How accepting is our high school community? Gender-variant student prompts analysis of our school’s climate

Hannah Fagen and Daniella Philipson, Hannah Fagen, and Daniella Philipson

When we push open the bathroom door, most of us don’t even think about the door that we are walking through, or the significance of the label printed on the door, complete with a cartoon of the specified gender, just to clear up any confusion.  Many students probably don’t realize that for some students at Schreiber, gender is a question and not a fact.  This reality, which can be difficult for some students to grasp, may be even more challenging for Schreiber to approach as a whole.

For sophomore Adam Harris, who prefers to be called Courtney, gender identity has certainly come into question.  Rather than identify as strictly male or female, Harris identifies as “gender variant,” or somewhere in between the two standard genders.

“Right now I like to identify as a female, but I am very confused,” said Harris.  “I feel more comfortable in a girl’s body.”

Although Harris realized that she was gay around age 10, it was not until this school year that she questioned her actual gender, and began sometimes dressing in a traditionally female manner at school.  Although Harris is not the first Schreiber student to dress in a gender-nonconforming way, Harris is particularly vocal about it, and has forced the school to address some difficult issues relating to gender variant or transgender students.

While Schreiber does not have specific rules in dealing with transgender students (administrators have always approached the issue on a case-by-case basis), the school does have an active Gay-Straight-Alliance, led by ESL teacher Mr. John Davis, and counseling is available to any students who seek it.

The goal of any administrative action in the matter is to allow students to focus on being students, instead of worrying about how they will be perceived as a result of their genders or sexual orientations.

“I think it’s hard to learn if your mind is very emotionally distracted, and so part of what I think with this kind of issue is that it’s important to remove those unnecessary distractions so that you can produce,” said Assistant Principal Dr. Brad Fitzgerald.   “And I think if these kids feel comfortable and supported, my expectation is over time, they will be sitting in class and thinking in terms of math or English and their brain will be on that because they are very satisfied in other ways.”

Administrators allow Harris to use the school nurse’s restroom to change and use the facilities, but Harris still has trepidations about coming to school.

“I’m concerned to this day.  Every day coming into school about what kind of reactions I’ll get,” said Harris.  “Gay people are usually supported, but it’s difficult for transgenders.  For being gay, it’s illegal to be discriminated against.  The laws are very difficult.”

All in all, Schreiber appears to be largely accepting of students’ gender identities and sexualities.

“I think Schreiber is a very accepting place. That has always been my experience.  I think the teachers and the parents and the kids around the building, 90% percent, a very overwhelming majority, have been very accepting,” said Dr. Fitzgerald.

Harris describes negative experiences at another school. “This isn’t the case at Schreiber,” said Harris.

There are many resources in the school and local area for LGBT students, including  Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY) in Garden City and Pride for Youth (PFY) in Bellmore.  Both organizations offer services and education for Long Island’s LGBT community, frequently host events, and provides a “safe space” for members.

“I’m a part of the GSA here,” said Harris.   “Mr. Davis is very accepting and everything. I also go to a place called PFY and its like a coffee house and there’s dancing and it’s a safe place for LGBT.   There’s parties there and meetings there.  They talk about friendships.  It’s just a safe place where I can be excited to go on a Friday or to talk about relationships.”

On paper, Schreiber aims to accommodate students of all gender identities and sexual orientations.  Schreiber’s limited dress code states that “the responsibility for student dress…shall rest with the individual students and parents,” and includes no specifications as per gender-specific requirements for dressing.

The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which became law in July, created a statewide zero-tolerance bullying and discrimination policy, and explicitly states that students must be treated in uniformly tolerant and respectful manners, without regard to sexuality or gender identity.

Yet, still, more can be done to help all students feel comfortable in the building, according to Harris.

“I think kids need to be more open minded and ask questions and not judge.  You can’t make fun of someone because of how they are born,” said Harris.

“I get looks and I get made fun of. I guess that we just have to keep going on. I am not going to fake who I am for a school because I am just going to stay who I am.  I am still afraid of going into school.  I am afraid walking in the halls.  I shake, but you know what, I still have to keep going with my life.  Nobody is going to stop me.”