The transgender 15-year-old says he didn’t mean to out himself during a recent class discussion, but it happened.
“We were talking about civil rights and human rights, and I just said, ‘You know, I don’t want to die for being trans, but that could literally happen,’ ” said the student, a freshman at a suburban high school near Wichita.
The student, born female, asked not to be identified because some extended-family members still are unaware he dresses as a boy and goes by a male name at school.
“People like me get harassed and bullied. I feel pretty safe right now because I have friends I stick with who support me. But there’s always the thought that this person or that person will make my life miserable for just being who I am.”
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In the midst of a national debate over the treatment of transgender children in schools, Kansas education officials say they’re dealing with transgender issues more frequently than in years past.
“This is a topic that really has picked up some speed, I would say, so we’re all kind of learning together,” said Angie Stallbaumer, an attorney and policy specialist with the Kansas Association of School Boards.
“It’s not that there probably weren’t transgender youth in our school systems prior to a year or two ago, but this is just something we’re more aware of.”
Earlier this month, South Dakota became the first state to pass a law that would prohibit transgender students from using the bathroom or locker room of their choice. Advocates say the bill is meant to protect students’ privacy, while opponents say it discriminates against transgender youths.
Lawmakers in several other states, including Missouri, have debated similar measures.
And in Virginia last month, 16-year-old Gavin Grimm and his attorneys took the teen’s case to the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, where judges will determine whether banning Gavin, who was born a girl, from the boys’ bathroom constitutes sex discrimination and violates federal law.
Advocates for transgender students in Kansas say battles here have been quieter, usually dealt with in school counselors’ or principals’ offices rather than at political forums or school board meetings.
“When we’re made aware by a community member or parent or teacher that something is happening in schools that is violating a student’s rights or just making them not feel safe, we have some procedures and processes in place,” said Liz Hamor, co-founder of the Wichita chapter of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.
“Our position is to empower the student or parent by giving them the resources and the materials and the language to go and address the concern themselves,” she said.
A Wichita district policy on integration and diversity states that schools will not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, language, socioeconomic status, religion, disability or skill level. It does not include nor specifically protect gender identity or gender expression.
However, in April 2014, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued official guidance to districts saying that transgender students are protected from discrimination under Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
The guidance states that “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”
‘Not a cookie-cutter thing’
No data exists on how many transgender students attend Wichita or surrounding districts. Advocates say there are transgender students in most local high schools, several middle schools and some elementary schools.
And no specific state law gives guidance on whether transgender students in Kansas can use bathrooms, locker rooms or other facilities that correspond with their gender identity. Wichita officials said they address issues on a case-by-case basis, whenever they come up.
Some transgender students use bathrooms corresponding to their biological gender; others use the ones for their preferred gender, said Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the Wichita school district. And sometimes students arrange with school officials to get access to unisex bathrooms, such as those in teachers’ lounges or nurse’s offices.
“It’s handled differently to make sure it works for that student, for that school environment, so it’s not a cookie-cutter thing,” Arensman said.
It’s handled differently to make sure it works for that student, for that school environment, so it’s not a cookie-cutter thing.
Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the Wichita school district
“We want all students to be treated with respect and to feel they are in a safe place.”
The transgender freshman said he uses the girls’ bathrooms at his suburban Wichita school because he feels safer there. He also uses the girls’ locker room for physical education, prefering to change clothes in a bathroom stall.
Hamor, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network leader, said the group would support efforts to expand policies to specifically protect transgender students and declare that they should be allowed to use facilities corresponding to their chosen gender identity or gender expression.
A model policy developed by the national organization proposes that students have access to bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity and be addressed by their chosen names and pronouns.
“But the (Wichita) district supports the rights of trans students in every instance we’ve seen when it comes down to it,” Hamor said.
“Sometimes the Title IX director needs to go in and make an educator or school aware of the Title IX laws on such things, and he’s more than willing to do that.”
Keith Reynolds, Title IX director for the Wichita district, refused to be interviewed for this story, agreeing only to answer questions submitted in writing.
“Our schools place great importance on addressing any student concerns in a manner that is best for that student, and the student body, and we take proactive measures to ensure that our schools are safe places for all students,” Reynolds said in an e-mail.
“If a student ever feels bullied, discriminated against or otherwise uncomfortable in school, the person to seek out is their building principal, or a trusted adult at their school. Principals have a team of support personnel who can help them resolve any issue if it isn’t something that can be easily addressed at the building level.”
Lack of training
Some advocates say they have faced resistance when arguing on behalf of transgender students.
Ashley Thorne-Rogers, a court-appointed special advocate with CASA of Sedgwick County, said she represented a transgender foster child who attended schools in Wichita and Kansas City, Kan., and graduated last year.
“What they’re up against in the school system is the lack of training that staff has in that area,” she said. “While there are federal and state standards on how people should treat and recognize another gender, they (school officials) are naive about it.
“When we try to work with them on that, we get a range of emotions. Some are very accepting, others are not so much.”
Thorne-Rogers said the teen she represented was born male and transitioned to female during high school. She dressed like a girl, with long hair and makeup, and legally changed her name.
She used the girls’ restroom at her Kansas City-area high school until another student complained to a counselor. Thorne-Rogers said she met with school administrators and arranged for the student to use a unisex bathroom.
It’s out of people’s comfort zones.
Ashley Thorne-Rogers, a court-appointed advocate who represented a transgender foster child
“It’s out of people’s comfort zones,” she said. “I think there’s an overall lack of awareness and lack of education, and it was eye-opening for me.”
Hamor said her group sometimes hears from transgender students or their parents who feel bullied or unsafe but aren’t comfortable addressing school officials themselves. This spring the group will host a professional training day for educators focused on “creating safe spaces” for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youths.
“We’re happy to contact the school and make them aware that we received a complaint – anonymous or otherwise – and we’ll offer to work with the school … to get the issue resolved,” Hamor said.
Stallbaumer, the attorney who helps advise Kansas districts, said schools vary widely in their approach to transgender students. In addition to bathroom and locker rooms, issues include athletics and other gender-separate activities and school-sponsored overnight trips.
A Kansas State High School Athletic Association policy allows students to participate in athletics and activities consistent with their gender identity.
The gender identity “must be bona fide and not for the purpose of ‘gaining an unfair competitive advantage,’ ” the policy states. And the school must notify the athletic association if a student intends to participate on a team opposite their birth gender.
“Our districts are definitely taking these matters seriously and accommodating those students’ needs,” Stallbaumer said.
“The main idea is just that, until federal and state law come out and say we need to provide specific protections, it’s kind of our position that we don’t run out ahead of those requirements.”
Training for educators
The Wichita chapter of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network is holding a professional training day for educators: “Creating Safe Spaces for LGBTQ Youth in Schools.”
The session is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 5 in the Rhatigan Student Center at Wichita State University, Room 265. Cost is $25 and includes lunch and snacks. For more information, visit GLSEN’s website, www.glsen.org/chapters/wichita, and click on the “Events” tab.