Remember your teenage years, the awkward self-consciousness and the pressure to make friends at school. The struggle of transitioning from kid to adult, the push and pull of wanting to discover your own individuality, and trying to fit in with your peers.
Now imagine that on top of everything else, you were assigned the wrong gender at birth.
“Adolescents are going through a lot of issues already,” said Ly-Lan Lofgren, a licensed social worker and certified sex therapist who works in San Luis Obispo County. “When you add in the idea of not being affirmed for your true gender identity, … it can be a crisis.”
The issue of transgender rights is gaining traction in media and mainline culture, with high profile trans celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner bringing the discussion to a wider audience. But while society may be more willing to speak openly about transgender issues, transgender youth—even those in SLO—still struggle to find safe, supportive, and accepting environments during what can be a tumultuous time in their lives.
Earlier this year, SLO County got a look at how some gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students felt about the environment within county schools, and it wasn’t a pretty picture.
The students were seventh, ninth, and 11th graders who participated in the annual California Healthy Kids Survey. A little more than 6,000 students in various county school districts took the statewide survey in the spring of 2014. That spring survey was one of the first to pose questions related to sexual orientation and identity.
Elizabeth Meyer, a former Cal Poly associate professor and co-founder of the nonprofit Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools, examined and analyzed the SLO-specific data, creating a report called Health and Safety of LGBT Youth in San Luis Obispo County Schools. According to the data, significant percentages of the self-identified LGBT youth who took the survey reported being harassed or bullied. A little more than 50 percent of gay, lesbian, or bisexual students who took the survey reported being bullied or harassed over perceptions of their sexual orientation.
Students who took the survey and identified as transgender didn’t fare much better. About 37 percent of them reported being slapped, hit, kicked, pushed, or shoved by someone one or more times: 39 percent said they were afraid of being beaten up. The problems extended beyond bullying, with 23 percent of trans students who took the survey reporting that they missed school in the last 30 days because they didn’t feel safe. About 41 percent of those students said they seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months leading up to the survey.
“[The results] were not surprising; they are pretty consistent with studies conducted nationally and statewide,” said Meyer, now an associate professor of education at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “Oftentimes people think things are more progressive [in SLO County], that it couldn’t happen here.”
Then and now
Santa Maria-resident Jessica Lynn was born Jeffrey Alan Butterworth in January of 1965. Lynn said she knew she was a woman from a young age—3 or 4 years old—but kept those feelings a secret through childhood, adolescence, high school, and beyond.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- SPEAKING UP, SPEAKING OUT: Jessica Lynn speaks to classes of college students about her experience as a transgender woman. Lynn didn’t transition until she was 40, and said the experience of being a closeted transgender youth was difficult and confusing.
“It was absolute hell,” Lynn said.
Lynn said she later learned from her parents that they had known about their then-son’s feminine tendencies and taken him to a psychologist at UCLA in the 1970s. At the time, the psychologist was well known in a field called “transsexualism.” According to Lynn, the doctor told her parents to continue raising her as a boy and “not let him explore his femininity,” instead of letting their son grow up and transition as a female. She wouldn’t begin to transition until she was 40. Lynn said she began drinking and using drugs at a young age and struggled with both for a period of time.
Few mental health professionals are likely to recommend a similar course of action today for a such a child. SLO County sex therapist Lofgren said transgender children who aren’t supported face a tough road.
“When a child isn’t affirmed, this time of change and identity formation becomes about adapting versus becoming more authentic,” she said. “It becomes about ‘how do I adapt to my environment’ rather than ‘how do I grow to my full potential.’”
Even transgender adolescents and children who are supported by their family may still have to hide who they are, choosing not to share their transition publically.
Either way, children forced to adapt to concealing who they are rather than be allowed to grow can be prone to depression or worse. Lofgren noted the high suicide rates among transgender adolescents.
“They have an idea, that ‘there is no hope for me,’” she said. “The impulses and short-range thinking process doesn’t allow them to see that they can get through this.”
Even now, Lynn said she still remembers the difficulties of keeping her secret as a young person.
“These kids today, they feel trapped,” she said.
Creating a safe, supportive environment in schools for transgender and LGBT students could help them overcome some of those challenges, and it’s up to teachers, principals, and district administrators to do just that.
The release of Meyer’s data came as a surprise to many administrators in the county’s 10 districts, including in the Lucia Mar Unified School District.
