by Lisa Genn –
An audience of about 60 people, diverse in age, race and sexual orientation, sat entranced in Irvington’s Main Street School auditorium on November 12 as the panelists told their stories, some for the first time. There was Gina, the grandmother of a transgender girl who at the age of three told her family she wouldn’t grow up to be a big boy but rather “a big lady.” After she was able to express her true gender identity at school, she developed a circle of close friends, but there is still a side of her family that struggles to accept her for who she is.
There was Tony who transitioned at the age of 63, even though he knew that his body did not match who he had felt himself to be since he was a child. He described coming of age when there was no information available about transgender people and scouring psychology books in the Columbia University stacks for any explanation of his experience, to no avail. There was Kael, a young transgender man who was outed by a coworker to his family–one that was unable to understand or accept him—but found support in the community of others who shared his experience. And there was Dakota, another young transgender man who dreaded the end of winter season when he would have to trade his pants in for a skirt at his Catholic school, a way of presenting himself that caused him visceral discomfort. He too spoke powerfully of the way a supportive staff member at the public school he later attended changed the course of his life.
Mary Jane (MJ) Karger, co-chair of the Hudson Valley chapter of GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network)—a national organization whose mission is to make K-12 schools safe for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression—spoke of the pervasive bullying not only transgender but many other LGBTQ children face in schools. Their difficulties with peers are compounded by the fact they are often not out to their families and communities and therefore cannot find trusted adults to speak to. Even with all those challenges, MJ explained, there are also opportunities for all of us to have a positive impact on the lives of LGBTQ youth.
One important step, she says, is to make sure that our schools serve as both a “window and a mirror” for all children so that their education both helps them to look out into the wider world—the window–and also see their own experience reflected in teachers, staff and the curriculum—the mirror. It is therefore important for LGBTQ teachers and staff to be out to their students, if possible, and to put family photos up on their desks; for schools to implement broad LGBTQ student affirming policies; and for administrators to support student GSAs – Gender and Sexuality Alliance chapters. It also means including books that speak to the experience of LGBTQ people in our school libraries and curricula. GLSEN provides a variety of book recommendations and resources to help schools and communities become better allies at www.glsen.org. As the panelists made abundantly clear, that kind of support can make a big difference.
This community conversation was the first in a series sponsored by the Irvington PTSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The next event will be a holiday card making workshop with members of the Committee and the community at Art XO in Irvington on December 6 from 3:30 to 6 p.m. Information about future community conversations and other events can be found on the Committee’s website at https://www.irvingtonnyptsa.org/diversity-and-inclusion-committee1.html or by contacting the Committee with any questions at email@example.com.
The author is a member of the Irvington PTSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.