Is Thacher Ready for an Out Transgender Student?

On National Coming Out Day in October, students stand around the flagpole in the center of campus. Smiles spread across their faces as they silently watch the Thacher flag lower to the ground. They wait a moment, the rush of excitement buzzing around them, then watch the pride flag soar into the air. While Thacher’s flying the rainbow flag today, and littering tiny ones in classrooms and across the putting green, such an open display of inclusion and LGBTQ+ pride would not have happened fifteen years ago. There has been a wave of progress in LGBTQ+ equality, but we still have ways to go: is Thacher ready to accommodate an out transgender student?

The National Association of Independent Schools has a set of guidelines for schools working with gender variant and transgender students outlining the necessary provisions for an independent school to properly accommodate a transgender student. These guidelines help create a comfortable and safe environment for all transgender students: non-transitioned, transitioning, and transitioned. Thacher presents a community for students of all creeds and the pinnacle of inclusion, and, yes, every school has its shortcomings; however, Thacher lacks many of these crucial requirements:

“Consider a gender-neutral or flexible dress code. Permit students to comply with the dress code in their affirmed gender, avoid gender-segregated activities for P.E., lining up, etc., or create groupings that allow for flexibility”

When responding to a survey regarding the possibility of accommodating an out transgender student, many students mentioned the dress code as a clear obstacle. Change has begun in ways of the dress code task force, a group of students and faculty that are drafting a new, gender-neutral dress code by avoiding language like “cleavage,” “bra straps,” and “midriff,” but the current dress code leaves little room for expression of one’s gender identity. Beyond gendered terms, a student brought up a question of Thacher’s liberalism: “Thacher would never say that it is unaccepting of a transgender student, but I strongly feel that Thacher is “liberal” in ideology, while in reality, there is still a cookie cutter mold that students need to fit in. The school claims diversity, but in reality, there is still a lot about Thacher that is very narrow. You can’t even have dyed hair of an ‘unnatural color.’” Emma Freedman and Max Damon ‘17, two of the heads of Spectrum, Thacher’s LGBTQ+ affinity group, spoke on colored hair, arguing that many gender variant students use hair dye to express their gender identity, a form of expression that the current dress code prevents. With a new dress code draft currently underway, flexibility and genderless phrasing are essential in ensuring that Thacher enables students to openly express their gender identity through whatever they see fit, whether it be hair or clothing.

“Provide gender-neutral options for bathrooms, changing areas, locker rooms. Develop clear guidelines for gender variant and transgender students regarding athletic teams participation, overnight trips, same-sex activities, and clubs, etc.”

Thacher’s facilities are sex-segregated. That is the reality of co-educational boarding schools. Students responding to the survey and faculty alike emphasized the issues surrounding dorm life, sports, and bathrooms. Some respondents commented on potentially uncomfortable situations due to lack of education and teenage ignorance. During an interview, Mrs. Pidduck spoke similarly on the infrastructure of the school. Although she remained hopeful on the ideological front, practically-speaking, Thacher is not ready for an out transgender student because of the issues with gender-neutrality: “I welcome and look forward to that opportunity [but] we really want to think about having our dorms set up or a space set up. Certainly, we would have to make some changes.” With the layout of dorms on campus, students also mentioned the strict dorm visitation policies in place. Due to the current program, students of opposite sex often socialize only in academic settings during the school day and public settings at night. Without more opportunities to visit opposite sex dorms, gender-variant students face alienation and exclusion. Although the much of the current infrastructure is staunchly gendered, Thacher has several prospects for reform and improvement. Locker rooms, bathrooms (in dorms and outside), and other segregated areas can be altered to include the “gender neutral areas.” Currently, dorms like the Hill and Upper School have gender-neutral bathrooms for use.

 

“Engage in professional development programs for faculty and staff in the area of Gender and Sexuality Diversity. (GSD) Provide educational programs about GSD for parents and students. Creating an informed, inclusive environment is a community-wide effort.”

Perhaps the most crucial guideline for increasing the inclusion of transgender students: education. The main concern among students was not the possibility of others feeling uncomfortable, being intolerant, or harassing transgender students. Instead, most students worried about ignorance- asking the wrong questions, being too curious about their “situation,” or being offensive.

As Human Relations and Sexuality, a weekly seminar held during one trimester during sophomore year, is the main form of education students receive on sexuality, gender, and relationships, the curriculum the senior leaders create is integral in providing adequate education on gender. However, when prompted with a question assessing the effectiveness of HR&S, the responses were discouraging. Responses deemed HR&S “far too short” and “a joke.” People stated that the program “doesn’t fully explain the important issues to the community,” that “there could and should be a lot more,” “it wasn’t enough.” One student stated, “HR&S is, for lack of better words, incredibly lackluster when it comes to anything outside of the heteronormative bubble.” Our system of education is falling short of the students’ expectations, and most are in consensus that the seminar does not promote adequate awareness of gender.

