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Transgender students finding a voice in schools

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Jan-06-19 full text of article

Conventional school policies fail to address the needs of transgender students. A school district in Tampa changed its human rights ordinance to include gender identity and expression.

DMU Timestamp: November 09, 2018 23:10

Added January 06, 2019 at 3:59pm by Christopher Sloan
Title: full text of article

Anastasia Dawson

Oct. 03--TAMPA -- On a Saturday afternoon, Ariel Zavala sits in the back of Capelo's Salon in Tampa as her mother carefully sets her acrylic nails. Her tips are long and pointy and painted a feisty, fire-engine red.

It's hard to imagine that four years ago they were short and plain and belonged to a boy named Angel.

But like her nails, Zavala has grown. For the past two years she has lived as a transgender female.

"Freshman year was the first time I let my friends ever see my nails, and I would wear them short and a neutral color like nude or white," Zavala said. "When I would go in public I would hide them in my sleeves because I didn't want other people to see that I'm different. By junior year I started getting into rhinestones and pointy nails and showing them off."

She goes through all the emotional ups and downs of any 17-year-old teenage girl but is still working to shed her boy body. Seven months after the Tribune first reported on Zavala's transition, she's settling into her senior year at Alonso High School with a new look and a new name inspired by The Little Mermaid, the classic fairy tale of a girl who changes form to find a world where she belongs.

Like the mermaid, Ariel is also discovering the power of her voice. This school year she started the Alonso Pride Alliance, a school club where students of all sexual orientations talk about inclusion and acceptance. Sixty students have already joined. In a few months, a St. Petersburg-based film crew will begin following her and her family for a year as part of a Netflix documentary on transgender people.

In an act that would have been unthinkable for her a few years ago, Zavala held a Q and A last month with her father's co-workers at PriceWaterhouseCoopers auditors and consultants. Arturo Zavala, who once demanded his son keep his hair cut short and conservative, is now the diversity liaison for his office and gets teary-eyed when he talks about his new daughter.

"She was so confident and articulate," Arturo Zavala said. "I was just amazed. I had never seen her speak like that."

The Hillsborough County School District also has taken notice of Ariel and plans to craft a specific protection policy for transgender students in January, said school board attorney Jim Porter. School board member Cindy Stuart will meet with Equality Florida and Community Tampa Bay this week to discuss ways to keep transgender students safe and comfortable in schools, and Porter is working with other districts across the nation to learn about possible solutions.

The school district, like others in Florida, has nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies for all students, but it's been up to individual schools to create plans for transgender students, like access to the gender-neutral bathrooms.

In 2010, school board member April Griffin pushed to ensure that transgender students were covered by district policies, and Hillsborough teachers and staff also undergo special training for communicating with LGBT students.

Still, the times are changing rapidly, Porter said.

"This is not something districts have dealt with in the recent past, but more and more it's becoming a part of school life. You hear about it in the community, and the changes happen organically," Porter said. "I think it's high time that the board adopts a specific transgender policy, and I think we'll all be surprised by how many students are out there."

At Alonso, principal Kenneth Hart said he knows of nine transgender students who have come out to school psychologists this school year. Still, it's hard to know for sure how many students are grappling with their transition.

"Unless there's an issue we don't address it, it's just business as usual, though we make sure we're very sensitive to what people look like," Hart said. "I would be lying if I said we didn't have bullying; every school does, but we try to use restorative justice with a bully and make sure she or he understands the emotional and physical impact. The vast majority of the time that's successful."

In a climate survey last school year, 92 percent of Alonso High School students said they respect students who are different from them in gender, race, sexual orientation or culture, and 71 percent said they would feel comfortable reporting harassment or discrimination. However, only 26 percent said they felt peers treated each other with respect.

There are a number of reasons why transgender students fall through the cracks of conventional school policies, said John Desmond, director of the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Tampa support group -- PFLAG -- where the Zavalas attend meetings.

Students like Ariel often change their name when they change their gender, but in many schools they are still referred to by their birth name, Desmond said. Bathrooms and locker rooms are a point of contention between transgender students and their schools, and making it to the one gender-neutral bathroom in the five minutes allowed between classes can be difficult, he said.

At Alonso, teachers regularly refer to Ariel by her new name, and she is given a few extra minutes between classes to avoid confrontations with other students. She is allowed to use the gender-neutral nurse's restroom, but said she will sometimes go an entire day without going to the bathroom. Her classes are on the other side of the school, and with limited time to switch rooms, she doesn't always have time.

"If I use the girls' bathroom there will always be one girl that has a problem with it and, if I use the boys' bathroom, everyone will have a problem with it," she said. "It's the same thing in public, anywhere I go I always look for a unisex bathroom."

