New Broward policy offers protection to transgender students

For 17-year-old Taylor, a typical school day presents unique challenges: Does he use the boy’s bathroom, or the girl’s? What can he do to keep his teacher from calling him “she?’’ When is the right time to tell classmates his secret?

Taylor, a sophomore at a Broward County high school, is a member of a group of transgender youth who say they were born into the body of one gender, but think, feel, and identify with another.

People just don’t understand it,’’ said Taylor who was born a female, but identifies as a male.

For Taylor and others like him, every day can be a struggle.

He can’t take physical education because that means undressing in front of the other kids. He’s been embarrassed by one teacher who repeatedly calls him “she.’’ He wonders how his classmates would react if his secret got out.

Taylor’s last name and school have been withheld, as have those of other transgender students interviewed for this article, because they fear being bullied or harassed.

Understanding the difficulties and threats these students go through, the Broward School Board recently changed its non-discrimination policy to acknowledge transgender students.

Any employee who discriminates against someone for any reason — race, ethnicity, gender, and now gender expression — may receive a punishment, ranging from a warning to being fired.

For example, an educator who embarrasses a student could face a reprimand.

In reality, the policy is still words on paper. There are no bathrooms being installed for transgender students; there’s no policy on whether a transgender student can try out for a sports team for the opposite sex; no set policy on which school uniform to wear.

“These are fairly new issues for us,” said Teri Williams, who works in the district’s office of prevention programs. But as issues arise, they’ll be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Williams said the goal was to make students as comfortable as possible.

“It is something we had to do,’’ added School Board member Jennifer Gottlieb. “We want all children to feel safe when they are at school.’’

Broward is only the third school system in the state to have such language, behind Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties.

Stratton Pollitzer, the deputy director of Equality Florida, said Broward has always been a leader in protecting students. In 2008, the district added language to its anti-bullying policy that includes gender identity. The policy is now used as a model across the state, said Pollitzer.

“Broward’s policies are among the strongest in state,’’ he said.

Transgender student Andrew Viveros — who was born male, but identifies as a female — says she is hoping Broward’s new policy will be the start of more equality in school.

Andrew, who recently made headlines when she won the title of prom queen at McFatter Technical Senior High, said running for prom queen was her way of following her dreams. Even though she was met with some resistance from students — a few of whom began a petition drive to have her removed from the list of candidates — Andrew said it is important that transgender kids have the same opportunities as other students.

“I really think there needs to be more education in schools,” she said. “Everyone should be able to feel comfortable at school.”

Andrew’s biggest disappoint this year was with the school yearbook. When she posed for her school photo, Andrew wore the off-the-shoulder shawl that girls traditionally wear. At her mother’s request, she posed for one photo in a tuxedo.

The photography company sent both to the yearbook, and despite Andrew’s request that the shawl photo be used, the yearbook adviser chose the picture of Andrew in the tuxedo.

“I was really upset,’’ Andrew said. “That’s so not me.”

Being a gay or bi-sexual teenager is by itself a challenge for many students, said Peter Robinson, from the organization Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

“Support is key,” he said.

Among the support groups available to the area’s transgender youth is Sunserve, a nonprofit social service agency serving the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning community in South Florida.

At the group’s weekly meetings, anywhere from five to 10 kids attend to speak about their own experiences.

For Satara, the weekly Sunserve meeting is one time when she can be herself.

The shy 19-year-old flips her black pony tail as she describes her high school years at a Broward High School.

Satara, who was born male but identifies as female, wore her hair long, and kept her nails painted. She said she tries to ignore the snickers as she walks down the hallways.

Her biggest struggle, she said, was coming to terms with being different. She never joined any clubs or went to dances.

“I think I just kept to myself, because I didn’t really understand what I was feeling,’’ she said.

Tired of dealing with the social aspect of high school, Satara dropped out her senior year and instead took classes online.

“People think it’s a choice,’’ said Satara, 19. “Why would we choose to be different?’’

Although Taylor has chosen to remain in school, he’s opted to take physical education classes online.

Instead of being forced to change his clothes in the locker room, Taylor will be able to log his physical activities and study health and nutrition.

The school allows him to use the teacher’s restroom, which offers privacy.

He has a close group of friends who know his secret and he chooses to keep it that way. But one teacher has repeatedly referred to Taylor as one the “girls’’ and “she,” leaving him confused and embarrassed.

Donning baggy shorts and a T-shirt and spiky hair, Taylor said he’s hoping the new policy will mean more sensitivity.

“We want to be treated like everyone else,’’ he said.

While there’s no way to track how many students the policy affects — the law prohibits school districts from asking a student their sexual orientation — Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said nationally transgender people represent less than 1 percent of the total population.

“There’s never really been a study that shows exact numbers,’’ said Keisling.

In a school climate survey done by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network in 2009, out of 7,261 middle and high school students, nearly 9 out of 10 lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender students say they have been harassed in school. The survey also showed that about two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation.

In a recent report called Injustice at Every Turn, put together by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, out of the 6,450 people surveyed, nearly all had experienced harassment.

According to that report, nearly 15 percent of the students who identify as transgender dropped out of school because of harassment, sexual assault or other problems at the school.

The report did show, however, that in the last 10 years the resources available to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender students have increased. In Broward alone, there are 29 Gay-Straight Alliances, said Williams, with the school district’s prevention programs.

Being a teenager is hard enough, said Seth Pardo — who will soon get his doctorate in developmental psychology from Cornell University. Pardo, who was born a female and now lives fully as a male, said adolescence is difficult enough without the added layer of gender confusion and the social stereotypes that can go with it.

“There’s so much a teenager has to think about as it is,’’ he said. “But for transgender kids there is so much more to deal with.’’

Pardo always felt like he was a boy. Growing up in Miami Beach, Pardo said he was lucky he had a strong family and a support group of friends.

By the time he was in high school, he was wearing button down shirts and pants all the time.

“I knew early on that I hated girly things,’’ he said.

But his identity never stopped him from joining clubs, succeeding in school and even becoming the valedictorian of Miami Beach High’s class of 1999.

“I was really lucky,’’ he said. “A lot of kids do not get the support I had.’’

But it wasn’t until he was 27 that he decided to transition. He had breast removal surgery and takes hormones.

Pardo described his life before the transition as if he was wearing a wet suit super glued to his body.

“No matter what anyone did they couldn’t really reach inside of me because of the wet suit,’’ he said. “Now I feel like I am free.’’

Pardo said the trick is being true to yourself.

That’s been the case for Andrew, who even as a child wanted to wear Cinderella dresses. At 7, she knew she wanted to be prom queen one day.

Even when a group of students started a petition to keep her name off the ballot, she hung in, and beat out dozens of competitors.

“I didn’t see why I shouldn’t be allowed to have my dreams come true,” Andrew said. “I’m so glad I went for it.”

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