A day in the life of a trans student in Sarasota County
SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — In life, seemingly inconsequential moments can often go on to hold great importance.
For Vanessa Nichols, one of those fleeting moments came in an unlikely venue: the checkout line of a grocery store.
It was July 2015 and Caitlyn Jenner’s face was everywhere. Jenner had transitioned to a woman after years of fame as an Olympic athlete and husband to Kris Jenner.
In many ways, Jenner’s transition shocked the world and made the word transgender a part of the national conversation. Here was someone who had practically defined America’s masculine ideal now saying she was a woman, and in fact, had been a woman all along.
Nichols’ son was about to start first grade, but even then the picture of Jenner on the cover captivated him. Jenner posed in the fashion of an old Hollywood starlet, wearing a cream corset with her hands behind her back, her facial expression quietly triumphant.
“Mama, did that used to be a boy?” her son asked Nichols, gesturing to the cover. “Did she have surgery? How did she do that?”
Nichols went through the typical parent’s dilemma. Her son was seeking answers to probing questions, but was he ready to hear them at a young age?
The moment eventually revealed itself as not a question so much, but an answer. Nichols now sees that her son, assigned the female gender at birth, was already thinking about his gender identity at a young age.
“In retrospect, I can now look at that objectively and think, ‘He was feeling this way then and trying to figure out at what point it was safe to speak about this,’” she said. Transgender people “just don’t feel safe, they don’t feel normal, affirmed or validated, especially by society. But we’re having more conversations and we’re getting more comfortable and putting more knowledge and science behind it. It’s all so important to make this conversation more of a normalized discussion. For my child, he’s always felt this way.”
Nichols’ son, who chose not to talk for this story, is now a fourth-grader at Venice Elementary. By many standards, his treatment at Venice would seem to stand out.
Last spring, he came out as a transgender male to his school, where he was met with support by his teachers, administrators and most of his friends.
?‘Whatever is best for him, that’s what we’re going to do,’” he heard from his teachers, according to Nichols.
The school’s principal, social worker and psychologist met with Nichols, who brought a template for a gender support plan to the administration.
“Everyone kept their opinions out of it and we just talked about how to keep my son safe and give him equal access to an education,” Nichols said. “That’s what I want for every trans student.”
Nichols’ experience differs drastically from that of Pine View alum Nate Quinn, who only three years ago was a trailblazer paving the way for trans students in Sarasota County. Quinn, a transgender male, fought hard for the right to use the men’s restroom at Pine View, but was unable to get the School Board to approve his ultimate goal: a district-wide policy that would allow students to use the bathroom and locker room of their chosen gender identities.
The district said it does not keep data on how many students have come forward as trans since Quinn brought the issue to the forefront in 2016, partially in the interest of student privacy. But about one in every 143 children between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as transgender, according to a study by University of California Los Angeles’ School of Law.
For nearly three years, it seemed that Quinn would never reach his goal of a broad policy. Each time the issue came before the board, it cited pending legal decisions or pushed the discussion to later meetings.
But when a group of activists, including Nichols, came forward at a meeting in September, it was clear something had changed. School Board members indicated that the district was “on the road” to changing the policy, while Superintendent Todd Bowden said the district was “evolving.”
About a month and a half later, the change became clear. In late October, the district released transgender guidelines that allow students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their consistently asserted gender identity. Students are to be called by the gender pronoun and name they prefer. The policy that many trans students and allies in Sarasota County were waiting for had finally arrived.
While the guidelines were news to many, Bowden has said that they simply reflect how the district has been accommodating trans students for some time.
“There is clarity now that I don’t believe existed two years ago when Nate first came forward,” Bowden said. “The legal landscape has changed, socially, there is some clarity, and I think we can be more definitive in giving guidance to our school-based administrators.”
In the past, Bowden said, the administration would tell principals that they could do “what was right for the student.” But that simply meant talking to the family, learning what they wanted and coming back to the administration to talk about it.
Now, there is more certainty.
“We’ve run the scenario enough times that we know typically what the families seek and we’ve given our principals permission to say yes,” Bowden said.
For Nichols’ son, coming out as transgender was a process.
At a young age, when other little girls might have been trying on dresses or emulating princesses, Nichols’ son, then identifying as a female, recoiled from dolls and dresses.
At first, Nichols just assumed, ”‘Oh, my child’s a tomboy.‘” But by the time Nichols’ son was 4, he was drawing himself as a boy on paper and playing the male figure in family games on the playground while everyone identifed him outwardly as a girl.
When her son was born, Nichols admitted, she had imagined her child in a wedding dress walking down the aisle -- the sort of dreams parents have for their young children that are so tightly bound with ideas of gender. But at a certain point, it became clear that those dreams did not fit her son.
