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Transgender progress: a first step in the right direction

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Illustration by Drew Laser

Illustration by Drew Laser

Illustration by Drew Laser

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Teachers and staff often say different variations of: “Our school is a place where people feel safe” or “We’re lucky to have a student body that’s so accepting.”

Julianna Hunter (12), disagrees.  She said, “From a student’s perspective, everyone is attacking each other like animals. It may not be as bad as other schools, but things happen that the teachers may not hear or see.”

However, from a teacher’s perspective, “As far as reporting goes, I’ve heard some things always stay the same like in the hallways. Kids always report hearing that no matter what, but I haven’t heard as much about specific incidents, like derogatory terms directly to students,” said Ms. Amy Christian.

Despite the positive changes being made, Hunter said she still sees discrimination taking place against others “almost daily,” and even faces a great deal of it herself.

Hunter is a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and she personally gets discriminated against for dating a FTM (Female to Male Transgender Student).  

“At first, there were no words to describe how torn apart I was. I felt like my life was over, and there were nights I’d be up all night crying. My grades dropped, I lost friends, and I didn’t know what to do. It never stopped, even when I reached out to teachers and aides. Eventually, I just became numb to it. I believe love is love, and I won’t let comments ruin my day,” she said.

Throughout her experiences, she has learned that “bad things are always going to happen, but it’s up to you to focus on your well-being and create the life you want. The world isn’t perfect, and it never will be. There will be people who will throw you down, but you just have to learn to get back up,” said Hunter.  

Ellis Gaidamak (12), who is also a member of the LGBTQ+ community, has been dealing with discrimination since middle school when he faced jokes about being Jewish. People would often throw money at him and make him feel like less of a person.

“I know from previous experience, and from talking to friends who are also from minority groups, that it happens very often,” said Gaidamak.

Having the discrimination continue into high school because of his sexuality and gender identity “isn’t fun to experience,” Gaidamak said.

He expressed the pain that comes along with “hearing things straight to my face or hearing people talk about me and not even use the correct name for me. I didn’t want to go to school because people were going to make fun of me and whisper about me behind my back,” Gaidamak said.

One VHHS student, who chose to remain anonymous, said, “A lot of the time, I feel that these people just don’t know the negative connotation behind the words they speak, or the history behind those words and how they affect people.”  

Within the LGBTQ+ community, “If there is something about discrimination towards trans people, I think it would be some classmates being unwilling to use the correct pronouns and preferred name,” he said,    

“Some of my friends are LGBT. Their experiences are vastly different from mine. Some are transgender and do not fully pass and have to correct time after time pronouns and names. It’s a tiring process and mentally taxing. My friends haven’t had the best time coming out to people- especially parents and relatives who refuse to learn.”

Much like Hunter, Gaidamak said that for most people facing these issues, it’s a matter of how long you can let these things bounce off of you before you start to crumble.

In the last few years, our community has made several advances in the realm of acceptance of one another, which has created an environment where, according to English teacher and SAGA sponsor Ms. Alicia Abood, “there are more students that are more comfortable coming out right when they start coming to the school or over time, and I didn’t experience that as much when I first started teaching here. I feel like students are more comfortable just being who they are.”

Inversely, “Our school should be a safe place, but it’s not. When I first came out, I was called things like queer, trannie, and faggot. I knew that’s what people were saying, and it’s just something I’ve had to live with but that still doesn’t make it okay. It’s so frustrating that people in this school can’t have respect for other people. We’re not some kind of mythical people, and we’re not some creeps who just want to use a different bathroom. We just want to be treated equally, which is apparently too hard,” said Gaidamak,

“Sometimes it’s discrimination, but sometimes it’s also ignorance, which I feel like is just as bad. You have to be educated on the fact that these people exist, and we’re just as normal as you are.”  

Along with issues at school, there are many people that face problems in their home lives as well.  An anonymous VHHS student said that his parents “told me about effeminate boys being ‘strange’ or ‘weird,’ while I always felt that that was a weird thing to say to a child. They talked about how girls were meant to play certain roles in a family and always eventually get married.”  Looking back, he said “If there is one thing I really wish my parents told me, I wish they told me that they did love me no matter what, because after I came out to them I feel that they don’t truly acknowledge me or support me.”

At the beginning of the year, Dr. Jon Guillaume gave a much-needed speech to all of the gym classes to try to help further educate the students and combat the discrimination issue.

