Last week, I met with my son JJ’s teacher.
I had been contemplating that meeting for a while before it even happened. I’ve also been anticipating with some apprehension this year of school for him—kindergarten.
It’s a transition for any child—and for any mom.
For us this year, however, it marks an even different transition.
You see, on JJ’s birth certificate and on his school records, his name reads Julisa Janean.
I knew I needed to let the teacher know before the school year started that JJ’s appearance and essence does not match what his name might suggest.
And we met—his teacher and I. We probably talked for almost an hour. She was warm and accepting, and although she mentioned to me that this is the first time in fifteen years of teaching that she has had this situation come up, she exhibited to me a beautiful kind of empathy. Coming from a mother, and as a teacher who strives to safeguard and encourage the children in her care, her concern was evident.
The next day, I received an email from her asking me if I could meet with her, the principal, and the elementary dean. We set up a meeting time.
So yesterday, JJ’s father and I walked into the principal’s office and pulled up a chair next to the principal, the dean, JJ’s teacher, and the teacher’s para pro.
It was quiet. It felt awkward. I hadn’t been that nervous about a meeting since I don’t know when. And it began something like this, with a simple question from the principal:
“So we’re here because I understand we have a situation. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s going on?”
Then all eyes were on me.
It was a pivotal moment. And it was hanging on the choice of words that would come from my mouth.
To try to convey something so important, so intimate even, about our child and to have no idea what the response would be or which way the conversation would go was nothing short of intimidating.
The overall culture of this particular school—the families that attend, the teachers and administrative staff—tends to lean on the more conservative side. So to speak of gender nonconformity, a subject that is yet so obscure to so many, is new and uncomfortable territory for most people. The vast majority, at least in our part of the world here in western Michigan, have not yet been touched personally by the subject.
This territory was foreign for me just a few years ago as well.
Going into the meeting yesterday, I was not certain we would be met with understanding. It turns out, we were met with sincere looks and gestures of concern along with a growing understanding—from teachers and administrators who also happen to be parents and stewards of the hearts of children.
Somehow, between what I and JJ’s father had to say in that meeting, we were able to convey the truth of the matter: our child is a healthy, happy, five-year-old who happens to identify as a male although his anatomy is female.
As the conversation moved along, JJ’s teacher spoke up and stated: I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make JJ’s experience this year more comfortable and to make sure it’s positive for him. I’ve decided to do something I’ve never done before in my classroom. This year I won’t be separating the lines into boys’ and girls’ lines when we line up—we’ll mix it up. And for bathroom breaks, I will send a group to the private (gender-neutral) bathroom as well. That way, JJ won’t have to be separated out and be the only one to use the private bathroom.
At that moment, my heart became full of gratitude and my eyes became full of tears. This teacher’s gesture of compassion and of reaching out to meet us where we are, to meet my son where he is, to me, is nothing short of earth-moving.
This is the kind of compassion that, when faced with differences and diversity, can change the course of a school year—it can change the course of a life and it can change the course of humanity.
Despite a growing awareness, the acceptance of especially the transgender community is still severely lacking here in this country and in all parts of the world. Unfortunately, the discussion around the topic of gender nonconformity has not been void of great debate, blatant discrimination, and even violence.
The fear that still exists among the general population when it comes to this matter is something that is not so easily escaped—and that fact was reflected to me in our conversation with the principal yesterday, as well. He mentioned to us that potentially if other families at the school became aware of our situation, it may raise some concern and discontent.
The message I gathered from that was to try to keep our situation on the down low—for JJ’s overall well-being and for the comfort of the people around him.
And that is something that still perplexes me.
So I take a step back and I evaluate even my own reaction to how our situation is being handled at JJ’s school. My initial response, as I mention above, was and is to feel gratitude for the efforts made by the school staff to accommodate my son for—for just being who he is.
And if that idea alone—the fact that my son must be accommodated for simply being himself—does not make me pause for a moment and reconsider all of this, then I’m not sure what will.
Not even six months ago here in Michigan, the State Board of Education opened a public forum on its website to gather feedback from the public regarding a set of recommendations that were proposed to help create an inclusive environment for LGBTQ (and specifically transgender) students.
As I read through the public comments made by hundreds of residents of this state my family calls home, I was completely taken back by the majority, which demonstrated an overwhelming sense of fear and a disregard for the most basic of rights for transgender students.