“We took a deeper look at our district specifically, because what was presented was concerning,” said Cynthia Ravalin, LMUSD director of student services.
Ravalin said the district continues to fund anti-bullying efforts on its campuses, and some of that money has allowed school sites to provide additional student support counselors on campus. She also said the district had Meyers come in to speak with school administrators, teachers, and counselors, and the district even held a forum on bullying and LGBT issues.
“We try to keep them updated on the pertinent information,” Ravalin said. “Our heads aren’t buried. We know we have all kinds of students on all kinds of campuses with all kinds of needs.”
Ravilin also said that the district has Gay-Straight Alliance clubs on several campuses. LMUSD also began providing non-gendered, discreet dressing rooms at all of its middle and high school campuses during the 2013-2014 school year. While any student can use those rooms, they can offer a safe place for gender-questioning and transgender students to dress without feeling threatened or self-conscious.
It isn’t only up to school district administrators to decide what changes would make their schools more supportive and safe places for transgender and gender-questioning students. California has several laws on the books that require districts and their campuses to meet student needs.
In 2011, AB 9, or Seth’s Law, required California schools to strengthen their anti-bullying policies, with a specific focus on students bullied for their sexual orientation, race, or gender identification.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- MAKING THE TRANSITION: Hormone therapy is an option for individuals looking to transition from one sex to another. But that’s just one aspect of the process. “Part of their treatment is a social transition,” says Dr. Denise Taylor, who runs a clinic at SLO’s Community Health Center that serves many transgender people.
Among its impacts, Seth’s Law requires school districts to create a strong anti-bullying policy that specifically prohibits bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. It also required them to create specific procedures for handling bullying complaints and to post their policy and information for victims of bullying on their websites.
The Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act, also known as the FAIR Education Act, was passed by California legislators in 2011. The law requires that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans be recognized and included in history lessons for their contributions to California History.
The School Success and Opportunity Act was signed into law in 2013. The law allows transgender students in grades K through 12 to participate in sex-segregated programs and activities and use schools facilities based on their self-identified gender, regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth.
Those three laws make up the backbone of legislation that protects and supports gay, lesbian, bisexual, and especially transgender students in California’s schools, according to Douglas Heumann, a local lawyer and former president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of the Central Coast and current member of the group’s Tranz Central Coast committee.
Heumann, who has helped families with transgender students address problems in local schools, indicated that the laws are only as good as the district leadership’s willingness to enforce them.
“Schools are definitely getting on board more and more,” Heumann, a transgender man, said. “When schools have trouble [with following the laws], sometimes it’s a lack of education and a lack of knowledge on the law.”
Advocates like Heumann and groups like Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools work to ensure those laws are followed and that districts have the information they need to support the students those laws protect. Part of the coalition’s mission—Heumann is a member—is to coordinate and assist the county’s 10 school districts and the SLO County Office of Education’s efforts to fully and accurately implement Seth’s Law, the FAIR Education Act, and the School Success and Opportunity Act. The coalition also works with local teachers, and Cal Poly’s school of education to provide information and training about the laws and LGBT issues in education.
This year, a recently passed piece of legislation could also make the list of important laws for groups like the coalition and LGBT rights advocates: the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, singed by Gov. Jerry Brown in early October. Not only does the law mandate comprehensive sex education in California schools, it also strengthens existing requirements about curriculum that is appropriate for all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Heumann said he was hopeful about the new law.
“We do hope that this will be implemented, and it is inclusive of people of different sexual orientations,” he said.
Even with active advocates and organizations, Meyer said how well those laws are implemented and how LGBT and transgender students are treated depends on the willingness of school employees, particularly principals.
“The school’s administration really matters,” Meyer said. “If you have a highly motivated principal that is making it a priority, they can have a huge potential for a positive impact.”
Transgender students in college
Transgender students in SLO K through 12 schools aren’t the only ones facing challenges. One of the most recent, local, and public examples involves access to non-gendered bathrooms on Cal Poly SLO’s campus.
In May, the university’s Queer Student Union organized and staged an on-campus “shit in.” The protests drew attention to the fact that only a small number of the school’s 17 all-gender bathrooms were easily accessible. Some even required faculty permission or use of a key.
Protests and concerns over the bathrooms were covered by a number of local media outlets, but that is far from the only issue facing transgender students at Cal Poly. Just ask senior Sam Holzer.
