Saturday, December 15, 2012

Transgender Kids: Inspiration and Advocacy

I am a little obsessed with NPR.  I listen to it in the car on the way to work, on the way home from work, and subscribe to multiple podcasts.  It is my secret dream to someday do something worthy of being interviewed on Fresh Air by Terry Gross.  However, my favorite hour of radio is Tell Me More, a program that seeks to explore modern life, issues, and news from a multi-cultural perspective, and multi-cultural from the broadest possible lens.  Not coincidentally, it is also my secret dream to do something worthy of being interviewed by Michel Martin, the host.  So many secret dreams, so little time.

I was driving to a meeting on Monday at just the time that Michel Martin was doing an interview that pulled me in from the moment it started.  Andy Marra is a transgender woman who was adopted by an American family from South Korea.  She recently wrote a blog entry at the Huffington Post about her experience of finding and coming out to her birth mother in Korea.  As she was going through the coming out process, she chose to delay her full transition (hormones, surgery) until she found her birth mother:

"I could never find the will to move forward with my transition -- taking hormones or surgery -- despite the opportunity to do so. And my hesitation was largely due to my unknown family living far away in Korea.  Like me, more than 200,000 Korean babies and children have been sent overseas. But less than 3 percent of us are able to find our families. The odds were clearly not in my favor. But what if I did find my family after all these years? And how would they handle meeting a young woman instead of a baby boy who should have grown into manhood? I was left with few ideas to reconcile my concerns." (source: www.huffingtonpost.com)
As she continues with her story, she finds her mother literally in the span of a few hours, and the two are reunited.  Like so many kids who are contemplating the coming-out process, she is nervous to share her gender-identity with her birth mother, a woman she has just met.  However, the turn in this story is that it is her birth mother who first broaches the subject.  She instinctually knows that there is something weighing Andy down, and after some questioning, Andy tells her that she is a transgender woman.  Her birth mother responds:

"'Mommy knew,' she said calmly through my friend, who looked just as dumbfounded as I was by her response. 'I was waiting for you to tell me'...'Hyun-gi," she said, stroking my head. 'You are beautiful and precious. I thought I gave birth to a son, but it is OK. I have a daughter instead.'" (source: www.huffingtonpost.com)
It is this moment, in this highly-charged situation of a reunited birth mother and daughter, that Andy begins to find her own self-acceptance and an ability to move forward in her own life.  You can listen to the full audio interview here.

As I've written about before, finding acceptance and support is key to the well-being of our transgender students, and, right now, the deck is stacked against them:
  • More than half of all transgender students have been physically harassed (pushed or shoved) because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • More than a quarter of all transgender students have been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Almost half of transgender students report missing at least one class in the last month and one full day of school in the last month because of concerns for their safety.
  • Transgender students who experience high-levels of harassment have an average GPA that is .5 lower than that of transgender students who experience low-levels of harassment. (source: www.glsen.org)
These students are at a higher-risk of truancy, bullying and harassment, assault, and poor academic performance.  Additionally, parent reactions to LGBT students makes a huge difference.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those students who experienced high-levels of parental rejection were:
  • Nearly six times as likely to have high-levels of depression
  • More than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide
  • More than three times as likely to have used illegal drugs
  • More than three times as likely to engage in unsafe sexual behaviors that put them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (source: www.cdc.gov)
For students who experience more acceptance from family, such as Andy, they have a support system in place regardless of their school environment.  However, for those students who are experiencing high-levels of rejection at home and are thus at higher-risk for depression, suicide, and substance use, the school environment can be make-or-break for that child.  Transgender kids in schools can be a highly emotional issue, as currently being played out in the East Aurora School District, but the data shows that this is an issue of school safety, student achievement, mental health, and even life and death.  We, as school counselors, are charged with advocating for all students, with a focus on creating an equitable and safe environment so that every child can learn.   Our transgender students fall into this category.

For resources, I would recommend taking a look at the previously mentioned CDC website, which has tips for making schools safe places for all LGBT students.  Additionally, the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight, Education Network (GLSEN) has a sample transgender policy that can serve as a conversation starter amongst your stakeholders and give you ideas about what issues need to be addressed, from bullying/harassment policy to bathrooms and locker rooms.  All of our students should have the opportunity to do well in school and have access to supports that allow them to figure out their identity for themselves, just like Andy.

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