I personally believe that the fear and the discrimination that is still so rampant in regard to specifically the transgender community are symptoms of a widespread lack of information about what it really means to be transgender.
I was heartbroken and even frightened for my own child as I read through the comments on the Michigan State Board of Education’s website that day.
They were comments made by people who could very easily be our own neighbors, acquaintances, and even friends, in which a complete disregard for the very basic of rights for all human beings was voiced so loudly.
Conversely, I was encouraged to see that many of the comments I read from teachers and former teachers seemed to be in support of fostering an inclusive environment for all students.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone is in agreement yet with the idea of ensuring that schools and other public places are inclusive for all people.
Just last month regarding a case in Virginia, as stated in an article published by WTVR News, the Supreme Court upheld an emergency order from the Gloucester County school board to prevent Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old transgender student, from using the bathroom consistent with his gender identity while the court decides if they will pursue the case.
It is disturbing to me, not only as a parent of a gender nonconforming child, but as a human being, that the most basic of human rights and functions, such as using the bathroom of the gender one innately identifies with, must be questioned at all.
In our case, as JJ’s family, we are aware of the obstacles that might lie ahead of us and ahead of him as we walk what is for us and for many, an uncharted path. It is not a comfortable thing to think about. In fact, as a parent of a gender nonconforming child, it can be painful and frightening considering the state of affairs in this society with regard to the LGBTQ and more specifically, the transgender community.
It is glaringly obvious that there is much more work to be done before our transgender brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, family members and friends will be fully understood and accepted.
As our meeting with the principal and staff came to an end yesterday, the principal mentioned to us that each year it may get a little more complicated as we proceed down this path with JJ. He didn’t mean anything negative by that, but he was stating the truth based upon the ideals currently held by society.
I was hopeful and encouraged after our meeting at JJ’s school—in fact, I was moved to tears.
I was moved by the impact that can be made by just one person’s willingness to educate herself about a subject she might not have formerly considered.
I am moved by what can happen when one person simply reaches out his hand to another human being who’s well-being could otherwise be compromised.
To reach out to someone who could potentially be marginalized, scrutinized, or bullied for his or her inherent state of being—this is the kind of action that is called for in the face of diversity.
This is the kind of compassion that is called for in the face of these uncertain times.
This is the kind of compassion that will save a child’s school year.
This is the kind of compassion that could save someone’s life.
This kind of love—the opening of one’s mind and one’s heart to others no matter the differences—is what will ultimately eradicate the fear born of ignorance and of the unknown.
This kind of compassion is, in itself, the kind of activism that gives me hope that this world and the humanity that inhabits it can still be saved from so much ignorance, hate, and discrimination.
Let’s reach out to someone who we may not yet know. Let’s reach out to someone who is different than we are—to someone we may not yet understand. Let’s reach out to someone who might really need to know that someone cares.
This is what will make a difference.
This is what will make a positive change.
Even as I revise this piece for publication, I am pleased to include that there is progress being made, however slowly, in this arena.
Just a couple of weeks ago here in Michigan, the State Board of Education did vote 6-2 in favor of the proposed recommendations that, according to a statement from Equality Michigan, adopt a guidance on how Michigan Schools can create safe learning environments for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or sexual identity.
Also in the name of progress for this human rights issue, The Human Rights Campaign has now revealed a comprehensive new resource for the parents, allies, and doctors of transgender children.
According to an article released just today by LGBTQ Nation: It is a support guide that provides concrete and easy to understand explanations of gender identity…it also dispels the inaccurate and outdated misinformation spread by anti-transgender religious conservatives which made headlines earlier this year.
Regarding this groundbreaking support guide now available to the public, and in a statement made to LGBTQ Nation from Mary Beth Maxwell, the Senior Vice President for Programs for The Human Rights Campaign, she imparts to us these wise words:
While our country continues our national conversation around transgender equality, we must never forget that at the center of this dialogue are real children fighting to be seen, valued, and respected. This new guide provides parents and clinicians alike with vital information in their ongoing pursuit of doing right by all young people. Our partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians reinforces the overwhelming medical consensus that respecting and affirming transgender young people is not only necessary, but also potentially lifesaving.
And just as a side note to JJ’s teacher: This is a sincere and heartfelt thank you from the bottom of the heart of a concerned mother.
You have made a difference for my son already and the school year has not even yet begun.
Author: Jennifer Blake
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Renée Picard