It has been a tough year for transgender Texans and their allies. Last fall, opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) flooded the region with malicious and misleading advertisements that painted equal access to public facilities as a threat to vulnerable white children. In addition to defeating HERO, the campaign whipped up anti-trans sentiments across the state–and our grandstanding Lieutenant Governor wasted no time in exploiting those emotions.
In January, when the Ft. Worth Independent School District unveiled a nondiscrimination policy that allows students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that reflect their gender identity, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for the superintendent to resign.
In May, when the Department of Education and the Department of Justice directed schools to allow transgender students to use facilities that match their gender identities, Dan Patrick urged Texas schools to resist. Within ten days, Texas had filed a lawsuit against the DOE and the DOJ, claiming that the Obama administration had “conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment.”
So yeah. Tough year. And that’s why I’m about to say something I’ve never said before:
I’m really excited to be going to Killeen this weekend.
That’s right, Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood, is the site of this year’s Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit. For the eighth year in a row, students and social workers, activists and allies will come together to talk about strategies for social change.
The Summit is always held at a Texas college or university, and this year’s host is Texas A&M Central Texas. I’m particularly excited to see that Title IX officers from Baylor and UT Austin will be presenting, because people in their positions have real power to improve students’ lives.
Other promising sessions include a panel with Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (OLLT), a keynote by TransGriot Monica Roberts, and a session on culturally competent healthcare led by Lou Weaver. My colleague Kimmie Fink will be there to talk about Welcoming Schools, and former TENT Director Katy Stewart will be speaking about trans survivors of sexual assault.
Oh yeah, and I’ll be reading from Queer Rock Love, with an emphasis on how gender-nonconforming families experience health care institutions.
Come out, bask in the balm of community empowerment, and help queer up Killeen.
Last week, I was interviewed by a Bay Area reporter who expressed surprise that we were making our queer, gender-nonconforming family in Texas.
I get it.
I agree with Molly Ivins that Texas often functions as the “national laboratory of bad ideas.” And now the Republican voters of this state have inflicted Ted Cruz on the rest of the nation. It’s not hard to understand why people in California might think we’re all just a bunch of Bible-thumping, immigrant-hating homophobes.
Those kind of broad-brush assumptions about Texas are part of what motivated me to write Queer Rock Love. The story of LGBT community in the South is a story of chance alliances and unlikely bedfellows—and what could be more queer than that?
Speaking of unlikely bedfellows, I wanted to tell you about when Butch County met the Clyde band.
Long before I ever held an actual print copy of Queer Rock Love in my hands, I knew I wanted to have a book party in Katy’s home town of Lake Jackson, Texas. There was just one problem: how to find a venue. The main bookstore in Lake Jackson is the Hastings by the mall, and the events manager did not seem to be enthused about a queer memoir from a transgressive press in Californ-I-AY. In fact, he never returned my calls. Which was fine, because my dream was to combine my reading with a rock show featuring Butch County.
Eventually, a friend suggested the Bad “S” Icehouse, a honky tonk nestled among the creeks and bayous and chemical plants that line this part of the South Texas coast. The owner, Shauntae, was a fellow alum from Katy’s high school. She had a band booked for 9 that night, but we just needed to be off the stage by 8:15.
Unfortunately, not everyone shared Shauntae’s welcoming attitude toward a band called “Butch County” and a book called “Queer Rock Love.” When she submitted the listing to a local Country-music bar rag, the calendar editor called with a question: “I thought you were a honky-tonk?” It was hard to tell if it was the queerness or the literary nature of our event that made him suspicious.
On the day of the show, Shauntae had written “Book Reading – Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir” in neon rainbow letters on the board above the bar. As we milled about, waiting for our friends and audience to show up, I heard several regular patrons grumbling about a “book reading” in the same tone one might reserve for “taxes” or “colonoscopy.”
I was nervous. I made a mental note not to lead with my usual story about watching Katy perform in sexy Viking costume. I decided to stick to Lake Jackson stories—more specifically to stories about Donna Koonce, whom many in the audience had known and loved.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Soon Katy’s friends from high school poured in to the bar, surrounding us in a protective cushion of love. Their enthusiasm inspired Butch County to deliver a raucous, rollicking first set. I even forgot to be nervous because I was too busy dancing and enjoying the band’s onstage antics.
