Opinions differ on proposed policy for gay, transgender students

To Oxford Superintendent Tim Throne, a proposed state policy aimed at protecting gay and transgender students is part of ongoing efforts in Lansing to reduce local control.

“In my humble opinion, this is another example of the state, whether it be (the Michigan Department of Education) or the legislature, trying to micromanage our schools,” he wrote in an e-mail interview with this reporter.

But to Lake Orion resident Lisa Goyette, the parent of a 16-year-old transgender son, it’s an absolute necessity.

“Schools have the responsibility to protect all children,” she said.

There’s certainly no shortage of opinions regarding a proposed six-page policy from the state Board of Education intended to ensure lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) students have a “safe and supportive” school environment.

More than 8,400 comments on the proposed policy, for and against, have been logged at www.everyvoicecountsmi.org, the web page where the state is collecting the public’s thoughts and opinions on this hot-button issue. The deadline for comments is May 11.

Most of the debate has centered around provisions that would allow transgender students to utilize school restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity as opposed to their biological sex.

Issues have also been raised with the proposed policy allowing students to be referred to by the name they’ve chosen and the gender with which they identify, regardless of whether or not their parents are aware.

Throne made it clear he’s “always in favor of a safe environment and nondiscrimination” when it comes to students.

However, he views the proposed policy as another instance of the state trying to do the job of local school districts.

“The further you get away from particular situations, the more likely it is that the best decision or best policy will not be rendered,” Throne wrote.

“At some point, the citizens of Michigan will need to determine if they want or believe in local control or not. Public K-12 education is the most regulated industry in this state.”

Despite the flood of public comment in cyberspace, Throne has “only received a few communications from parents” regarding the proposed state policy.

“In all cases, parents are very concerned about (it) and are against it,” the superintendent wrote.

According to Throne, the parents who have contacted the district have been concerned about the “erosion of local control” and how the proposed policy takes “parents’ input/knowledge/decision-making ability, etc. out of the process.”

Goyette isn’t among those parents. “I think (the policy is) right on target,” she said.

Goyette is the facilitator of a local support group for the parents of transgender youth that’s been meeting since January. They gather at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the month at St. Mary’s In-The-Hills Episcopal Church in Orion Township. The group, which is affiliated with Stand with Trans, is open to parents from Lake Orion, Oxford, Clarkston, Rochester, Pontiac and Troy.

Right now, the meetings are attended by about 12 to 15 parents and she said “they’re all on board” with the proposed policy.

As the parent of a 16-year-old transgender son, Goyette wholeheartedly supports these guidelines and believes they’re very much needed to help protect these students.

“The statistics show that these kids are victimized,” she said. “They’re the ones that need to be protected.”

Goyette cited a 2007 study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network that found 86 percent of LGBT youth reported being harassed at school. The study concluded the second most common reason for bullying was a student’s actual or assumed sexual orientation and gender identity.

“That’s a statistic that if (it) were applied to any other population within a school, our society would be in (a) complete uproar,” she said.

The proposed state policy makes note of the fact that, according to a national report, 26 percent of transgender students were “physically assaulted (e.g. punched, kicked or injured with a weapon) in school in the past year because of their gender expression.”

These types of incidents are completely unacceptable to Goyette.

“All children deserve to be safe when they go into a school system,” she said.

When asked if he believes Oxford’s existing policies and guidelines adequately protect LGBTQ students from bullying and discrimination, and provide them with a safe and supportive school environment, Throne replied, “Yes, I do.”

The superintendent noted he’s “not aware of any issues” related to these students “that have made their way to the central office or board level.”

“I would say that this is in part (due) to (the) good policy that our local school board has passed and good implementation/interpretation of that policy at the building level,” he wrote.

But that doesn’t mean Throne believes there isn’t room for improvement.

“Now just because we haven’t had anyone come to the board doesn’t mean that we can’t get better at ensuring that all students feel safe and not discriminated against in any situation,” he wrote.

Throne believes this should be done at the local level.

“From an implementation perspective, I believe these issues are best handled one-on-one with the individual student and his/her parents to determine a solution that works best for them and everyone involved,” he wrote.

Goyette’s support for the proposed state policy is based on personal experience.

Though born female biologically, her child identifies as a male.

“We started seeing signs when he was little,” she said.

