NEW LONDON - When asked if they knew a student who was gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, a majority of the K-12 grade teachers in the New London-Spicer School cafeteria stood up.
When asked if any of those GLBT students struggled with issues and talked to teachers about it, nearly half of the original group stood.
When asked if the NLS teachers believed they could help remove obstacles - such as isolation, depression, lack of peer acceptance and ignorance - that prevented students from having a good school experience, every single teacher stood up.
“You are all giving a really strong message right now,” said Amy Marsicano, from the Minnesota Department of Education.
“You have the will to make school a safe place. That’s what you’re telling us today,” Marsicano said. “The Minnesota Department of Education is very pleased to be hearing this from you today.”
During a two-hour in-service training session Tuesday with NLS staff, Marsicano and two individuals with personal and volunteer experience with metro-area GLBT organizations led the NLS staff through a series of exercises and discussions as part of a process to create awareness and fine-tune school policies.
“We want to increase your comfort and skills today,” Marsicano said. “This is an ongoing core competency issue. It’s not done in two hours.”
The training was part of the school’s effort to be “proactive” regarding GLBT issues, said NLS High School Principal Kevin Acquard.
“We’re trying to make sure that all students, all adults - including the community - knows about this and what we can do better to make sure that all students are welcome here at New London-Spicer,” Acquard said.
Alison Yocum, a Twin Cities mom involved with the group called Transforming Families, said she wasn’t aware of transgender issues until her child, who was born as a female, insisted on looking and acting like a boy.
Yocum said she dismissed her child’s actions and passed it off as being a “tomboy.”
But the previously cheerful child became withdrawn and “began to shut down in alarming ways” by age six, she said. The child was either “non-communicative or raging - and the raging was bad.”
Despite seeing a therapist her child was “just a miserable kid,” Yocum said.
The “light bulb” went off when the family was shopping for school clothes when her child was nine-years-old and was “begging for boy’s underwear,” she said.
The realization that her child desperately wanted such a personal item that was identified as being male led to the family’s decision to take a “scary” step.
“We didn’t buy girls’ clothes after that day,” she said, and the family agreed to their child’s request to be called “George.”
“I have never seen a kid light up like that before,” she said.
After talking to a therapist and reading a book on transgender children, Yocum became aware, for the first time, that even very young children can be transgender.
Yocum said she told George that she now understood why he had been so unhappy
“I told him, ‘you’ve been verbally telling us this for years but we haven’t been hearing you,’ ” Yocum said, adding that she “mourned” the loss of a daughter but said it is “super easy to love your child.”
With the help of a supportive school district, Yocum said George told his classmates on the first day fifth grade about his transition by saying, “In my head and my heart I’m a boy, so I’d appreciate if you’d call me George from now on.”
“And they said, ‘OK,’ ” Yocum said.
Yocum said she has watched her now 12-year-old son “become who he is” and she encouraged NLS teachers to become educated about GLBT issues.
She gave colorful “safe space” stickers for teachers to put on their classroom doors as a signal to students looking for someone to talk to.
Yocum said she tells her family’s story to groups like NLS staff to help others learn about GLBT issues and the value of treating people like “human beings” and not necessarily like a boy or a girl.
Rox Anderson, from OutFront Minnesota, said there are many ways transgender people express their identity.
“You might know transgender people that you didn’t even know were transgender,” Anderson said. “You never know who you might be standing next to at the bank or at the grocery store or in line for lunch at the middle school.”
Yocum said creating more awareness of GLBT issues is especially important in rural communities and especially in rural schools.
“A kid in Minneapolis or St. Paul can go on-line and find 10 different resources in their area,” Yocum said. “But when you’re in a rural area, there aren’t a lot of resources, so your school needs to be that resource for these kids.”
Acquard said the district’s existing bullying policy will likely be “tweaked” to address potential GLBT issues. That process will also involve implementing school “procedures” regarding bathrooms and locker rooms that could affect transgender students.
“These are things that we’re obviously working on,” Acquard said. “We’re going to try to get the word out.”