By the time I got on stage, my only worry was whether the crowd would be able to come down from their rock-n-roll rowdiness to be able to listen to me read. But as soon as I launched into my impersonation of Donna Koonce, I knew they were with me. The crowd really wanted to hear how this high-femme Southern diva had come to unconditional acceptance of her transgender butch daughter. It felt like they were hungry to have the best and most expansive sides of themselves reflected back to them. After the reading, I sold out of every copy of Queer Rock Love that I’d brought. Lots of people who swore they’d never attended a “book reading” in their lives bought a copy.
Some time during Butch County’s second-yet-equally-electric set, the guitarist from Clyde, the “porch stomp” band that was scheduled to go on at 9, showed up. Reportedly, Josh texted the other members of Clyde and told them to get on over to the club ASAP, because Butch County was tearing it up.
Now here’s where I have to admit my own small-mindedness, because several members of Clyde look like they’d fit right in on an episode of Duck Dynasty. Although I love country music and Americana, I did not immediately expect that Clyde and Butch County (a classic rock band) would form a mutual admiration society. However, we were all in the mood to celebrate, and Clyde’s songs—replete with wash tub beats and gospel-tinged soul—were the perfect soundtrack for a Lake Jackson-style love fest. Before long, the members of Butch County were turning to me and saying, “these guys are really good.”
What followed was a flurry of Clyde liking Butch County’s facebook page and vice versa. We listened to Clyde’s album all the way home to Austin, and “I Saw Jesus on My Tortilla” became Waylon’s new favorite song.
A few weeks later, Clyde asked Butch County to play their annual “life’s a carnival” show at the Carousel Lounge. So if you’re hungry for an antidote to Ted Cruz’s version of Texas values, come on out and let these unlikely buddies rock your world.
Saturday, February 20 @ 7pm
1110 E. 52nd St.
Clyde photo courtesy of Clyde. Other photos by Darryl Khoury.
When I was a little girl in the 1970s, my mother told me that someday our TV would be a computer and she’d be able to leave messages on the screen.
My dad told me that someday there would be a woman president and maybe it would even be me.
No one ever predicted a lesbian rock band that would continue to electrify audiences when its lead singer was over 65. Back then, it seemed like women in their sixties were old ladies, grandmothers or old maids who drove too slow and carried purses full of Kleenex. If you had told me that old ladies could be sexy, powerful and creative—well, I think that human colonization of Mars would have seemed more likely.
In keeping with a 1970s-era vision of the future, the release of the new Star Wars movie has inspired a cultural conversation about women entertainers and aging. Everyone wants to weigh in about whether Carrie Fisher has aged well. Does she have too many wrinkles? Has she gained too much weight?
If this conversation seems very tiresome to you, then let me tell you a story about the Girls in the Nose reunion show last Tuesday night.
Let’s start with the way that lead-singer Kay Turner stands. Legs spread wide. Feet planted flat on the ground. Back straight. Hands wrapped around the mic until she grabs the stand and pulls it to her crotch on a song like “Sodomy.”
“Does Kay’s voice remind you of Iggy Pop?” I ask my wife.
“Patti Smith,” Katy answers, supplying the feminist canonical referent. But I resist. It’s true that there’s a lot of rock-n-roll priestess in Kay’s performance, but it’s more carnal than Patty. If I could pick one song for them to cover, it would be The Stooges’ “Dirt,” a song that makes me blush every time I hear it.
“Can I have a little less reverb on my vocals?” Kay asks. Noooooo, I think, because I’m enjoying the stadium-rock quality of it. But I’m glad that Kay and guitarist Gretchen Phillips keep asking the sound person for exactly what they want. I once stood in a crowded nightclub while the singer for Sebadoh quibbled with the sound guy for 45 minutes. It’s rare to even hear a female musician ask apologetically for a little more or less of something in her monitor.
There’s no need for apologies here. When Kay sings “Menstrual Hut,” she shrugs off the fact that the members of GITN are mostly post-menopausal now. It was always about hanging out with other women anyway. And when Girls in the Nose makes a reference to the women’s health movement in a song like “Breast Exam,” it’s with a sly, sexy wink. Are they really singing about breast cancer screening? Or are they instructing you in how to squeeze and tug a nipple for more nefarious purposes? Does it have to be an either/or? When percussion/keyboard player Joanna Lebow is cavorting with the Les Nez dancers, I forget to care.