He gravitated towards boys’ toys in stores and was interested in activities that are stereotypically associated with males.

“We thought perhaps we had a tomboy,” Goyette said.

As her son got older, more and more Goyette heard him say, “I’m not like the other girls.”

When puberty hit, she explained that’s when things got “really, really difficult” because her son’s body was physically developing as a girl, “the exact opposite” of who he was inside.

Puberty “can be absolutely hell on earth,” according to Goyette, for people like her son who have been formally diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a condition where someone feels considerable distress and inner conflict because their emotional and psychological identity as a male or female is the opposite of their biological sex.

Goyette’s son experienced intense depression and anxiety as his mind told him he was male, but his body was undergoing the changes associated with females.

“It was a very scary time for us as parents,” she said. “We just wanted to do whatever we could to help him.”

Instead of forcing him to be the girl he was born as, Goyette and her husband sought help from medical professionals, followed their advice and supported their child as their son.

“We realized this isn’t a choice,” she said. “Someone that’s truly transgender, they’re transgender.”

Today, Goyette’s son is healthy and happy.

“He is thrilled that he is finally able to present his true, authentic self,” she said. “He’s happy in his body and that’s what he tells me – ‘Mom, I happy in my body now. I’m happy that I am who I am.’”

He attends a private school in Ann Arbor and is in his junior year of high school.

He used to attend Lake Orion Schools, but Goyette said they “pulled him out” in the eighth grade when he began experiencing some issues with bullying.

“I was fearful because we live in a very hate-filled society and I was terrified for his school experience,” she explained.

Goyette chose a school 58 miles away because “I just didn’t feel like I was finding what I needed here.”

“I didn’t think the community was ready for it yet,” she said.

Transgender students have nothing to fear or hide at the Ann Arbor school.

“He’s fully accepted. He’s fully out. It’s completely a non-issue there,” Goyette said.

One of the lightning rods in the whole debate over this proposed policy is the issue of allowing transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity.

Goyette said being able to use the facility that matches their gender identity is important to transgender youth because that’s where they feel the “safest” from both a physical and emotional standpoint.

“My son fully looks male now,” she explained. “If he were to walk into the female bathroom, I can guarantee people are going to say, ‘What are you doing in here?’”

Critics of the proposed policy have expressed their concern that allowing people of the opposite biological sex to use the same facilities could lead to invasions of privacy and safety issues. Some fear this could be abused by, for example, boys who simply want to gain access to girls’ restrooms and locker rooms.

Goyette believes the whole restroom/locker room issue has been blown way out of proportion. With regard to transgender students, she said they’re not going in there to cause problems for others.

“There are no cases documented, none, of a truly transgender individual going into a bathroom to hurt someone.” Goyette said. “Someone that is truly transgender is going in there for the sole purpose of using the bathroom.”

Goyette noted people need not worry about truly transgender youth changing their gender identity on a daily basis and “flitting in and out of bathrooms” because the “courage” it takes for these kids to use the facilities that align with their gender identity “is huge” and not something that’s taken lightly.

“These are not situations where people are choosing to dress this way one day just so (they) can get into the bathroom,” she said.

As for students pretending to be transgender in order to get inside facilities for the opposite sex, Goyette said if that did occur, that would be a “discipline issue” unrelated to the needs of genuine transgender people.

“We have to be really careful not to confuse the two (issues),” she said.

Besides, she doesn’t believe students would fake being part of such a stigmatized group because of the potential harassment and bullying they would suffer.

“Any kid that wants to be identified as mainstream and is going to pull a gag like that is not going to want to do it because of the backlash that you get,” Goyette said. “Who’s going to want to say they’re transgender if they’re not? No one in their right mind will, trust me.”

When asked if the Oxford school board is going to discuss the proposed policy, Throne indicated he assumed it would “if it is determined at the state level that we need to make changes to our existing policies and guidelines.”

“The school board is constantly reviewing its policies,” he wrote. “I know they have updated numerous policies and guidelines over the past year and I would expect them to continue.

“I think that it goes without saying but I will say it anyway: Oxford will work to put policies and guidelines in place to ensure that all students are educated in a safe environment free from discrimination,” Throne noted “At this point, if parents or community members want to have their opinions heard, they need to contact their state representatives.”

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