Back to School: Small Towns Making a Big Stand for Trans Students

by Peter and Sarah Tchoryk

This piece is adapted from a longer essay on embrace.today, Peter and Sarah’s family blog.

This is the second in a series of back to school articles — you can read the first here. Be sure to follow us to be informed when new editions are published, and to read more pieces about trans students and those who want to support them!

Image credit: Jason Arrol/NCTE

Terri Tuttle-Neely and Jaimie Lynn are both moms who live in Grass Lake, Michigan. When you live in a town as small as Grass Lake, everybody knows your name. It’s what makes towns like Grass Lake the kind of place where many would want to raise a family.

Grass Lake is also more diverse than anyone thought. Terri and Jaimie are both moms to young transgender kids. What makes Grass Lake exceptional is that its school board recently decided to allow transgender children to use the bathrooms matching their gender identity.

What always strikes me about school board meetings like the one recently held in Grass Lake is the passion of the community — and how our goals are the same. We all want our children to grow up in a world where they can learn and live peacefully and productively.

What also strikes me is the level of uncertainty some people have over what will happen if schools are inclusive toward transgender kids. It underscores the importance of guidance and education not only in our schools, but also in our communities.

Parents listen to testimony at a Grass Lake School Board meeting, August 14, 2017. Photo credit: Jake Crandall/Mlive.com

We don’t have to guess

The truth is, we don’t have to guess what will happen. We have evidence that when you create a safe, welcoming environment for LGBTQ children, you make the school safer and more welcoming for every child. Kids who are safe and supported also perform better. And when we educate kids about LGBTQ identities, every child benefits — because every child is different in some way and needs to know they are valued.

We know that 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 wellbeing. Pediatricians also recognize that not affirming LGBTQ kids puts them at great risk — physically, mentally, and emotionally.

We also know that 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. Schools across the country have already successfully managed privacy for all students while allowing transgender children to use the facilities matching their gender identity.

Fear and uncertainty can cause otherwise caring people to ignore the evidence and pointlessly endanger our children.

And there has been no increase in assaults in the over 200 municipalities and 19 states that have nondiscrimination protections for transgender people using the bathrooms that match their identity. People don’t often stop to realize that transgender people 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 for years.

In spite of the evidence, the debunking of irrational fears, and the real experiences of millions of people, we continue to see the dehumanization of the transgender community at the highest levels of government. The resulting fear and uncertainty can cause otherwise caring people to ignore the evidence and pointlessly endanger our children.

Segregating transgender kids does not provide them with a safe or supportive environment — it does just the opposite. It endangers and dehumanizes them, putting a target on their backs for bullying and harassment.

We’ve been here before

Our schools have always been on the front lines of justice, from desegregating schools in the South, to inclusion of disabled students, and now recognizing the rights of transgender kids. Some things haven’t changed. Safety and privacy were used to justify discrimination in the past and those arguments are used today against our transgender kids. And too often we hear that providing basic human rights of a minority will be an inconvenience — a burden — to the majority.

The arguments of safety, privacy, and inconvenience have been divisively used against nearly every minority and disadvantaged group at one time or another. We’ve been here before.

Diversity powers innovation, enlightenment, and groundbreaking discoveries.

This is what makes our public schools unique and so valuable. Their mission is to ensure every single child has a safe and supportive learning environment — and in the process, teach kids how we can all live together peacefully and productively.

The power of diversity

When we consider the goals of our educational system to prepare kids for life and for meaningful, productive careers, think about this: companies like Apple, AT&T, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and many others recognize the rights of transgender people to use the bathrooms and facilities matching their identity. Companies know that diversity powers innovation, enlightenment, and groundbreaking discoveries — diversity not only in race or nationality, but diversity borne from different experiences.

It’s why these companies and many more signed on to a Supreme Court brief supporting transgender student Gavin Grimm and against the “bathroom ban” bill in Texas. Kids who do not grow up respecting LGBTQ rights will perhaps learn the hard way that companies value diversity and inclusion and expect people to honor differences.

Photo credit: Pexels.com/licensed under CC0

It starts with education

It always starts with education.

At the request of educators and parents, the Michigan State Board of Education (SBE) took a stand last year and adopted guidelines for creating safe and supportive learning environments for LGBTQ students. 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.

My wife and I live in a small town, too. Dexter, Michigan is not unlike Grass Lake. We are fortunate that our schools embrace all kids with differences — even the most marginalized.

Our schools provide for the safety and privacy of every child, whether that child is part of the majority or a minority. They provide training to staff on diversity and inclusivity and educate students on differences. They see the value in every child and actively work to ensure every child is safe and supported — even those on the margins. The tragedy is that not every child is this fortunate.

We must work with a fierce urgency to ensure every child has a safe and supportive learning environment. The future of our world depends on it. And it always starts with education.

Peter and Sarah Tchoryk are parents to two daughters and a son who happens to be transgender, and have three grandkids. They live in Dexter, MI.


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