Back to School Q&A with Trans Activist Daniel, 16, of Lakeview School District

We’ve blogged earlier in the year about the decision of Lakeview School District in Mercer County to expand their nondiscrimination policies to explicitly address needs of transgender students. This was a rule change to better comply with existing policy, not a new policy altogether. When the School Board met in May, one student – Daniel – stood up to speak in favor of the policy.  Daniel was accompanied to the meeting only by his sister. He was also part of a conversation in July.

His courage really struck me and as we all gear up for back-to-school, I thought it would be a good time to talk with him.

Your Name: Daniel
Your Age: 16
Your Pronouns: He/Him

How do you describe your identity? I am a biracial trans man with autism.

Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life?  Funnily enough, I never formally “met” another queer person. I grew up around several gay family members, including my cousin Tara, who has been an open lesbian as long as I can remember. Growing up there was a generally positive atmosphere surrounding the LGBTQ+ community in my family from an outside perspective. I never met another trans person until junior high when my best friend came out as genderfluid about a year before I came out. I would definitely say that they have had the greatest impact on my life, which is largely positive. They have been extremely supportive through everything I’ve done and were the first person to introduce me to the idea of genders outside the typical binary.

Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community.  

There isn’t really much to describe honestly. Other than myself and a few friends, I only know of maybe two LGBTQ+ people my age in this area. Most of my experience with fellow trans and GNC people has been online.

Please tell us about your academic and extracurricular experiences in the Lakeview School District? 

Academics and school work have always been easy for me. I was never quite stimulated enough to actually care about my grades until high school, so I often flew by with the bare minimum and got average or above average scores anyway. As for the extracurricular aspect of school, I never found any of the clubs or sports offered at Lakeview to be interesting enough to dedicate myself to long-term. I’m not athletic at all, and most of my teammates would end up being my classroom bullies, so that already narrows my prospects to the few non-athletic clubs at Lakeview. I ended up starting my own club–the Diversity Club–last year.

The district has implemented new rules specifically changing the bathroom rules to be in compliance with the school district’s existing non-discrimination policy. Please tell us in your own words how the new rules will work in the school district.

It seems like common sense to me. I’d hardly even call the concept a “rule.” The new bathroom policy allows transgender students (I say students because I know there are more than just myself) to use the bathroom that corresponds best with their gender identity. The policy also allows for anyone of any gender to use the single-stall bathrooms throughout the school at any time with no need for explanation. I would say that my only critique with these guidelines would be the fact that trans students have to clear their usage of the opposite bathroom with the office and the implication that the administration would ask for parental approval before allowing said student to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable in. This leaves room for subconscious bias and discomfort on the student’s part, as well as the potential to accidentally out the student to family or peers at a time when that is not safe and/or ideal for them. I hope to work with officials at the school this coming year to help work out the gray areas of this policy.

When and how did you first learn about these changes? What was your initial response?

I first learned of the changes when one of the guidance counselors called me to his office upon hearing from another student that I had been using the boys’ bathroom by the gym. He and one of the administrators told me that they were going to discuss this with the school board to potentially construct a new policy to protect students like me. Shortly after they showed me a draft of the letter sent to parents in the district and asked for my opinion on it. It looked like it was written as clearly and openly as it could be in an area like this. I was very supportive of the new policy even in the beginning stages because I felt that it was time for positive change at Lakeview.

The district sent a letter to all parents informing of the changes which is how I and many members of the public learned about the changes. How did the community’s responses to the letter and the new rules impact you? 

I had already prepared myself for a negative and possibly ignorant public response, so I wasn’t very disturbed at first. However, the first few days after the letter had been mailed out were pretty rough. There were a lot of fights on social media, most of them between me and several transphobic individuals in the district. My anxiety was extremely high during the first week or so, although no one at school said anything to me one way or the other. In retrospect I suppose that a lot of my discomfort could have been avoided if I hadn’t been so confrontational and defensive, but I’m a teenager. I’m passionate about what I believe in, and sometimes my passion overrides my ability to make sound decisions about my emotional health.

