Back in January, a Peninsula School District principal was searching for information after a student came out to them as transgender. Without any guidance from the district on transgender issues in schools, the principal was seeking help to make sure the student could get on with the business of learning, free from harassment and discomfort.
The district’s diversity committee set to work on the issue and has now crafted a policy that will make peninsula schools more accepting of transgender students.
Transgender is a term that describes a person whose gender identity or expression is different than the gender identity traditionally associated with their sex assigned at birth. Gender identity is a term used to describe a person’s personal and internal sense of gender, i.e. a man, a woman or outside the gender binary.
District officials say there are transgender students at all levels of education in the Peninsula School District, elementary, middle and high school.
Nationwide, transgender students are more likely to be verbally and physically harassed at school, according to a 2006 National Education Association study. They are also more likely to miss school due to safety concerns and less likely to go to college.
Eighty-four percent of LGBT students, which includes transgender students, reported verbal harassment because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, according to the study.
Thankfully, these are things Kai Shultz, 14, has never experienced in PSD schools. However, for Phoenix Crooks, 15, issues with bullying and harassment have made his trip through school difficult. Both are transitioning from female to male.
Phoenix will start his first year at Henderson Bay High School this week after spending freshman year at Peninsula High School. Kai is currently a freshman at Peninsula.
An incident that Phoenix remembers is overhearing a group of teachers talking about him after he approached them regarding his transition. During the conversation, a teacher used his birth name and referred to him as “being a ‘them’ now.”
“It was dehumanizing,” Phoenix recalled, “because I’m not a ‘them,’ I’m a human being who uses they (and) them pronouns.”
The new policy being considered by the district will provide staff with training and professional development in order to prevent issues of harassment and discrimination.
Asking questions, finding identity
For Kai, the realization that he was transgender came from meeting another transgender student. As the two got to know each other, Kai came to realize that there was a word to describe what he was going through. He came out as transgender while in seventh grade at Harbor Ridge Middle School.
“I was like, ‘Oh, so that’s what it’s called,’” Kai said.
However, before learning more about being transgender, Kai had difficult questions for himself about his identity. He felt isolated and alone.
“I just felt abnormal. I didn’t know it had a name,” he said.
It is a similar story for Phoenix, who had come out as a lesbian before realizing that such a term as transgender existed when he went to an LGBTQ camp. On his way home from the camp, he came out as transgender to his mother, Diane Crooks.
When Kai came out to his family, he said he felt welcomed by his parents. He appreciates being in a family that accepts him, which is not something all transgender youth experience.
The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates 20 to 40 percent of the 1.6 million homeless youth nationwide are transgender. The center cites family rejection, discrimination and violence as major factors in transgender youth homelessness.
So in the face of those facts, Kai feels blessed to have a loving home. The feeling is mutual with his parents.
“We feel lucky that he’s our kid,” his mother, Laurel Shultz, said.
Kai said that when he came out at Harbor Ridge, his friends were supportive. Being involved with the Diversity Club helped, too.
“I felt I wasn’t so alone,” he said.
Issues at school
Although Kai feels accepted at school and has made close friends, it can still be hard to be a transgender student without any school policies that take transgender or gender non-conforming students into account.
He felt too uncomfortable to use the restroom at school and has had to take non-suits in physical education due to discomfort in the locker room. All those basic things can affect school performance.
Phoenix had his fair share of locker room issues. After asking for a non-gendered place to change for PE, Phoenix was allowed to use the nurse’s office. But that meant changing far away from the Peninsula High School gym, visiting his own locker, walking through the halls in gym clothes and attempting to not be late, which meant being marked down.
With all the issues at hand, Phoenix failed PE, but will make up the credit at Henderson Bay this year. It was tough, because he considers himself an active and fit person who genuinely enjoys physical activity. He just didn’t enjoy the stress of finding an accommodating space to change.
That’s why the new school policy attempts to find better solutions. Students will not be required to use a changing room or bathroom that conflicts with their gender identity.
Kathy Weymiller, who heads up the diversity committee, said locker room issues will be judged on a case-by-case basis, but what is certain is students won’t be penalized for seeking a safe space to change.
After all, it is the law. Washington state prohibits discrimination based on, among other things, sexual orientation and gender expression or identity.
While discussing the policy at a previous meeting, Weymiller told the board that the policy was brought forward under the advisement of the district’s risk manager, who said a failure to accommodate transgender students could put the district in conflict with the law.
Transgender issues are coming to the forefront in the media. That can be a blessing and a curse, said Phoenix. After all, not all information floating around is accurate. However, the better informed people are, the easier it is to get through school.
“I think proper education (on transgender issues) is the key to change,” Phoenix said.
Kai feels the same and has hopes for a future in which all people are accepted and welcome.
“I just hope that one day people will be accepted for who they are, not what they identify as or what they look like,” he said.