Most reunions are about looking back, and there was a warm glow of nostalgia over the evening, but Girls in the Nose’s performance didn’t feel dated. It was as if—to quote another beloved queer Texas band—they were “sent to us in a time capsule from the future.”
When I grow up, I want to be Girls in the Nose.
There’s one more opportunity to see GITN reunite on January 8 at Cheer Up Charlies.
Welcome to my weekly post featuring photos that didn’t make it into Queer Rock Love, but probably should have.
This week’s image complements Chapter 28, “No Shortage.”
One afternoon, Waylon was engaged in an art project of his own devising, which involved gluing a bunch of sequins to a cork. As he was working at the kitchen table, I heard him singing a little song that went “God is inside of every thing, God is inside of everything, God is inside of everything!” The melody sounded a lot like the Ramones, but the lyrics gave me pause.
“Who taught you that song? Did you learn that in Sunday school?” I asked. I realized I had no clear idea what he learned when he attended the children’s activities at Trinity.
“No one taught it to me. I taught it to myself.”
“Oh, okay. That’s good.” I picked up a few stray sequins and put them back in his pile.
“Mom,” he said, still gluing.
“God is inside of this table.”
Ready to read more about a gay, trans, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South? Order the book or come to Naked Girls Reading Austin this Saturday to hear an excerpt read by a real, live naked girl.
This year, the organizers of Austin’s annual Transgender Day of Remembrance memorial have asked psychotherapists from the LGBT community to be available at City Hall for participants who may need support after the event.
Their request is a recognition that bearing witness to violence—both physical and systemic violence—can be emotionally devastating. It’s crucial for communities to come together, mourn their dead, and organize for the future. But how can members of a vulnerable community remember acts of violence without becoming re-traumatized?
More than 200 names will be read at 2014 DOR memorials all around the country. That’s 200 human beings, many of them trans women of color, who have died because of anti-transgender violence in the past year. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. No one knows how many deaths go uncounted.
“It’s a difficult event to attend,” says blogger Autumn Sandeen. “It’s a difficult event to plan.” In a recent article for San Diego’s LGBT Weekly, Sandeen wrote about the numbness that some long-time trans activists feel in response to the ongoing violence.
My wife, Katy Koonce, has been attending Austin’s TDOR since the beginning. As a trans-identified psychotherapist, she has helped countless clients sort through their feelings after Day of Remembrance. I asked Katy for her tips on emotional self care for folks who are attending this year’s event. Here’s what she had to say:
1. Look around. This may be the most transgender people that you’ve ever seen in one place. Remember that, despite all the violence and discrimination, our community continues to grow and organize. They can’t keep us down.
2. Talk to people. Generally speaking, trans people like to help other trans people. If you’re new to all this, ask about what else is going on in your community. If you’re an old-timer, pay it forward.
4. Observe yourself with compassion. Take note of the things that trigger you. Sometimes the hardest thing about TDOR may be hearing from PFLAG parents and thinking about your relationship to your own family or hearing from trans youth and thinking about your younger self.
5. Remember to breathe. Take in the faces around you. Make eye contact. The anxiety you’re feeling is most likely not about the now. You’re here, surrounded by other people who have come out for similar reasons. Let yourself be in the moment.
Transgender Day of Remembrance
Thursday, November 20th, 2014
Austin City Hall, 301 W 2nd St, Austin, TX 78701
Last night was the final Sunday night at the Dog and Duck Pub on 17th and Lavaca.
My sweetie Katy and her best friend Nancy have been spending Sunday nights at the Dog and Duck Pub for twenty-one years.
That’s longer than my parents were married.
That’s longer than The Beatles were a band.
If Katy and Nancy’s Sunday night ritual was a person, it would be old enough to join them at the Dog and Duck for a drink.
Nancy and Katy actually met for the first time at the Dog and Duck. It was 1991, and Katy still had long, permed tresses a la Jon Bon Jovi. By chance, she happened to make the acquaintance of a group of gay girls from College Station. Katy was intrigued by these college-educated queers with their hairy armpits and Doc Martens and dark beer. She made plans to meet her new friends at the pub, and they showed up with Nancy in tow.