This topic was addressed at a School Board meeting on May 21, 2018. You were the only openly LGBTQ student to speak at this meeting. That was very brave of you. What compelled you to speak up surrounded by so many hostile voices? 

I had already been defending myself in petty disagreements in class, so I saw an opportunity to present accurate information on a large scale. I realized that no one else was going to stand up for our rights, so I felt it was my responsibility to do so. Many of the arguments people were giving against the policy were repetitive nonsense with little or no grounding in reality. Speaking up was rather easy in most cases due to the shaky foundation of these arguments.

The District scheduled an information meeting in late July to inform and educate the community about the new rules, the legal requirements for the school district, and the experiences of LGBTQ students.  Did you see any positive response to this meeting? 

There was positive response in the form of my supporters who attended the meeting alongside me. We were all hopeful for a positive outcome, which we received from the District. We may be physically outnumbered, but our points and sense of brotherhood are much stronger than the chaotic backlash of a few misinformed bigots.

Video courtesy of PA Youth Congress. Keep scrolling for the interview.

There is a possibility that parents can file a lawsuit challenging the new rules, as happened in Pine-Richland School District. Those challenges have not been upheld by the federal courts, meaning the nondiscrimination policies remain in place and cover access to the bathrooms and locker rooms. Can you tell our readers how it feels to have your personal bodily needs and safety contested to the point of a federal lawsuit? 

On the surface it feels insulting and unnecessary, but it’s almost laughable when I really think about it. A small group of mostly low-income rural Conservatives are so against me using the bathroom that they are willing to spend excessive amounts of time and money taking this case to court, where it will almost certainly be decided against them. I don’t mean to sound condescending, but there are an infinite number of ways to better spend one’s time and money.

The media in the Shenango Valley in a general sense seems to be increasingly unfair and inaccurate in their coverage of stories involving transgender community members, most recently the trial and sentencing of Claire Wolfever. Is that harsh tone something students hear/read and does it have an impact on you?  

I know that some students including myself have heard about Claire’s case, but on a large-scale most of Lakeview’s student body is blissfully unaware of the injustices committed against trans people in our area almost daily. I think the worst part of local media is the lack of reporting on issues affecting transgender people in the Valley. It really feels like local news sources only report on trans people who do something bad or socially unacceptable, which definitely influences the overall opinion of trans people in the area. Claire’s case in particular is a very blurry, morally gray area of local social issues that affect us all. Personally, the biggest impact it has had on me are the feelings of isolation I have. I feel like I have no one to look up to or relate to in this part of Pennsylvania, and the vastly negative media impressions of trans people sometimes make it hard for me to overpower the internalized transphobia I grew up with.

Based on public content, many parents and adults in the community seem to be vastly misinformed about gender identity and gender nonconformity. Is that also true of other students?

In general, yes. Many of my classmates have expressed their confusion about gender variance, some in a very rude manner. There have been at least two different students who have called me the t slur, including a male in my grade who so affectionately refers to me as “Danny the tranny.” If I so much as bring up the presence of nonbinary people from a historical perspective, some other students will do nothing short of throw a tantrum. I really do try my best to educate those around me, but sometimes I genuinely can’t tell if someone actually wants to learn, or if they are trying to get me riled up for entertainment.

What resources would you suggest for other youth and adults to learn more about these various topics? 

There are many online resources that anyone can use, including the Human Rights Campaign, Trans Student Educational Resources, and a number of transgender social media personalities. My personal favorites are Jeffrey Marsh and Chase Ross. The best way to learn though would just be to ask us!

What details and facts are not part of the conversation? What are people missing when they leap right to some hateful stereotypes and distortions? 

