Just as this article was being completed, the Trump administration announced the withdrawal of federal guidelines that protected transgender students’ right to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity. The new approach addresses this as a states’ rights issue rather than a civil rights issue protected by the federal government, as it was under the Obama administration. The Colorado Civil Rights Division in 2013 ruled in favor of transgender students’ rights, so Colorado is one of 17 states that gives transgender students this legal protection. DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg responded to the Front Porch request for the DPS policy with this statement:
“Denver Public Schools will always welcome, support and protect our diverse student body. Supporting the whole child includes making sure all of our students feel safe and respected at school, regardless of their gender identity. DPS will continue our policies and practices of support and equity for all students regardless of their gender identity, as well as immigration status, race, color, national origin, disability, religion, creed or sexual orientation.”
A national survey shows most LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) students have experienced harassment and discrimination in school.1 What is life like for our local students? Members of Northfield High School’s (NHS) Gender and Sexuality Alliance talked openly and articulately with the Front Porch about their experiences.
The club exists to provide support, inclusion and encouragement to everyone who wants to join,” says group president Hunter Swenson. Vice President, Shay Mannik agrees. “Our group is a safe place for us to make friends, support each other and ask questions. People need to know what exists in order to accept it.” “The group offers a place to “share, talk and be open. It makes me feel a sense of togetherness – that I’m not alone. It is so wonderful and important,” says Kaylea Chidester.
At NHS, about 10 percent of the student body belongs to the student-created Gender and Sexuality Alliance, formerly known as the Gay/Straight Alliance, which has members who identify as gay, straight and everywhere else on the spectrum. The name of the club has changed to more accurately reflect personal identity and group inclusiveness.
“The terms gay or straight really became outdated,” says Nicole Foster, NHS staff facilitator for the group. “The identity spectrum includes gender identity, gender expression and presentation, sex assigned at birth, and sexual and romantic attraction. Certainly, it’s a much broader spectrum than simply gay or straight.” LGBTQIA is the acronym the students use, with IA added to include Intersex, Asexual and Ally.2 Foster says with just a 45-minute meeting of their group every two or three weeks, a lot happens in these kids’ lives between meetings.
National educational and medical organizations acknowledge the importance of attending to the physical and emotional needs of transgender and gender nonconforming youth. The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on LGBT Health and Wellness states, “There are many normal variations in gender presentation, gender identification, and sexual orientation,” and their vision calls for inclusion and elimination of health disparities for this population.3
The GLSEN National School Climate Survey found “U.S. middle and high schools remain hostile environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) students.” But their data also offers evidence that school-based support systems can be vital for helping these and all students thrive. LGBTQ students who experienced harassment and discrimination at school had lower GPA’s, lower self-esteem and higher levels of depression.
At NHS, the group has found a network of support that begins with the school administration. “Principal Amy Bringedahl has made it her priority to provide an environment that encourages diversity in all forms,” says Foster. “She is conscientious about addressing students using correct pronouns and has designated the faculty restrooms as gender neutral facilities for students,” enabling them to choose the most comfortable option.
Caroline Carranza emphasizes the importance of having a network of others who face similar experiences. “Many people have no empathy or understanding because they just don’t worry about things they don’t have to deal with in their own lives. Its reassuring to know that you’re not alone.”
The group affirms that, for a variety of possible reasons, NHS is a much more accepting and inclusive school environment than many. “Perhaps it’s because it’s a pretty new school, or because the students arrived at the same time and weathered a year fraught with administrative turmoil. It’s really hard to pinpoint why,” says Foster. The students agree. “We came in and made new friends together,” says Swenson. Carranza points out “kids are much more accepting than you’d think.” Mannik agrees, saying, “There’s a much more relaxed social ranking and fewer cliques at NHS. I think that the individual differences of students make a more accepting environment.”
Swenson, Mannik, Chidester and Carranza are all “out” to their families. Coming out wasn’t easy for any of them. Mannik lived in Georgia before moving to Colorado. “I was afraid to come out because my peers viewed the LGBTQIA community quite differently.” Identifiying as non-binary and preferring the pronoun “they,” Mannik felt they had to conform to assigned gender identity there because the environment was less accepting. Adopting a joking manner with their parents made coming out a bit easier. “I remember writing a note to my mom and tossing it to her as I left,” Mannik says. “By laughing and being less serious, my comfort level around coming out was a little better. My parents are accepting,” Mannik asserts.
Swenson says coming out to others was “nerve wracking” and happened in a series of steps. The process has brought the question, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Swenson has found by taking the opportunity to respond with an explanation of gender and identity, most people are accepting and even become comfortable asking additional questions.
Chidester is a child of older parents. “They really don’t understand the whole thing and my mom is the person I’ve confided in. My dad knows a little from talking to my mom, but we haven’t had a conversation about it. If I’m dating a boy, my parents are happy to talk about that, but they don’t discuss it if I’m dating a girl.”
To achieve their goals of outreach and education, the club sponsors two projects each year. This year they chose to raise funds to attend the Cherry Creek Diversity Conference and support the Rainbow Alley Gay prom. Rainbow Alley, a program at The Center—Advancing LGBT Colorado, is a teen group providing support and a safe space to youth ages 11 to 21. The prom enables teens to attend the event in clothing that best expresses their identity and with a date of their choice.
Attending LGBTQ events offers members of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance the opportunity to gather with others who share their concerns and have fun at the same time. The participants agree that protests should be peaceful and can incorporate a sense of fun into the message. They point out the annual Pride Fest held in the summer. “People who don’t agree with you or your lifestyle can enjoy it because it’s so celebratory. It’s hard not to enjoy something when everyone else is having such a good time,” says Swenson.
The group unanimously concurs that the current political and social climate in America has raised their anxiety about discrimination in the future. “So many things can change under this new administration and blatant homophobia makes things far scarier,” says Mannik. Carranza and Chidester say online comments and talking to conservative family members create stress in their lives. Swenson points out that they live in a pretty insulated environment now and wonders what things will be like after they leave NHS. Carranza is clear about what they need to do. “Advocating for ourselves is more important now than it’s ever been.”
1Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN). “The 2015 National School Climate Survey—The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth in our Nation’s Schools.” www.glsen.org/nscs
2Intersex: Someone whose physical sex characteristics are not categorized as exclusively male or exclusively female.
Asexual: A person who is not attracted to anyone or does not have sexual orientation.
Ally: A person who does not identify as LGBTQIA but supports the rights and safely of those who do.
3American Academy of Pediatrics, Section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Health and Wellness. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/Committees-Councils-Sections/solgbt/Pages/About.aspx