This year, the program has improved through a week dedicated to gender and sexuality, taught by members and leaders of Spectrum. Still, an HR&S leader stated, “We did a lot to try to improve the curriculum and make it useful. We did a good job in the time frame that we were given. [But] all things sex, gender, and tolerance can’t be taught in a couple of days in the Fall Term. We need more time, more depth and more continuity over the four years.” HR&S needs more time and a more intensive curriculum, but, as Mrs. Pidduck explained during an interview, “We need to expand from putting the burden of everything on HR&S. Not having HR&S be the only place [to talk about gender], having another curriculum that’s built in both through the dorm residential life curriculum other avenues and groups on campus.” Mrs. McMahon explained opening new opportunities for the HR&S staff that create the curriculum to make more “single-shot” programs to continue the education for sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Moreover, both Mrs. McMahon and Mrs. Pidduck discussed wrapping sexuality, gender, relationships, and other difficult topics in the Freshman Skills program to start the conversation earlier, a move that is clearly needed. One freshman talked about feeling uncomfortable regarding these areas: “I feel there really is not a resource we feel comfortable reaching out to (except the internet or a book).”

The final assessor is Thacher’s community. Apparently, there are indeed individuals in the community that feel that they or others are targeted for their gender and/or sexual orientation. When responding to a survey, 31.9% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “Thacher is accepting of LGBTQ+ community members.” A student stated that “It feels kinda hard to come out to the school community,” which brings into question our core values. Is Thacher inclusive, respectful, and kind? Like almost all the students that replied, Mrs. Pidduck and Mrs. McMahon believe so. When asked if Thacher was ready for an out transgender student, Mrs. Pidduck replied, “It’s an incredibly rich and complex question. I think there are two ways to look at it. One of which is yes, absolutely. In my mind, everything, every philosophy, every underpinning, the mission of the school is built so that we can have the kind of the community that is ready for all students.” Mrs. McMahon likewise stated, “In the community, I feel hands down no qualms whatsoever. Not that everybody is perfect always. I think the younger generation is just way ahead in terms of thinking about things in a different way. Certainly, it would be a process with working with the student, the family, and everyone involved.”

So, why do some members of the community feel that our school is not as tolerant as we see it? In an email correspondence, J. Grace Alden CdeP ‘1987, a transgender woman and alumna of Thacher, added to the conversation with her own experience. She first expressed how hopeful it made her feel that Thacher students were thinking of and discussing this topic and “holding our alma mater’s feet to the fire.” She also made sure to separate her experience from the current experience because things are sure to have changed. She explained, “In my own case, the main barrier to self-understanding was a product of the time I grew up in: a lack of vocabulary and societal imagery. I’m pretty sure that I knew that trans people existed, back then, but the subtext in our society was that trans people were sad cases, doomed to misery, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be one.” She explained that transgender teenagers nowadays have a much better opportunity to know that there’s nothing wrong with being transgender because the vocabulary and information are so readily available through the Internet and various media.

In explaining the logistics of Thacher’s reforms, Ms. Alden reminded, “Good intentions are not enough.” She explained that it takes intentional work and “until the Thacher community grapples intentionally with these issues (and with racism, and sexism, and homophobia, and etc.), we are doomed to re-enact some of what was planted in us.” This intentional work involves proactive planning.

Thacher, like many schools, heralds a diverse student body. However, Ms. Alden explained that it is the implementation that is key: does our school provide “a rich social environment [to] learn in, to make lifetime friendships in.” We, as a school, need to ask ourselves are there programs in place to ensure happiness and inclusion? Ms. Alden stated, “The biggest barrier to the acceptance of trans people, always, is other people. When someone fears you or is disgusted by you, it’s seldom rational, but no one wants to admit that their behavior is irrational, and so they invent reasons to justify their behavior, to rationalize it.”

She emphasized that the biggest obstacle is not structural, physical, or organizational. Rather, the main battle is starting the dialogue, working with students, faculty, and parents to educate and communicate the issues surrounding having a transgender student and making all parties involved feel welcome, respected, and comfortable. We are all people with insecurities and anxieties. It is important that we recognize transgender students, understand their struggle, respect the feelings they have, and quell any fears of being disgusting or feared. We need to address unhealthy gender-stereotyping, bring more compassion, and open our minds to new lessons. The main factors are awareness, education, and communication. With these things in our heads and conversations and some physical changes, our community is not far from being a real home for gender-variant and transgender students.

So, in short:

Is Thacher ready for an out transgender student?

Not yet, but hopefully soon.

For more information:

http://www.nais.org/Magazines-Newsletters/ISMagazine/Pages/Guidelines-for-Schools-Working-with-Gender-Variant-and-Transgender-Students.aspx

Special thanks to J. Grace Alden CdeP ‘1987 for her role in this discussion.