Flash forward a year. At the tail-end of a long and booze-soaked Pride weekend, Katy and Nancy were feeling the Sunday blues. They decided to meet for one last drink at the Dog and Duck, and the tradition stuck. Pretty soon, other people started to drop by every week too. The Dog and Duck was like Katy and Nancy’s living room. No need to call ahead or make a plan—if it was Sunday night, you could pretty much count on the fact that they would be there.
Sometimes people would come to the Dog and Duck regularly, and then life would pull them away. They might resurface years later and start attending the Sunday night sessions again without skipping a beat. I came along in 2001, which makes me somewhat of a newbie. Even after thirteen years, I still occasionally meet old-timers who are new to me.
The Sunday night tradition has outlived jobs, pets, apartments and more. Katy and Nancy both swear that more than one romance ended because of a girlfriend who didn’t respect Dog and Duck time. I’ll admit that when our son was a baby, I didn’t always relish the idea of Katy spending the difficult bedtime hours at a bar. But I’ve also felt pretty damn lucky to have a spouse who really nurtures her friendships. It takes a lot of pressure off when you know that you’re not your partner’s only means of emotional support.
Sunday night conversations at the Dog and Duck can range from raunchy to tearful. Last summer, when my family of origin was in crisis, the battered picnic tables in the courtyard were my refuge—a place where I could narrate the whole, complicated story without interruption and then ask for insights from my friends.
It would have been easy for the ritual to fall by the wayside when Nancy started traveling for work. These days, she’s out of the country almost as often as she’s home, and it takes more intention to keep track of the schedule, but Sunday nights at the Dog and Duck have remained the default.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault said that homosexuality wasn’t subversive as a way of having sex, it was subversive as a way of life. As queer people, one of our strengths is that we hold on to our subcultures and friendships. We don’t put away childish things, we weave them into the fabric of lives that don’t follow straight lines. But it’s not easy to maintain long-term relationships that aren’t legitimized by blood or matrimony or profit. (There’s a reason why we say gay couples who have been together for ten years are the equivalent of straight couples who have been together for twenty-five.) That’s especially true for adult friendships, because our culture lacks ritualized times and places that preserve and strengthen those bonds.
Last night, I raised a glass to Nancy and Katy, thanking them for making a time and a place for friendship in their own lives, and in the lives of so many others. Now the ground is shifting, but the roots are still strong. May we nurture them, and may they bloom wherever they are planted.
Last year, my son had an elementary school teacher who actually talked about gay people.
Last year, for the first time since kindergarten, Waylon’s classmates didn’t give him any flack about our unusual family. Fourth grade went by without an insult, an indignant question, or even a casual “that’s so gay.”
Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I happened to be in the classroom on the day after President Obama’s inauguration address. The students were studying the Civil Rights Movement.
“Boys and girls,” Mrs. Hardwick began, “yesterday the President mentioned the march from Selma along with two other movements. Who can tell me what other equal rights movements he mentioned?”
Hands shot up around the classroom. I looked at Waylon. I knew he knew. When the POTUS mentions Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall in the same breath, you can bet your sweet lentil casserole that it’s going to be dinnertime conversation in our queer feminist home.
But Waylon didn’t raise his hand. He was waiting to see what his classmates would say.
Mrs. Hardwick called on the first student, a little girl who proudly answered “women’s rights.”
“Yes, that’s right!” the teacher said. “What else?”
At this point, Waylon looked like his eyes were going to pop out of his head. It was a rare—perhaps unparalleled—moment in his education.
Fewer hands were raised now, but there were still some eager answerers. Mrs. Hardwick called on a little boy who was half perched on the back of his chair.
“Uh,” he said, as if he hadn’t quite thought of what he was going to say. “Gay marriage?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Hardwick said. “The president mentioned the fight for equal rights for gay and lesbian people.”
I looked at my son and saw relief mixed with wonder. His private home world had emerged into the classroom, and no one made any derisive remarks. It was just a simple connection between the course material and current events, the kind of thing that good teachers do all the time.
But it was a big deal, because the elementary curriculum in Texas is silent on the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks.
