Q: How much has changed in 40 years for victims of bullying?
A: Not enough to change KCS policy
Her name’s not Jane, but that’s what I’m calling her because she’s feeling something she thought she left behind long ago – fear.
She’d like to talk about why she thinks it’s such a bad idea for the school board to remove the words “actual or perceived gender” and “sexual orientation” from the schools’ anti-harassment and bullying policies and replace them with the word “sex.” It’s not clear who initiated the changes, or why, but Jane believes that the time has not come to make such a move and would like to speak out publicly. But today’s political climate has made her afraid.
As the first acknowledged transgender student in Knox County Schools, she knows a lot about bullying. And although her life took on a storybook quality after she was “discovered” by Wilhelmina Cooper, owner of a famous modeling agency, she’s back home now, torn between her desire to speak out and her fear of giving up her anonymity.
“I am mystified and devastated and don’t understand why this is happening,” she said. “I find it pretty incomprehensible that 40 years later we’re still dealing with this.”
Jane was labeled a boy at birth, but always knew she was a girl.
“From kindergarten on, there was hardly a day I can remember that somebody wasn’t harassing me, hitting me or beating me up. Once they locked me in my locker. It was, ‘You look like a girl. You’re a faggot.’”
When she turned 13 and started developing breasts, she became desperate.
“I remember going to my mother and standing naked in front of her and saying I need to be taken to a doctor. She was startled and agreed.”
The family doctor had a simple diagnosis:
“He told me if I would just play football, it would take care of the problem.”
Not long after the doctor prescribed the football cure, Jane heard a program on WUOT about two transsexual women that changed her life.
“I wrote the radio host and told her I was desperate, desperate – looking for someone to help me. She called me back and told me it was the most moving letter she’d ever gotten.”
She was able to get in touch with one of the women on the radio who, oddly enough, had gone to the same high school Jane attended. She helped Jane’s family arrange for her to attend a gender-identity clinic at Vanderbilt Medical Center, where she learned that her chromosomal structure was XXY rather than XY or XX.
“I was ecstatic. They said I completely identified myself as a female and their recommendation was that I begin to live as Jane, and be home schooled. Back then, you couldn’t have hormones until you were 18, and no surgery until you were 21.”
After a year of home schooling with a tutor, Jane was notified that she needed socialization and ordered to attend private school (which her family couldn’t afford), go to Helen Ross McNabb, or return to her old school. She chose the latter, which led to a “very painful, very lonely existence.”
“Word got out that I was coming back, and the first day of school, the entire student body was on the lawn, awaiting my return. It was 1977. I was 15.” Jane recalled a PTA meeting where parents expressed concerns about having someone like Jane at the school. Some went to the principal and demanded that she not be allowed to use the girls’ restroom.
“I was living and dressing as a girl, and there was no way I was going to use the boy’s bathroom – I was told they’d take a ball bat and teach me a lesson. So, I was relegated to the teachers’ bathroom, which they weren’t very happy about either, so I would try and hold my urine all day long. … I’d go in, and these teachers would give me these long, hostile looks.
“I had a nervous breakdown the following summer and attempted suicide. Trans children have the highest rate of suicide of any group of people. You feel so, so isolated. You feel that not only do people not understand you, they resent you.”
One obvious difference between 2017 and 1977 is that kids like Jane aren’t as alone anymore. Last week, the Gay Straight Alliance at Bearden High School held an early-morning demonstration protesting the proposed changes to the bullying policy. The Equality Club at Carter High School did the same.
Emily, a non-gender conforming student from an outlying county, attends L&N STEM Academy, where there is a large and active Equality Club. Zoe, a transgender girl, is home schooled, but attended L&N as a freshman. These clubs are lifelines for LGBT kids.
But that doesn’t mean there are no problems.
The Bearden kids got fliers thrown back at them, and when the Carter kids displayed a rainbow flag, other students wrapped themselves in Confederate flags, invoked the Ku Klux Klan and posted photos and veiled threats on Facebook.
Zoe, a self-described “military kid” who was bullied and sexually assaulted when she was younger, had difficulties with a gym teacher.
“He didn’t want me in the men’s or the women’s locker-room. I was like, ‘Where am I supposed to change, then?’ I used to be athletic, but now I’m not. I’m smiling because I deal with it often. If you don’t have a sense of humor about it, it’s just going to break you eventually.”
Little has changed with bathroom policy, either. When transgender students need to use the bathroom, they have to find a “safe” teacher and ask for a key to a staff restroom, thereby “outing” themselves in front of the class. What generally happens is trans students try to “hold it,” which leads to embarrassing accidents that give bullies another opportunity to harass them. Zoe used to walk several blocks to use the restroom at Starbucks rather than face the school bathroom ordeal.
Life is hard enough for these kids.
The school board should not take away language that protects them.