizens, opposing basic human rights for the LGBTQ community at every turn. But at the request of educators and parents, the Michigan State Board of Education (SBE) last year adopted guidelines for the Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for LGBTQ Students.

These guidelines are based on the best practices and input from educators, health and mental health providers, social workers, organizations dedicated to preventing bullying and sexual assault, attorneys, and many other who wanted a seat at the table. In addition, input was received from the public over numerous SBE meetings and an open forum on the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) website. While these guidelines are neither law nor policy, they provide a starting point for schools that want to ensure every child has a safe learning environment. Workshops and training are taking place throughout the state.

It always starts with education.

My wife and I live in a small town, too. Dexter, MI is not unlike Grass Lake, though much closer to Ann Arbor. Since we discovered our son was transgender, my wife and I spend much of our time trying to explain it to people, trying to educate. We feel fortunate that our eyes were opened by our son, because it was an awakening. An awakening to reality, the truth, and the daily struggles of those who are marginalized, either by birth or by society.

Though it’s difficult to see the world through another person’s eyes, we try to share this experience. We understand how difficult it can be, because it took having a transgender child to really open our eyes. Some people get it right away, especially if they or a family member are marginalized. For others it may take longer, and that’s why we continue to tell our story.

We commend our Dexter Schools and Grass Lake Community Schools for supporting and defending the well being of every single child – even those living on the margin. Stay strong – our kids need you.

Peter and Sarah Tchoryk are on the Human Rights Campaign Parents for Transgender Equality National Council and work with many families, schools, and companies to help create a world where every child can grow up to live peacefully and productively. Peter is the CEO of Michigan Aerospace and Advisor to the Springmatter Fund. Sarah is a 5th grade teacher in Brighton, MI. They have three wonderful kids and three grandkids — all unique.

OUR STORY

Our story begins like so many others. Our then 2-yr-old child began insisting he was a boy. This of course would not be unusual, except we assumed he was a girl based on gender assigned at birth. In most cases a good assumption. As soon as he could speak and express himself, however, it became clear that assumption was incorrect. We came to learn that the insistent, consistent, and persistent behavior of being a different identity is a tell tale sign. It is not a casual dislike of the clothes, hairstyle, name, and anatomy of the assigned identity. It is a desperate, despondent, and fierce rejection. One that threatened his life.

When it came time for Kindergarten, our Principal, Craig McCalla of Cornerstone Elementary in Dexter, MI, had no previous experience with transgender issues. But he assured us his job was to create a safe and supportive learning environment for every child. Every. Child. It’s why he implements solutions that protect the mainstream and majority of children. It’s why he implements solutions that protect even the smallest percentage of marginalized children.

Our schools very successfully explained to our son’s 2nd and 3rd grade classes what it means to be transgender in the context of all differences. Do you know what happened? The kids got it. They asked few if any questions of my son and instead talked about how they feel when their own differences are not honored.

You can do this because gender is completely separate from sexuality. It’s worth saying again – gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. You can do this because schools already teach about differences and diversity at age-appropriate levels. They already teach kids about their peers who may be of a different race or religion, or have learning or physical challenges, or a host of other differences. And as Adam Briggle, the dad of another transgender child, expressed so well, “I’ll tell Max (my son) as he gets older that his experience of gender is somewhere on the margins of society. But that’s all right. In fact, lots of great stuff happens on the margins.” That’s a message every child should hear.

Like Grass Lake, Dexter is a small town, too, though not quite as rural. We are thankful because our school board, Superintendent, educators and staff have all been extraordinarily supportive. After four years, the school system is more welcoming than ever before. They don’t just tolerate, they embrace. They provide training to help their staff become even more effective educators. They see the value in every child and actively work to help every child — even those who live on the margins. And it’s just the beginning.

IT STARTS WITH EDUCATION

Gender and sexual orientation are two different things. Many people are learning that both gender and sexual orientation are on a spectrum, like so many other things in life. We know that gender identity manifests as early as two years old. And in addition to the millions of people with personal experiences, we have on-going longitudinal studies that show transgender kids are not making this up. There are results in the Journal of Pediatrics showing that supporting transgender kids in their identity lowers their risk of mental health problems to the same levels as the rest of the population. It may ultimately have an impact on the 40+% of the transgender community that attempt suicide.

There is evidence and experience in welcoming schools around the country that demonstrate that allowing transgender kids to live authentically does not in any way threaten other children. In fact, when you create a safe, welcoming environment for LGBTQ children, you make the school safer and more welcoming for every child. Every child has differences.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and every major medical and mental health organization recognize that affirming a child’s gender identity is critical to their well being. Pediatricians also recognize that legislation like bathroom bills put our kids at great risk – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Of course, in spite of the evidence, the debunking of irrational fears, and the real experiences of millions of people, some still insist on a traditional binary definition of gender.

Allowing transgender kids to live authentically will not only make a better, safer world for them, it will make a better, safer world for all kids. It will not only make the world safer in terms of physical threats, but mentally and emotionally as well. And when we educate kids on the truth of transgender and gender expansive kids, every child will benefit, because every child has differences and needs to know they are valued. This is how we make a better world.

WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE

Our school systems have always been on the front lines of justice. From Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine integrating the first schools in the south, to the inclusion of physically challenged kids and those with learning challenges, and now today with transgender kids and the entire LGBTQ community.

But we know it doesn’t end there. After the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, states and communities still resisted integration and fought it tooth and nail. And when some gains had been made through efforts like the bus boycott, many white people called on the black community to slow down and not push so hard. They would say cool off and give everyone more time to consider things. Dr. King’s answer was essentially this, if we cool off any more, we’ll be dead. When people are dying as a result of injustice, there can be no more cooling off.

IT HAS NEVER BEEN JUST ABOUT BATHROOMS

Just like with segregation of African Americans, it was never just about separate schools or bathrooms. The separation of facilities is merely a symptom. It is not the underlying problem.

Many of the same justifications for segregating our African American population are being used today against our transgender community. It wasn’t long ago when many parents said white children would not be safe in a bathroom with black children because of the potential for sexual assault. Some still believe that today.

Many people said they had a right to privacy, white privacy, and did not want to be around black people in bathrooms or changing facilities. Or schools. Or churches. Or restaurants. Or waiting rooms, or busses, trains, theaters, or parks. It spreads quickly. And it doesn’t stop on its own.

African Americans also faced dehumanization by churches and faith-based organizations that used the Bible and pointed to many verses in scripture to justify segregation and even slavery.

When these arguments failed to keep hold, they morphed into arguments of safety and cultural inferiority, complete with false but widely disseminated scientific and philosophical arguments.

When even those arguments failed to hold, and after 100+ years of segregation, people simply dug in around Jim Crow laws. Unjust laws that defied our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the self-evident truth that we are all created equal. Many people saw the Civil Rights movement as a way for the African American community to get special treatment and even pointed out that they were, after all, only a relatively small percentage of the population.

The events in Charlottesville, VA and in many other parts of our country show how far we still have to go.

A DIFFERENT TIME, BUT THE SAME ARGUMENTS

I’ve sat in many school board meetings and have heard similar arguments. Instead of African American rights and segregation, it’s about transgender kids and allowing them to use the bathrooms in which they identify.

Some people say they love our transgender children, too. But they go on to say that providing for the wellbeing of a small percentage of transgender kids is simply too much to ask, too much of an inconvenience – even when the lives of our kids are at great risk. Even when a perceived inconvenience can be turned into a teaching moment that will make this world safer and better for all.

I guess we should not be too surprised, because there was a time when people used this argument against small percentages of many other kids. In addition to race, religion, and nationality, there is a depressing history of neglect, seclusion, and mistreatment of kids with physical and learning disabilities, kids on the Autism spectrum, kids with hearing or vision impairments, and kids with Down Syndrome, to name a few. We’ve been here before.

This is what makes our public schools unique – and so valuable. Their mission is to ensure every single child, even those living on the margins, have a safe and supportive learning environment. Separate bathrooms and segregating transgender kids does not provide them with a safe or supportive environment – it does just the opposite. It endangers them and it dehumanizes them, just like it did with our African American community. Just like it did with anyone who lives on the margin.

THE POWER OF DIVERSITY

So why help small percentages of marginalized kids in the first place? Why welcome kids who are marginalized into the mainstream? If the moral and social obligation is not enough for you, consider this – diversity is what powers life. You don’t have to be a scientist to see this. It’s evident all around us. Without diversity in nature, life ceases to exist.

Diversity also powers innovation, enlightenment, and groundbreaking discoveries – diversity not only in race, nationality, or culture, but diversity borne from different experiences. The experiences of marginalized and disadvantaged communities give them insights that those growing up in privilege will never have. It’s also one reason why organizations and companies value diversity and inclusivity.

And when we consider the goals of our educational system to prepare kids for life and for meaningful, productive careers, think about this:  the majority of companies in our country also recognize the rights of transgender people to use the bathrooms and facilities that match their identity.

Here are just the companies who signed on to a Supreme Court “friend of the court” brief supporting transgender student Gavin Grimm to use the bathroom of his identity, in G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board:

Here are the companies standing up against the “bathroom bill” in Texas, led by the likes of AT&T, IBM, Dell, Kimberly-Clark, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Texas Instruments, Apple, Google, and Facebook, and who have signed a letter to the governor:

These companies and many more will sign on to court cases in the future. And there are millions of small and mid-size companies around the country that are inclusive to transgender people and making their voices heard, too.

Our hearts go out to the kids whose parents refuse to understand the truth of being LGBTQ. Those kids are missing out on a great gift. When they enter college and then the workforce, they will learn that companies allow transgender people to use the bathrooms of their identity. They will learn that companies value diversity and inclusion and expect employees to honor differences. They will have LGBTQ coworkers and bosses, because our marginalized, disenfranchised kids will be tomorrow’s leaders and innovators, too.

Our goal is to give every child a chance to learn about the power of diversity, inclusiveness, and equity from a very young age.

It starts with education.

Peter and Sarah Tchoryk are on the Human Rights Campaign Parents for Transgender Equality National Council and work with many organizations, companies, and schools to help create a world where every child can grow up to live peacefully and productively. You can reach us by sending an email through the contact form at www.Springmatter.org and you can find more information about our story at http://embrace.today.