Currently, our district’s elementary anti-bullying initiatives tend to be what University of Texas Psychology professor Rebecca Bigler calls “pro-social” interventions. They focus on interpersonal conflict rather than intergroup bias and emphasize empathy and social skills over teaching students to name and critique inequality.
When it comes to gender and sexuality, these “pro-social” interventions may miss the mark. According to Dr. Bigler, kids who enforce gender norms don’t necessarily intend to be hurtful. Sometimes, they’re merely sharing what they believe to be true.
So the kid in first grade—the one who told Waylon that it wasn’t possible for two moms to have a child—she wasn’t trying to be mean. She was merely sharing what she believed to be true about gender and families. And the current K-5 curriculum wouldn’t leave her any wiser on that score.
In a soon-to-be-published paper, Dr. Bigler and her team compared students who received pro-social training to students who received pro-egalitarian training that named sexism and put it in a context of social inequality. They found that students who received the pro-egalitarian training were more likely to be able to critique sexist stereotypes in the media and more prepared to challenge gender-based exclusion and teasing among their peers than those students who received standard pro-social lessons that emphasized inclusion and kindness.
Clearly, I can’t prove a causal relationship between my son’s year without bullying and his teacher’s willingness to name gay and lesbian people and talk about their struggle for equality. But, as a mom and a former teacher, I know that kids are smart. If their classroom lessons are silent on the subject of LGBT people, they’re going to understand the underlying message that some people and families are less than worthy.
I’m urging my district to adopt the Welcoming Schools curriculum, which puts LGBT families in a broad context of diverse families and teaches elementary students to avoid gender stereotypes. Welcoming Schools offers a wide range of resources for school administrators and educators to support students who don’t conform to gender norms, and it has been successfully implemented in diverse districts across the United States. Read more about it, and talk with your principal and school district about a collaboration that can be tailored to meet your school’s needs.
Philip Koonce II, beloved husband, father and coach, passed away on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. He was born on October 16, 1926, in Shreveport, Louisiana to Dr. Philip B. Koonce, Sr. and Mabel Koonce. Philip is survived by his children: Philip Koonce, III and his wife Gail, Blaine Koonce and his wife Lynn, and Katy Koonce and her wife Paige; his grandchildren: Cody, Bryan, Brent, Haley, Andrea, Jenna, Stephanie, Dylan, and Waylon; and seven great-grandchildren.
I pulled up to Daddy Phil’s house just before the viewing. The family was already at the funeral home, but the garage door had been left open to reveal rows of folding chairs and card tables bedecked with vinyl tablecloths.
Inside the house, the kitchen counter was crowded with boxes of kolaches. I knew that food would continue to roll in throughout the evening and the next day. Friends and family would appear in an intricately choreographed dance, unloading ice and coolers, cookies and casseroles, sodas and red Solo cups.
Growing up in Carthage, Texas, Philip dreamt of becoming a famous country singer like Tex Ritter (another Carthage native son). His mother, the indomitable Mabel Koonce, wrote to Ritter for advice. The country music legend responded with a long letter that said, essentially, “It’s a hard life. Go to college. Explore your options.”
In 1944, Philip enrolled at the University of Texas. He played football and (at Mabel’s insistence) interned for a state senator. Drafted at the end of the war and stationed in the Philippines, Philip found an unusual niche. At 19, he was recruited to coach and quarterback a football team for the Air Core. He also helped organize entertainment for the USO. In a letter, he told Mabel that it was “the kind of a job I’ve always wanted and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”
After the war, Philip attended the University of Houston. He walked on to the football team and eventually won a scholarship. He met his future wife, earned a master’s degree in education, got married, and moved to Texas City to begin his career as a high school football coach.
The Koonces are a musical people. Katy’s mother, Donna, wrote volumes of rhyming verse. Her couplets could be simultaneously sappy, pointed and inspired. She might wax poetic about a mother’s love, but she was equally likely compose an epic guilt trip.
Katy’s oldest brother, Phil III, has been known to rhyme as well. His ode to Father’s Day, “A Few Things I Remember About Dad,” hung on the wall above the old man’s bed.
As lead singer for Butch County, Katy growls her rhymes. They’re less sentimental, more sexual, filled with fictional characters and intricate rhetorical acrobatics.
