'Boy or girl?' Gender a new challenge for schools

By Martha Irvine

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, May 28 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Cousins made fun of her, too, and once shut her in a dryer to taunt her.

Sabrina and husband Chris sat their family members down to talk and, over time, they say they came to an understanding.

"Our commitment is that our children are in an accepting, loving environment — and if someone's not on board with that, then they're not going to be around," Chris says, calmly but firmly.

They also moved to a neighboring suburb, where some said a particular elementary school would be more open to Ryan.

They still fear a harsh reaction from people outside their community. But they say most people locally have been accepting.

And she notes how well the staff at Ryan's school has handled things. She remembers meeting with the principal and teachers at the end of Ryan's kindergarten year. She told them that Ryan would likely enter first grade as a girl, then came home to find that Ryan was ready to make the transition — right then.

"I don't want to do this anymore," Ryan told her parents, referring to what she now calls the "revolving door" of changing her appearance from boy at school to girl at home.

Her mom alerted the school. "You know how we spoke about, that it might happen next year?" she said. "Well, it's happening tomorrow."

They were ready, and allowed Sabrina to explain things to Ryan's classmates — that Ryan liked to dress in girl clothes and liked girl things.

One of Ryan's friends also stood up: "I want everyone to know this is Ryan's first day as a girl, and everyone better be nice."

One boy talked about how he'd once worn his sister's shirt when his own got wet. A girl said she'd worn her brother's boots. And then the kindergarteners moved on, Sabrina says.

Of course, how a school staff and a community react still varies widely from place to place. But overall, attitudes about differences in gender identity have been changing, even in the last decade, says Eli Erlick, a transgender student and graduating high school senior in Willits, Calif., a small town in the northern part of the state.

When Erlick began her transition from boy to girl at age 8, she says that even she didn't know what the word "transgender" meant. She just knew that she wanted to live life as a girl. "I thought I was the only person like this," she says.

School was difficult. Some teachers made fun of her in front of the class, she says. To avoid dealing with which bathroom to use, she would pretend to be sick, so she could go home and use the facilities there.

Now Erlick is the director of an organization called Trans Student Equality Resources, which provides schools with training and information about students like her. Erlick also has helped her school district and others in California develop transgender policies.

Some schools in other states are doing the same.

"There is definitely more awareness," says Kristyn Westphal, vice principal at Grant High School in Portland, Ore.

There, they've established a student support team to determine how well the school is meeting the needs of transgender and other students. Earlier this year, the school also created individual gender-neutral bathrooms that any student can use.

Bathrooms often become a focal point because, when children are young, the transition is often more "social," a change in clothing and hairstyle.

As some kids move into puberty, they might use hormone blockers and, eventually, start hormone therapy to help their bodies transform from male to female, or vice versa. But any kind of surgery, experts say, is still relatively rare, even in adolescence.

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