As part of the student-created Disorientation Guide distributed in October, Holzer, who discovered she was a transgender woman about halfway through her junior year, wrote an essay describing her experiences at Cal Poly, particularly when it came to housing arrangements. As a transgender woman who “had yet to come to terms with her femininity,” Holzer lived in Cal Poly housing with three other men, leaving her feeling trapped in a space that made her uncomfortable.
That early experience pointed to a serious problem for transgender, questioning, and gender non-conforming students when it came to Cal Poly’s student housing. Holzer also noted that dorms didn’t have non-gendered bathrooms and pointed out that proposals for an update to Cal Poly’s master plan—which include the goal of housing up to two thirds of the university student population on campus—doesn’t address or accommodate for transgender and gender non-conforming students.
“Dorm placement is still organized along issues of biological sex,” Holzer told New Times. She indicated that such a policy could dissuade some students from attending the university. “It’s really limiting the kind of students applying to Cal Poly.”
In a statement responding to requests from New Times, Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said the university makes housing assignments based on the gender a student indicates when he or she applies for admission.
“This allows students the freedom to indicate the gender by which they identify, should it be different from the one to which they were born,” Lazier wrote. “University Housing works diligently to provide accommodations that meet the unique needs of all student residents, including working one-on-one as necessary to ensure that residents’ living situations are comfortable and appropriate.”
Frustration over such issues is, in part, what gave birth to the idea of Holzer’s essay and the Disorientation Guide, which was a way to raise concerns about issues of race, gender, class, and other important issues the document’s writers felt weren’t being fully addressed.
“There’s a kind of resistance to make the dramatic changes on campus that need to be made,” she said. “I think a lot of comes from the unfamiliarity with concerns we have on campus.”
But that may be changing. Within the last year, a number of groups and organizations have been organized, rebooted, or revitalized on the campus. That includes the Queer Student Union, which was re-formed in January of this year, as well as the Triota, an on-campus feminist activism group and women’s studies honor society. The university’s Black Student Union re-formed after an eight-year hiatus.
The clubs not only offer students of different backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, and races a supportive environment, but also give the university leaders an avenue to discuss and address the issues of populations that feel marginalized at Cal Poly.
“There’s been some growth of the activist community on campus,” Holzer said. “These clubs are new, and the university hasn’t really had a group of people to go to.”
But that doesn’t mean the issues are resolved and all the university’s problems are addressed.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Holzer noted.
Activism, education, acceptance
There is more work to be done. That’s a sentiment shared by everyone working to create a safe and supportive place for transgender children, teens, and adults. Some of that work includes activism from individuals like Holzer. It also includes scientific and academic analysis and study from scholars like Meyer. It includes lawyers like Huemann and organizations like the Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools to make sure institutions and governments follow the law and hold them accountable if they don’t.
It also includes education: efforts to raise awareness about the issues, challenges, and struggles of the transgender community. Education is a word Lynn uses a lot. Lynn spends much of her time traveling and speaking. She tells her story and answers questions, even the uncomfortable and personal ones about her love life, surgery, and sex organs.
“I’m an open book,” said Lynn, who is currently filming an episode of MTV’s True Life.
By making such personal things public, Lynn said she hopes to foster a better understanding of transgender issues and to dispel people’s stereotypes.
“A lot of times I walk into a classroom, and the students have never met a trans person,” she said. “So that’s why I want to be there, to answer questions. To try and educate them the best I can. I want to open up as many lines [of communication] as I can.”
Lynn isn’t the only one trying to raise awareness about transgender issues. Education about transgender and gender non-conforming issues took center-stage during a three-day “Your True Gender Conference” at Cal Poly SLO’s campus the second weekend of October. One of the first events of its kind on the Central Coast, the conference included presentations by renowned physicians, mental health providers, attorneys, and organizers in the transgender community.
Visibility, familiarity, and knowledge can be a powerful path to tolerance and acceptance, something Huemann eagerly pointed out.
“Not many people feel that they know a transgender person. So much is based on fear,” he said. “If they don’t know someone personally, they might not know their struggle.”
With all the information, resources, and education that the transgender community and its allies are trying to put out into the public, there is hope that they will be heard, not just by adults, but by youth looking for a safe a supportive community.
“Don’t be scared,” Lynn said. “There are other people like you out there.”
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.