Katy’s middle brother, Blaine, is the kind of musician who can play anything with strings. He’s been in all kinds of bands, from bluegrass to gospel, but his real genius is improvising songs for any occasion, which he delivers in a charismatic comic deadpan.
Despite his reserved demeanor, Daddy Phil had a beautiful voice, which he shared in rare performances at anniversaries and family gatherings.
On the evening of his funeral, friends gathered around the card tables in the garage. They came to eat and talk, to comfort and commiserate, but mostly to listen and to sing.
Sandra and April brought a cooler full of ice.
Pammie brought pasta.
Leigh Ann and Redonda brought King Ranch casserole.
Dede brought paper products, including extra t.p.
Someone brought shrimp slaw and made sweet tea.
Someone else wrote it all down on a yellow legal pad in the kitchen.
Blaine held court with his guitar. As the night wore on, he and his friend Victor played everything from “Let It Be” to “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” The mourners overflowed into the driveway and coalesced around the beer coolers. In the darkness, the warm yellow light of the garage was like amniotic fluid, enveloping and protecting the dearly beloved. I put my arm around my queer-as-shit wife and sang along about “kicking hippies’ asses and raising hell.”
I had hoped to see Katy’s nephew, Bryan Koonce, hip-hop impresario and aspiring MC. After Katy’s mom’s funeral, he had delivered a manic, virtuosic description of what it was like to smoke salvia. I was curious what more I might learn.
I found him inside the house with his two sisters, Andrea and Jenna. They were sitting on the family room couch, texting, seemingly separate from the rest of the party.
“Do you remember me?” I asked, plopping down on the rocking chair. “I’m Paige, Katy’s wife.”
“Yeah, I remember you,” Bryan answered, friendly but distracted by his phone. All three siblings have young kids, and all three live together at their mom’s house. His sister said something under her breath. They seemed to be sparring in real time and via text simultaneously.
“We’re kind of the Jerry Springer side of the family,” Bryan said, bashfully.
I gazed at the family photos on the opposite wall. If they had captions, they’d read like a rolodex of reality show plots: “Addiction Killed My Mama,” “The Brother I Never Knew I Had,” “My Daughter Looks Like a Man.”
“Which side isn’t the Jerry Springer side?” I asked, sweeping my arm around the room and including myself.
“True,” he laughed. I’m not sure if he registered the irony that I, the unlawfully wedded wife of the prodigal daughter, was awkwardly trying to reassure the first-born son of the first-born son.
In 1969, Philip moved to Lake Jackson, Texas, to work with at Brazoswood High School. For 16 years, Koonce served as Assistant Head Football Coach and Defensive Coordinator, helping to guide the Brazoswood Buccaneers to eight district titles and to the state championship in 1974. Former players remember him as stern and disciplined yet compassionate, an introvert with a sense of humor and a talent for storytelling.
I did not grow up in a close-knit community. I never learned to anticipate the needs of grieving neighbors, nor did I know the spiritual comfort that these small gestures give.
I have been honored to write obituaries for both of Katy’s parents, and I have rarely felt so purposeful, rarely known such a fit between the task at hand and my humble tools.
I can’t spin rhymes, can’t keep a tune, but I’m lucky to cast my lot with people who know how to sing and to grieve.
As I was writing this, I found an apropos video by Bryan Koonce. Sample some Koonce family rhymes:
And the soul that I have will lay next to Dodie
Sippin’ on some scotch and listenin’ to oldies
Credits: Kolache photo by Chmee2; Tex Ritter photo from Capitol Records (public domain). All other photos courtesy of Koonce family.
This fall, as elementary-age kids head back to the classroom, some transgender students are returning with more than just new school supplies. For these children, the beginning of the academic year is an opportunity to introduce a new name, new pronouns, and a new social identity.
Over the past several years, resources for transgender elementary students and their families have grown rapidly. They now include multiple mainstream media reports (with varying levels of accuracy and sensationalism), new organizations such as TYFA and Gender Spectrum, and innovative medical protocols to delay the onset of puberty. While access to these resources is by no means universal, it is becoming increasingly possible for elementary-age children to begin their transition before the maelstrom of middle school.