Statistics. Many, many studies have proven these stereotypes to either be skewed or entirely incorrect. The whole “transgender rapist” trope has no basis in reality; in fact, trans people are over four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their cisgender counterparts. Another important part of the conversation would be the fact that trans people aren’t just a giant group of similar or identical people. Some estimates place self-identified trans people as upwards of 3% of the world’s population, which would mean there are well over 80 million of us around the globe. Eighty million people have so much potential for differences, even if we all have one thing in common. There are so many intersections of identity in the transgender population: disability, chronic illness, sexuality, race, ethnicity, economic status, and so much more. We aren’t all skinny, cute white trans women who pass really well and can afford to transition.

Have you personally observed any ‘a ha’ moments by opponents to the rules who change their minds? 

Sadly, no. I’m still hopeful though!

Thinking back to when you first learned about the rule changes, do you feel the same way? Are the new rules worth all of the vitriol and efforts to educate? 

I would say so, yes. Change is bound to happen whether we like it or not, and we can either be stuck in a perpetual loop of dissatisfaction, or we can hitch a ride on the road to change and become a positive part of it.

Are you aware of other school districts in Western PA considering similar policy changes? Do you have advice for the students in those districts? 

I haven’t heard of any other schools in the area considering a change similar to this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other schools decided to follow in the footsteps of Lakeview. If there are any other trans students out there facing similar issues: just keep going! If this is important to you, be a voice for change. No one can change who you are, so just be proud and go with the flow. The bad stuff will be over before you know it.

How has this experience changed your life? Will you continue to be an LGBTQ activist?

Definitely. I don’t intend to stop fighting for our rights until I take my last breath. I wouldn’t quite say this has changed my life, but it certainly jumpstarted my involvement in activism. On a macro scale, not much has changed. I’m still just an average teenage guy floating through small town life and trying to organize my college resume.

What organizations (and people) have been allies to you and other trans students during this process?

The most notable people who have helped me personally would be the PA Youth Congress, and more specifically the director Jason. He was the first to reach out to me in the midst of all the controversy surrounding the bathroom policy. He has been very supportive during this entire process and even organized for me to speak at Erie Pride back in June.

Tell us about your academic plans for the next few years. 

I have narrowed down my top five college choices and am in the process of scheduling all the required testing to apply for these schools. I’m unsure of my major at the moment, but it will likely be a liberal arts or STEM field. I hope to get a doctorate in the end.

It is a running joke that upon meeting new young people, all adults ask some variation of “How was school/What’s your favorite class?” with the typical response being pretty vague. What do you want adults reading this post to REALLY know about how school is for you? 

Some of my greatest frustrations with people who have been out of school for twenty or thirty years come from the lack of understanding how much things have changed since they left school. I can’t tell you how many times my grandparents (whom I live with) have said something to the effect of “We never had to do that” despite me explaining that it is not the 1960’s anymore. School is hard, maybe even harder than it was just two decades ago. Many of us struggle to keep up with graduation requirements even though we have technology like smartphones and digital calculators at our disposal. Minority students usually have it harder as well due to internalized prejudices in the classroom and economic factors outside.

Student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida are changing the game when it comes to student led organizing. Students like you, Elissa Ridenour, Juliet Evancho, and many whose names we don’t know are having a similar impact in Pennsylvania. What can adults do to support all of you? 

This is actually a somewhat difficult question. We’re all trying to accomplish our own long- and short-term goals, and we all have our own obstacles to defeat on the way to those goals. I suppose the most general way to support all of us would be to provide mental and emotional support in difficult times. I would also say to never demean or dismiss our struggles, no matter how “little” they are. After all, we’re still kids.

Anything you’d like to add? 

The part about this being an existing policy is referring to the anti-discrimination policy banning discrimination on the basis of sex. The school takes the position that gender identity is an extension of sex discrimination.

Thank you, Daniel.

For more information on how to support students creating safe education environments, learn more about the Pennsylvania Youth Congress.  You can also follow them on Facebook.

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