Despite wanting to immediately accept and love her child, she struggled with feelings of grief and fear for him. She could only imagine what a huge undertaking this would be for her son.
“I was so afraid of the hate from other parents and from other kids and a lifelong sentence for him of struggle,” Nichols said. “That was overall the hardest thing for me to digest as a parent.”
Most parents just want their children to be happy. They want to see them smile, and engage confidently with the world. Nichols may have feared what her child might experience, but much of that lifted when she saw how his demeanor changed once he identified as a boy.
A formerly shy child who wouldn’t look people in the eye when speaking to them, Nichols said, living as a boy, was different.
“He was self-assured, self-confident, he had this glow about him,” Nichols said. ”...He was himself, and he was living how he always thought he viewed himself.”
He slowly began telling third-grade friends to call him by his chosen name and asked them to use the pronouns “he/him.” Nichols said his friends and their parents were supportive and had no trouble understanding.
At that point, Nichols’ next step was to approach the school. Nichols began by speaking to each of her son’s teachers and then set up a meeting with administrators. A written plan was crafted and then-impending principal of Venice Elementary, Kirk Hutchinson, was brought into those conversations, Nichols said.
Hutchinson kept the conversation going over the summer when he requested a training session for his employees from local LGBTQ advocacy group ALSO Youth.
“I’m going to train the staff because I want to do this right the first time,” Hutchinson told Nichols in a phone call in July while school was out of session. “This is the first opportunity I’ve had to do this the right way.”
A week before school started, Nichols and her son’s father met with school staff to talk through her son’s looming fourth-grade year.
“They asked some really good, intimate questions that I wanted to be able to answer to take the fear away. The basis of all this hate is all this fear,” Nichols said. “We talked about the bathroom and that was a battle to fight that I didn’t have to. My son is allowed to use the bathroom where he feels the most safe.”
Nichols has achieved milestones in the school system, but the outside world has not always been so kind. More than two years ago, she and her son were in the women’s restroom of Target. At that time, her son identified as a female but presented to the outside world more like a young boy.
While in the bathroom, they attracted the ire of an older woman. “He should be using the boy’s room, he’s old enough,” the woman told Nichols and her son.
“That’s the irony of this whole bathroom debate,” Nichols said. “You can’t ever guess how someone identifies. We have all used bathrooms right next to a trans person and had no idea.”
At school, her son has found support from his friends, who will defend him if someone misidentifies his gender or uses his former name, which is often referred to as a dead name.
In his daily life, her son largely lives unaware of the stigma many trans people suffer in society, Nichols said. But he has had a classmate who refuses to address him by his name.
“My son would just flatly ignore him and I gave him that permission,” Nichols said. “There’s no reason to talk to him if he won’t respect you.”
Just as Nichols’ son was grappling with his identity in a world that wasn’t always understanding, Sarasota school administrators and teachers were determining how best to deal with transgender students who wanted the same comforts afforded to cisgender children.
They wanted the right to use spaces that corresponded to their genders and the ways they saw themselves.
For Bowden, the issue of transgender students at school arose with Quinn just as Bowden was considered applying for the district’s superintendent position.
At that time, he met De Palazzo, the Safe Schools Director for the statewide LGBT advocacy organization Equality Florida. While she had an influence on his changing views about trans students, Bowden said he really needed to see how trans students were being handled in the classroom before he issued firm policy.
“I’ve come a long way on this topic,” Bowden said. “When I was an applicant for superintendent, I believed that the best way was to handle it at the individual, school-by-school basis. It was only after observing the way that we were working with our students that I felt comfortable committing it in guidelines.”
The guidelines represent the first time policies on transgender students have been committed to writing, a victory for many trans students and LGBTQ allies who fought hard for these rights. They also have prompted significant public backlash from parents who worry that boys will be entering the girls’ restrooms and other incidents will arise that will put their children in danger.
But in the policy’s previous case-by-case approach, Bowden felt that trans students were put in an impossible position: use a restroom with a gender you don’t identify with or be forced to use a single-stall restroom.
“To me, I certainly understand a student who says I’m being treated differently than my peers,” Bowden said. “I’ve been denied the opportunity to go to the bathroom like any other kid on this campus. My feelings on bathrooms are pretty simplistic: I just want you to go quick and get back to class.”
The guidelines specifically address that concern with one line: “No student shall be forced to use the universal bathroom.”
Bowden said the issue of allowing a student to identify officially in a way that did not reflect the name on their birth certificate resonated with him. Although his full name is Curtis Todd Bowden, he has always called himself Todd. And that has never been a problem.
“No teacher ever challenged me in my entire academic career when I said, ‘Call me Todd,’” Bowden said. “It was a non-issue. Why would we challenge a student when they wish to be called a name that is other than the class roll indicates?”