“I think the speech had good intentions, but people at this school definitely do face discrimination, and it’s still continuing.  After the speech, so many kids were making jokes about it,” said Gaidamak.

An anonymous VHHS student said, “I feel that the talk really served as an inconvenience to some people, but personally I felt it was a nice reminder that our school is a place for us to feel safe.”

Dr. Guillaume said that the speech that he gave to Physical Education, Health, and Driver’s Ed classes at the beginning of the year “more had to do with all of the craziness that was going on in our culture, especially over the summer. I just wanted to start the school year on the right foot, making sure kids really considered other people’s beliefs, feelings, and situations before saying something stupid. I knew going into it that I probably wasn’t going to reach everybody, but I wanted everyone to at least hear what I had to say. I can control the message, but I can’t control how it’s perceived or taken. I think most kids heard it for what it was, and it was kind of a plea to get along, to consider one another, and to respect where other people are. If people choose not to do that, then that’s sad, but that’s how the world goes.”

Although there have been a plethora of positive changes made in the last few years, there are still plenty of uncomfortable situations for many people.

“I hear stuff daily in the locker room, and it does not make me feel welcome in this school; that’s a problem,” said Gaidamak.

The student handbook said that “bullying, intimidation and harassment diminish a student’s ability to learn and a school’s ability to educate. Preventing students from engaging in these disruptive behaviors and providing all students equal access to a safe, non-hostile learning environment are important District goals.”

If these are such important goals, why are they not being achieved? Gaidamak and I both agree that “in the next few years, it would be great to see the school take more action.”

Because we, as students, obviously don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, we are unaware of all of the steps being taken to improve the quality of life and the educational environment for minorities at our school.  The many different facets of staff and faculty at our school are putting in extended amounts of time and energy to combat discrimination and bullying in our school.

There are so many changes that have already been made such as the addition of all-gender bathrooms, which are located in multiple different areas throughout the school and are “very convenient for people in our school who cannot use other bathrooms, and also are good for people who don’t want to out themselves,” said an anonymous VHHS student; initiatives to improve the locker room environment, and others.

However, even after all of these positive changes, there are still so many more improvements and ideas that are currently in the works. One example of this, as described in the Meeting Minutes for this past December’s Board Meeting, is the Diversity Initiative Project/Committee: “a three-pronged strategic plan that was developed, and will address diversity issues as they relate to school climate, student support, and curriculum and instruction.”

This program was brought to life after Guillaume had the opportunity to meet with all of our school’s clubs that represent minority groups.

“The things that those kids said was mostly like ‘overall our school isn’t racist, and overall our school is respectful, but there are kids that take things too far.’ Most often, it’s the joking that goes too far,” said Guillaume.

Much like Guillaume, an anonymous VHHS student also said that he believes discrimination takes its most prevalent form in jokes.  

As one of the teachers on the board for this project, Ms. Christian said, “I’m super psyched about it, because I’m on the committee. At the beginning I think there were 25 staff members who were interested, and now there are about 60 who are in it in some capacity. I think it’s great that we’re really talking about it, and that we’re starting to try to get some ground work started.”

Like Ms. Christian, Ms. Abood is also excited about the creation of this committee.  “I think that anything that can spark dialogue with faculty is important because, as teachers, we love to have the opportunities to talk to one another about how to make our community better, and I think that only good things can come from that,” she said.

“I think it would be just jokes made that target certain groups: They’re always lighthearted, but I worry that sometimes that they may not be,” he said.

Although discrimination is not as prevalent of an issue in our school as it may have been in the past, it still exists within our environment.

“There have been times that I have been alerted to those kinds of things, and in those cases we take very swift action; that’s not something that we play around with. Even with joking, that stuff’s just not funny; behind every joke, there’s some certain amount of seriousness, and the problem is that you can’t tell how serious someone is, so often times you assume the worst in those kinds of cases,” said Guillaume. The three prongs of this committee are, more specifically, related to “school climate, the things that we offer instructionally/teaching-wise, and social/emotional services for kids,” he said.

Overall, the staff and administration at our school are taking major steps to combat discrimination.  Although it is an underlying issue that will most likely always exist somewhere in society, the faculty here is trying as hard as they can to make the school environment as comfortable as possible for students of all backgrounds.

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Transgender progress: a first step in the right direction