However, as Elizabethe Payne and Melissa Smith suggest in their recent Huffington Post article, most elementary school teachers and administrators have not been trained in strategies for create an inclusive learning environment for gender nonconforming and transgender students.
As an elementary parent and an educator, I am passionate about welcoming schools. Katy Koonce and I recently had the privilege of creating a training for teachers and staff at a local elementary school. There are stellar materials available, and I wanted to share our outline and some of the things that we found most helpful.
Establishing a developmental timeline
As Payne and Smith point out, “Americans think of young children as ‘innocent’ and ‘asexual,’ so sexuality is considered unmentionable in elementary classrooms.”
Children are perceived as ‘too young’ for such conversations. Because of the ways gender and sexuality are connected in our culture and thinking, addressing non-normative gender brings the ideas of ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ into the ‘innocent’ elementary school space and is thus dangerous.
The first task of our training was to reorient teachers and administrators with accurate information about gender and child development. We used Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s The Transgender Child, specifically chapter three, “Developmental Stages and the Transgender Child,” which contains a detailed breakdown of gender identity at different ages. (If you don’t have access to the book, there is a version of this timeline available on the Gender Spectrum website.)
Information about developmental stages (hopefully) speaks to elementary educators in the language of their professional education. Our next step was to introduce them to the words and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming elementary students. (Again, our overarching concern at the outset of our presentation was to convince listeners that “this really happens at the elementary level.”)
To this end, our training included excerpts from Queer Youth Advice for Educators, which is based on interviews with LGBT youth from across the nation and includes several personal stories about elementary school experiences. This book is available as a PDF download from What Kids Can Do, and hard copies are available for $9.95. I give copies to school counselors and administrators whenever I can.
Establishing the costs of inaction
Once we had established that gender identity is within the purview of elementary education, we wanted to briefly highlight the social and emotional costs of unprepared schools. The personal narratives from Queer Youth Advice for Educators continued to be helpful on this point, especially when paired with GLSEN’s Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. Based on the 2007 National School Climate survey, this report speaks to educators in their language, linking harassment and lack of safety to poor educational outcomes.
In our case, we felt it prudent to follow the carrot of educational outcomes with the big stick of federal antidiscrimination law. Presumably most educators are already familiar with Title IX, the section of the Education Code that prohibits gender discrimination. We were excited to learn about a 2010 letter from the Department of Education that interprets Title IX as applying to gender-based discrimination that targets transgender students.
Title IX prohibits harassment of both male and female students regardless of the sex of the harasser—i.e., even if the harasser and target are members of the same sex. It also prohibits gender-based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex-stereotyping. Thus, it can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment and gender-based harassment of all students, regardless of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the harasser or target.
Special thanks to the National Center for Transgender Equality for making this letter available as a PDF on their blog.
Outlining best practices
At this point, we felt it was important to move into practical, proactive policy recommendations. For this particular educational context, our recommendations included the following:
Honoring preferred name and pronouns
Staff and faculty training
Addressing gender inclusion in the curriculum
Our recommendations were based on personal experience as well as three excellent resources:
Initially, making suggestions for gender-inclusive curriculum seemed like the tallest order. After all, we live in Texas, a state that’s not exactly known for its progressive curriculum. Luckily, my friend Abe Louise Young alerted me to Gender Doesn’t Limit You: A Research-Based Anti-Bullying Program for the Early Grades, which was developed by the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab at the University of Texas and distributed through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program. While not explicitly designed to speak to transgender issues, these detailed lesson plans include case studies and rhyming scripts to help young children learn to analyze and respond to gender-based bullying, and many of the examples involve behaviors that don’t conform to rigid gender norms. As an added bonus, the rhyming scripts can be useful for teachers who need words to respond to gender bias and bullying on the spot in everyday classroom contexts.
We learned a great deal from our first training with elementary educators, and we hope to continue to work with more schools and to share resources with other people engaged in similar projects. Personally, I’d like to write some case studies based on experiences of elementary students who have transitioned at school. Do you have other suggestions for other resources or ideas to help us improve?
Paige Schilt has taught college students for 18 years and served as Interim Assistant Dean of Student Multicultural Affairs at Southwestern University in 2011-2012. Katy Koonce is a former school social worker and a psychotherapist in private practice.