While some have advocated for the district to continue the case-by-case basis policy rather than list guidelines, Sarasota students who experienced that firsthand said it had been problematic.
One Sarasota student, now in high school, came out at Pine View as a trans woman shortly after Quinn sparked debate on trans students. The girl, who is not being named in the interest of her safety, was 11 at the time and asked the school if she could use the bathroom that corresponded with her gender identity as a female.
Pine View administrators had announced publicly that they would allow middle and high school students to use the bathroom that corresponded with their gender identities. As a sixth-grader, the student met that cut-off.
The female student was told she could use a separate locker room in the gym and use the single-stall bathroom, but was not explicitly allowed to use the women’s bathroom.
Often, the single-stall bathroom was far from one of her classes, leading her to debate whether to make the trek across campus only to be late to class or to wait another hour to use the bathroom. Usually, she chose the latter.
During gym class, she would use a separate, self-enclosed locker room area that was part of the girls’ locker room. To get there, she would walk through a hallway that passed by the girls’ locker room. One day, she was called to the office and told that she could no longer walk through that hallway.
“People are calling us,” one of the school administrators told her.
So the student had to walk around the gym building to enter the separate locker space.
“The problem is, when they are separate and equal, it doesn’t work for so many reasons,” said the student’s mother, who asked that her name not be used. “If you use a single-stall bathroom, it’s across the campus and the girl’s bathroom is right there. Everyone knows you’re trans.”
It’s been three years since Quinn graduated from Pine View. He’s a junior at the University of Florida studying psychology and music performance. One day, he hopes to return to Sarasota and help other children through their own transition process as a gender therapist.
He’s seen progress on trans issues manifest in Sarasota in big and small ways, perhaps the biggest being the district’s new gender guidelines. But the smaller changes have moved him as well.
This month, Quinn returned to Pine View to watch the school’s annual Mr. Pine View pageant that doubles as a sort of talent show. As a senior, he was in the show as the first trans man to compete. This year, a gay man took the title, he said.
“Whether it’s trans policies at the county level or little shows like this where I see a bunch of straight boys in high school supporting someone who is out as gay, it makes me so happy with how far they’ve come,” Quinn said. “That was definitely not the environment there when I was still in high school.”
Just as students have changed their attitudes, administrators have changed their mentality toward teaching staff members about trans students. Last summer, Bowden asked ALSO Youth executive director Nathan Bruemmer to lead training for principals on gender, sexuality and LGBTQ youth in schools.
Bruemmer starts each session with some rules. He wants to create a safe space for everyone in the room, a place where difficult questions can be asked.
“I see every question as a learning opportunity. Even if it’s an inappropriate question, I explain why it is,” Bruemmer said. “I like to think the technique seems to work. I’m not forming judgments. I understand that we’re all at a different place in the learning curve.”
Quinn has seen an adjustment in his college classes. In one of his courses, his professor told the class to introduce themselves with their names and preferred pronouns. That is something trans students and many of their parents and allies hope will be a norm in classrooms all over the country someday.
“Just having a teacher that respects your name and pronouns is step one,” Quinn said.
‘This is who I am’
As the mother of a trans son, Nichols has become a fervent public advocate for more rights for trans students and people everywhere.
But she knows that a state like Florida, with its often conservative policies, may not be the easiest place for a trans child to grow up.
Last year, she contemplated moving with her son to California, where state law mandates that people are protected from discrimination based on gender identity and students can attend extracurricular activities and use the bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity.
Her son doesn’t think of these issues the way that she does, she says.
“He has no idea these kinds of conversations we’re having exist because he’s been that accepted. So I worry for him, like all of us moms worry, that he might be bullied someday because he doesn’t know,” Nichols said. “Maybe these conversations are helping that much and I do think that our kids have a different outlook than we do. I hope he never knows and he has no worries.”
But Nichols still has fears. It is the “mama bear” in her that keeps her interacting with people online who criticize her for allowing her child to live as a trans person so young. People ask her all the time: Why do you allow your child to live this way? And if you must, why would you talk about it publicly?
“No one would sign themselves up for this. But there are people out there who don’t feel safe to be who they are and we have to normalize it for the greater good,” she said. “Would I have chosen this path? If you had me list 100 parenting challenges, this would not have made the top 100.”
When discussions about transgender rights take place, the word “transgender” almost always has to preface the word “student” and the word “person.” But Nichols wants to remind the community that her son is not defined by being a trans child; he is defined by being a child who has hopes, dreams and interests of his own.
He likes to use his PlayStation after school. He plays flag football with his friends. Once a week, he and his mother order Marco’s Pizza to eat at home. On the weekends, he draws for hours on end.
Eating pizza on his couch or playing after school with his friends, Nichols’ son is not thinking to himself: I am a trans boy. He is simply thinking: This is who I am.
Information from: Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, http://www.heraldtribune.com