In the past year or two, more than half of attendees at PFLAG meetings have come out as transgender, Desmond said. Ariel has a few friends in Tampa who are transgender, but they're hard to find, she said. For the most part, she doesn't experience too much bullying despite the changes. Her style has evolved from androgynous, oversized clothes to on-trend ripped jeans, leather jackets and designer purses.

"It's very simple, but very edgy. A little bit more on the feminine side," she said.

She started taking hormones about a year ago, but they gave her migraines, eye aches and terrible mood swings, so she's taking a break for now. Her facial hair has disappeared, her features have softened and breasts have begun to grow. Her jet black hair is getting longer. She is petite, feminine and poised. She says she feels natural.

"It was like watching a pre-teen blossom," her mother, Monica Zavala, said.

More teachers recognize her now in the hallways, and she sees more same-sex couples in the halls. But the three or four boys she counts among her circle of friends have become more distant.

She worries that finding love, with a male or female, will always be a challenge.

"Even though they say they're not trying to be standoffish, I feel like deep down inside they are ashamed to be talking to me," Ariel said. "You get labeled no matter what by who you talk to, and I feel like they're afraid people might think they're gay."

Hillsborough County has already changed its human rights ordinance to include gender identity and expression, and with the legalization of gay marriage and emergence of more transgender figures in pop culture like Caitlyn Jenner, the LGBT community has begun to feel like the civil rights movement, Desmond said.

"People feel they have a right to this and they do, its really hard not to live your authentic life," Desmond said. "Very young people will self experiment with who they are and their gender, and they might come out of a phase, but by the time you're a teenager, if someone believes they are a different gender from their sex, that will probably never change."

Desmond said he regularly receives calls from parents afraid to send their children to school and worries about how instances of bullying because of gender are recorded. But Griffin said she is encouraged by how Hillsborough students seem to be more accepting of their transitioning peers. She has already heard of a newly transitioned male who hopes to run for Homecoming King.

"We can't stop students from speaking their mind, and we don't allow discrimination based on religious identity, color, gender, anything," Griffin said. "Regardless of beliefs, you have to respect others, and I think kids these days are much more accepting of those differences than my generation was."

In Hillsborough County, 21 out of 27 public high schools and the private Tampa Preparatory School have a gay-straight alliance club like Ariel's new Alonso Pride. Just a year and a half ago, there were only 15, said Frank Roder, co-chairman of the Tampa Bay Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Chamberlain, Plant City, Spoto and Strawberry Crest high schools have yet to adopt a gay-straight alliance club, and the chapters at East Bay and Tampa Bay Tech are currently inactive.

In Pasco County, eight high schools out of 12 have a gay-straight alliance club, and in Pinellas County all high schools now have a club, overseen by a district gay-straight alliance coordinator. It's up to students to form the clubs and find a teacher sponsor, which can be difficult as teachers move or are transferred, Roder said. Students also have to take the initiative to recruit and write official club rules and regulations, which can be intimidating.

"I think now we have some very strong headed students who are wanting to make a difference, and that will create a safer environment for everyone," Roder said.

In the Alonso Pride Alliance, Ariel hopes to bring in motivational speakers and athletes to pique the interests of more students. She is pleased that a majority of the members are straight students, she said, and members are already discussing future community service projects. It took a while for Ariel to find a sponsor for her club, but this year she got three. Still, not every school is welcoming.

Earlier this year, a Lake County school entered a lengthy court battle with a student over the formation of a gay-straight alliance.

The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network's annual school climate survey found 93 percent of LGBT students in Tampa high schools still regularly hear derogatory terms based on sexual identification, though that number is down from previous years.

The Youth Suicide Prevention Program reports that more than 50 percent of transgender youths will attempt suicide by the time they reach 20, and gay youths are more than four times as likely to be suicidal as their peers.

During her freshman year, as she was discovering what it means to be transgender, Ariel was one of them.

"Growing up I was very typical. I would wear sweaters, jeans and tennis shoes -- nothing crazy like what I wear now, nothing too out there -- and I was still that one kid that everyone targeted, and I couldn't fully understand why," she said.

Soon, though, Ariel will finish school and move to New York or California, where she says being different is more the norm. She'll become a celebrity stylist or, if everything goes according to plan, the first transgender Victoria's Secret Angel. She also plans to get a license in cosmetology and has toured the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Diego.

"I feel like I'm a lot more open with who I am, and when people ask me questions, I'm OK with it, but I do have those moments where I shut down," Zavala said. "It happens when you're walking around the mall or Publix and someone recognizes you. They don't know you as Ariel or Angel, but as the transgender that was in the newspaper. I don't want to be known as the transgender, I want to be known as a human being."

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Item: 2W62679837283

DMU Timestamp: December 19, 2018 18:14

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