The Issue: Whether you are aware of it or not, there are transgender students in our small Central Iowa school districts, and they cannot be discriminated against, under the protection of Iowa law.
The Impact: Some schools and communities are recognizing the importance of creating a better understanding of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer) students in their midst by offering educational meetings and support groups for these young people. By trying to understand the struggles these students go through, it is hoped that all people in a school district and community — teachers, non-LGBTQ students, LGBTQ students, administrators and parents — can have relationships that celebrate the diverse nature of all, despite our differences.
Ballard High School senior Alex Glenn, of Cambridge, said he always knew he was different.
“I always fought my mom on what I would wear and how to wear my hair. I had tried so hard to be ‘girly’ for my family’s sake,” he said.
And why would a senior boy have ever tried to act girly? Because Alex Glen was born a girl and lived life as a girl until just a few years ago.
“I was looking around on YouTube one night and found someone talking about what being ‘transgender’ is. As this person was talking, I related in every aspect,” he said.
Glenn is just one of a number of Iowa students who are transgender, and who have dealt with all the heartache and difficulties that trying to live as the gender that they do not feel they are, even if their biological physical makeup says so, can cause.
Last fall, Nevada High School — after postings on social media where parents were questioning the rules of locker rooms and whether a transgender student should be in the boys’ or girls’ locker room — held a community meeting, facilitated by the Iowa Pride Network, to educate parents and students who wanted to learn more about transgender students and the entire LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer) community.
Glenn has been bringing the same type of discussion to the forefront at Ballard High School.
On Feb. 1, Glenn was present for the first meeting of a group known as SAGA (Sexuality And Gender Acceptance) at the high school. Five others attended, and two more couldn’t make it that day, but plan to be part of the group.
Ballard High School Principal John Ronca has been supportive of the group’s creation, saying that Glenn has been the key person who has brought the group into existence. “Alex came to me … spoke to our entire teaching staff and found a sponsor (Amy Endres, high school art teacher),” Ronca said.
“I personally feel great about the response our teaching staff has given to Alex and students who also identify as transgender or LGBT,” Ronca said. “I also feel very good about the fact that students have ‘come out’ at Ballard High School and we have had very few issues as a result.”
Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, said the biggest challenge for Iowa high schools in creating safe and supportive learning environments is having the tools to do so. Monson said that since counselors at the schools play a pivotal role in helping with the LGBTQ issues, many schools can struggle because there are fewer school counselors due to budgets being cut year after year. Reduced counselors in schools translate to fewer research-based programs available to kids, he said.
Monson said the best thing schools can do is include curriculum and resources that reflect their diverse community. “That means library books that show it’s OK to have a single mom and two dads; it’s OK to be a boy who likes pink or a girl who enjoys building robots; it’s OK to have feelings and experiences that are different,” Monson said. “The message schools must bring is, ‘It’s OK to be the marvelous you, and here’s how we can support you as an individual child.’”
Glenn’s personal story includes experiences with bullying during his years in school, which he said happened because kids didn’t always know or understand him. “They aren’t educated in these things,” he said.
When he first “came out,” Glenn said it was to a small group of friends. “It was at the end of my sophomore year here at Ballard. The support I received from my friends was overwhelmingly amazing,” he said, admitting that it even shocked him, because he didn’t realize they would be as supportive as they were.
Even with that support, Glenn has lost people in his life. He came out to his family at the end of his junior year. His parents, he said, were “super-supportive” of him, but not all his relatives have been able to deal with the change. “I have lost close family, also,” he said.
When it came to teachers at school, he wasn’t sure how they would react, especially within a small community. He was pleasantly surprised to realize that many teachers were OK with him being transgender.
“Teachers are a key factor in LGBT students getting accepted. If teachers show that it is OK and are accepting, then students will follow. Teachers need to know what is at stake with some of these kids,” Glenn said.
At the public meeting in Nevada, it was shared that suicide rates are much higher for transgender and LGBTQ students in general than for non-LGBTQ students.
Medical doctor Alison B. Carleton, who sees a number of LGBTQ patients in her Nevada practice, said transgender kids need social support.
“The best thing we can do for our youth is to let them know we love and accept them for who they are, whoever that is,” Carleton said. “They need to see us modeling acceptance of people different from us, and they need to see people who are different from the ‘norm’ being successful in school, in relationships and in jobs.”
Glenn is excited that he has been able to push the issue of what it is to be transgender to the forefront at Ballard. Even though he leaves after this year, and plans to pursue a criminal justice degree, he leaves knowing he has made a difference for the students who are still in the district and for future students, like himself, who will be there.
His main goal, Glenn said, is to make sure that the Ballard High School environment is safe for all students. The SAGA group, he said, is not only a group for students who identify as LGBTQ, but is also open to students who want to be their allies and support them.
“I am the same person as I have always been,” Glenn said. “I don’t identify the same as I used to, but that doesn’t mean I am a different person.”
As for others like him, he assures everyone that there are others like him. “We have always been here and we aren’t going away.”
It’s like a quote he recites from Dinos Christianopoulos about the homosexual community back in the 20th century: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”