The Issue: Whether you are aware of it or not, there are transgender students in our small Central Iowa school districts, and they cannot be discriminated against, under the protection of Iowa law.
The Impact: Some schools and communities are recognizing the importance of creating a better understanding of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer) students in their midst by offering educational meetings and support groups for these young people. By trying to understand the struggles these students go through, it is hoped that all people in a school district and community — teachers, non-LGBTQ students, LGBTQ students, administrators and parents — can have relationships that celebrate the diverse nature of all, despite our differences.
It may sound blunt, but Lorrie Hanson, the mother of a Nevada High School transgender student, puts it this way: “I'd rather have a transgender child than a dead child.”
Lorrie is one of a number of parents who has faced the reality that their child identifies with the opposite gender more than the one they were biologically born as, and to impede or not support that child's natural instincts can be life-threatening, as statistics show a nearly four times higher suicide rate in transgender youth, compared to non-transgender youth.
Lorrie's son, Arthur, a freshman this year, began questioning his gender between his seventh- and eighth-grade years. “I thought at first that I was a 'demiboy,' which is mostly boy but some girl,” he said. And he shared nothing about his feelings with his parents, until he realized that he was actually a “trans boy.”
“I just kind of went through a very short denial phase in which I forced myself to be a girl and not think about being a boy at all. Then I found this boy on YouTube that did videos for and from transgender men, and I sent that to my mom with a sense of finality and confidence that I was a boy,” Arthur said.
“We're lucky, I think, to have the Internet today so that we can access information,” Lorrie said, even though she knows there are still “good and bad” things that one must sort through online.
As she learned to cope with what her oldest child (she has another son who is 13) was telling her, she said it was important that she and her husband, Eric, Arthur's dad, explored what was happening together with their child.
“In the beginning, it was hard for me,” Lorrie admits. “After all, this was my first-born, my little girl who I had all these hopes and dreams for. But he is still my first-born child, and I still have hopes and dreams for him, just a little different now.”
The topic of transgender students in the Nevada Schools and the laws concerning their rights in school was the subject of a social media discussion in Nevada this past fall. The questions and lack of knowledge about issues concerning transgenders and the entire LGBTQ community spurred one Nevada parent to take action.
“Members of Common Ground Community Outreach Program saw an opportunity to facilitate critical conversations and support our community to spread compassion, respect and understanding,” said Cathy Vincent, a member of Common Ground. “All people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation. We felt compelled to offer insight and understanding of the LGBT community and a glimpse of the tough challenges facing our youth each day.”
The community forum was facilitated by the Iowa Pride Network/One Iowa and Sandra Zapata, its program coordinator, was the main speaker for the evening, giving a very educational program.
“The main focus is usually education,” she said of the nearly 200 events she speaks at annually. “Oftentimes, students and allies bring us into their schools or communities to start a conversation about how to be more inclusive of LGBTQ individuals or how to make students feel safer.”
Zapata said the Iowa Civil Rights Act has protected the LGBTQ community since 2007. “As a result, Iowa is in a better legal place (concerning LGBTQ) than most states,” she shared.
Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, said the biggest challenge for schools in creating safe and supportive learning environments is having the tools to do so. “School counselors play a pivotal role in creating a welcoming school climate and quite frankly, as school budgets have been cut year after year, there are fewer school counselors, which results in less of an ability to implement research-based programs to help Iowa's kids.”
Monson said that research shows that the best thing Iowa schools can do is include curriculum and resources that reflect their diverse community. “That means library books that show it's OK to have a single mom or two dads. It's OK to be a boy who likes pink or a girl who enjoys building robots. It's OK to have feelings and experiences that are different,” he said. “The message schools must bring is, 'It's OK to be the marvelous you and here's how we can support you as an individual child.”
Arthur is happy that the Nevada Schools now has a group called Cub Colors, which he said is vital to the school. “My friends and I hear people talking very horrible things about transgender and queer people behind our backs, and they need to be educated. Even if they don't come to meetings and even if they don't think gay people and transgender people exist, they don't need to be rude about it to our faces.”
Another great resource for local kids in the LGBTQ community is PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which has a chapter that meets in Ames. PFLAG is the United States' largest organization for parents, families, friends and allies united with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.
Lorrie said her family turned to PFLAG when they were seeking more counseling and medical help for Arthur. “Founded in 1972 with the simple act of a mother publicly supporting her gay son,” Lorrie said. PFLAG is “a terrific organization.”
Nevada medical doctor Alison Carleton, who currently treats about 10 transgender patients who range in age from kindergarten to adult, and also treats LGB people, said the best thing to do for these youth is to let them know they are loved and accepted for who they are. “They need to see us modeling acceptance of people different from us and they need to see people who are different from the 'norm' being successful in school, in relationships and in jobs. Their status needs to be normalized especially in areas that are more difficult, such as dating, marriage, sports and jobs,” she said.
In order to be a better doctor to the LGBTQ community, Carleton said she attends the yearly LGBT Health and Wellness Conference at Des Moines University. “At that conference, I attend the classes held by the physicians who run the LGBT clinic at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and meet other physicians who also do LGBT care. In addition to what I learn there, I can contact these other physicians whenever I have questions,” she said.
Carleton attended the fall community meeting at Nevada High School, saying she was impressed that the event was held. “You never know for sure where you will find people who are interested in learning more so that they can be supportive of others different from them. I was also impressed that there were so many students involved in putting the event on,” she said.
Arthur said the event held in Nevada was great “because people need to learn about the LGBTQ community; the group of queers is growing exponentially in this country as people are starting to feel confident enough to come out.”
He said it was not hard for him to transition, because he has a family who has helped him get binders, testosterone shots and whatever else is needed to transition to being a male.
“I wish other people would understand that I was never a girl to begin with,” he said. “From the moment I was conceived, I was a boy — no matter what anybody says.”
He's thankful for the emotional support he receives at home. “While everybody, even my mom, still messes up my pronouns every once in awhile, they're trying their best and I love and appreciate them all for it.”
After high school, Arthur plans to move to Germany, where no one knows him as anything but Arthur. “I plan to go to university, get a teaching job and get top surgery, as well as to keep getting testosterone shots every month if I can afford it.”
His mom said the best advice she can give to other parents is to listen to their kids. “Growing up these days is tough enough without having to feel, on a daily basis, that your body has betrayed you… It doesn't matter what gender my child is, they are still my children and I love them fiercely.”
Like all parents, she said, she and her husband want their kids to be happy.
“I'm grateful to the students who have embraced Arthur and support him … Their generation is much more open and accepting of gender issues. Ultimately,” she continued, “they (LGBTQ kids) are human beings, and they have hopes and dreams and feelings, just like the rest of us do. It has not been an easy road, but it has been an education.”