Transgender issues finally gain traction in Florida schools

By : Billy Manes
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On Oct. 13, an eighth-grade student from Fairview Middle School in Leon County who wore a dress to class finally gave in to the pressure and left the school for good. According to USA Today, school administrators called the student’s parents and requested a change of clothes because the gender confusion had the “potential” to cause a distraction. The principal, Scott Hansen, told the paper that, “Unfortunately, in middle school there is not as much freedom for expression.”

Leon County School Board superintendent Jackie Pons expressed “concern,” according to the report: not so much for the fact the student challenged gender barriers so much as for the reality that the culture of the school board district failed to address such bullying and the LGBT issues that often precede it.

That’s about to change, according to Equality Florida transgender inclusion director Gina Duncan.

Taking its cue from a national guidebook titled Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools, compiled by the Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, among others – and a successful training model derived from Broward County Public Schools – Duncan and EQFL are hoping to break through the bullying and misunderstanding that shadows (and sometimes kicks) transitioning youth.

“We’re seeing now that school boards are engaging,” Duncan says. “But we’re finding that they’re ill prepared to support young transgender people,” something she calls “discouraging.”

At the center of the trans-in-schools debate is the use of gender-specific restrooms, she says. Opponents of LGBT rights have often waved the flag of the threats to gender normative students if they are exposed to transitioning students in such intimate settings, but, Duncan says, “While that argument is certainly inflammatory, there is no cause to worry about public safety.”

In January 2014, proponents of equality for trans students crafted a lengthy presentation for Volusia County officials. On the issue of appearance as a means of entry into the bathrooms of either gender, proponents argued, “There is no rule that a person must look a certain way to use a certain restroom. This kind of ‘gender policing’ is harmful to everyone, whether a transgender person, a butch female, an effeminate male or anyone else dressed or groomed in a way that doesn’t conform to someone else’s gender standards.”

Even after a public vetting of the issue over two Volusia students – one in middle school, the other from Deltona High School – being refused proper entrance to the restroom with which they physically identified, Volusia Superintendent Margaret Smith remained silent, allowing any progress to die. Smith retired earlier this year, which has left an open window for equality groups to polish their message and fight again. In fact, Duncan says, many school boards are engaging, including that of Hillsborough County, which, Duncan says, is eager to implement changes to its policies regarding transitioning youth. She hopes they have their messaging on point by November.

There will likely remain a significant amount of misinformation on the matter, Duncan says, along with the requisite red herrings parried by those in opposition. It’s clearly not fair to play the usual scare tactics (that boys will see girls naked and vice versa) in the education realm, especially when the outcome of those politics hinders the development of kids already facing tough choices. It can push kids like the one in Leon County, or those throughout the state, into homeschooling or online education. It can isolate them completely.

“How hateful and marginalizing this argument is,” Duncan says. “I guess we have to have the dialogue to finally get it done. It truly is baseless. We’re finding that it’s sending such mixed messages to people: supported at home in their family, they go to school and people in authority are then dismissing what they understand to be acceptable at home.”

“When you think about it, it’s segregation, pure and simple,” she says. “All gender nonconforming kids, let’s send them home to go to school in front of a computer.”

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