Even though I now live three-thousand miles away in the middle of nowhere, I’m still active in the trans community of my hometown. (Actually, it’s likely because I live in the middle of nowhere that I’m active in the community….) I maintain the Facebook page for the Initiative for Transgender Leadership, and communicate with several members of other trans and LGBTQ groups. When I’m home, I try to get to at least one event or get together. In between times, I keep updated on various goings-on via Facebook and online news sources. Back in April, an article ran about the local school district’s plans to unveil a district-wide transgender non-discrimination policy (NDP). Based on the policy that’s been in place at one high school since 2014, the district-wide version merely sets things out in a such a way that every school in the district can also be accommodating of students who don’t fit into the gender binary. Prior to voting on the policy, the school board announced a series of three public hearings where anyone could speak their opinions on this and other policies or issues before the board. The first two of these hearings took place while I was still in Alaska, so I had no chance of taking part. The last, however, took place just this past Monday.
Preparing for the hearing actually began the week before, when I called the office of the board to state that I wished to speak at the upcoming hearing. I had to give my name, where I lived, and the issue about which I’d be speaking. In return, the person I spoke with gave me my number (I’d be the 21st speaker of the night), told me I would have three minutes, and requested that I bring 15 copies of my remarks for the board members.
I spent most of Monday morning writing, crossing out, re-writing, and editing what I planned to say. (Three minutes doesn’t seem like a long time until you actually try talking for that long.) I then spent time that afternoon worrying about what to wear. Polo or button down? Short sleeves or long? Tie or no tie? I eventually settled on an outfit I frequently wore while substitute teaching.
The school board’s offices are in the same neighborhood as my grandparents’ apartment, the natural history museum where I once worked, and the main branch of the local library. Even though I speak in front of groups a lot, I still get nervous about it, so my original plan was to park the car and then hang out at the library for a bit before going to the meeting. On my way from the garage to the library, I passed a van that bore the name of a local Baptist church, which didn’t seem like a good sign. Turning the corner, I noticed a sizable crowd gathered outside the main entrance of the board building, and my heart sped up. Could all of these people be here to protest or speak in support of the NDP? Would I have to talk in front of them? Would there even be room for everyone at the meeting? Mostly concerned about this last question, and curious to hear what (I thought) the opposition had to say, I decided to forego the library and approached the group.
Within a couple of minutes, I discovered that the group gathered at the door, which included the church group, were actually there about a completely different matter: the recent hiring of a new superintendent. My nerves calmed a little at that point, but I still felt jumpy at the thought of speaking in front of all of these people, especially as the crowd continued to grow as the time of the meeting drew nearer. Fortunately, I did spot some friendly faces in the mass: The leaders of the local LGBTQ youth theatre group and several of their actors. When the doors finally opened, they and I positioned ourselves as close to the front of the line as we could. This turned out to be a good move: The security guard who opened the door said that due to the amount of people speaking (85!) and the fact that the building had no power, they would not be able to let everyone attend the hearing. Fortunately, the theatre group folks and I made it inside.
Public hearings are held in one of the conference rooms on the second floor of the building. According to family who have been to these things before, normally the public sits at one end of the room, the board members at the other, and anyone who is speaking stands on the floor in front of the board and uses a microphone. Due to the power outage, this set up was changed slightly: Members of the public sat at either end of the room, and the board members sat in the middle, facing the entrance along that wall. Said entrance had been blocked off to create a sort of podium so that any speaker could be heard by everyone in the room. After making sure everyone was ready, the Speaker of the Board explained the procedure for the night: People would be called on to speak in the order in which they had phoned in in the week leading up to the meeting. Copies of the complete list were available for the public. The Speaker would call people in groups of 6. Those called would head out into the hallway to wait their turn at the podium. In a speaker’s turn came, a board employee would take the copies of their statement for distribution to the board members. Once you started speaking, you had three minutes. A bell signaled you had about a minute left; a second bell meant your time was up. Due to the amount of speakers, there would be a short break after number 40. “Are there any questions? Then let’s begin.”
By now, I knew that not everyone was there to talk about the NDP. Several people spoke on behalf of a local charter school whose charter is up for renewal. Others spoke in favor of proposed renovations for another school. The majority spoke for or against the new superintendent. And several other people spoke about the NDP. As I listened to each speaker, I scanned the crowd to see their reactions on each topic. School renovations and charter renewals mostly garnered polite applause. Pro-new superintendent speakers got huge rounds of applause from their faction (which seemed to be the largest in the room), while those who want the board to re-open the search garnered less applause and the occasional “boooo!” Speakers on the NDP also earned a fair amount of applause, and no catcalls that I could hear. Soon enough, the Speaker announce my name, and I moved into the hall to get ready.
After handing the copies of my statements to the staff member, I paced a little as I waited my turn. I’d recognized some of my former coworkers in the crowd; what would they think when they heard me speaking? There were cameras from a couple of local news networks there; would my face be on the 11 o’ clock news?
Soon enough, it was my turn. I walked to the makeshift podium as the copies of my statement were passed to the board members. With a last look around the room, I looked down at my own copy of the speech, tucked my hands in my pockets so no one could see them shaking, took a deep breath, and began speaking:
Good evening. My name is Cee Jay L. I have a story to share with you. In February of 2012, I was hired by this district as a long-term substitute for a middle school science classroom. In March, as the [standardized tests] approached, I led a discussion on basic genetics with my 8th graders. One of the students asked about what makes a person a boy or girl. My initial answer focused on X and Y chromosomes, but several students quickly jumped in with questions about terms like, “hermaphrodite”, “transsexual”, and “he-she”. So I took a deep breath, tried to calm my racing heart, and walked the students through the differences between sex and gender, and what exactly makes a transgender person. One student vocally struggled with the thought of making such drastic changes to her body, so I asked her to think about it like this: “Imagine that you were born in the body of a boy. In your heart and mind, you know you’re a girl, but because of how your body looks society tells you that you are boy and you can only do certain things.” All of the students got thoughtful looks on their faces, and then the student who had asked the question stated, “That would suck!”
I admit, I breathed easier at that point. For you see, I am transgender. As an adolescent, I fell squarely in the middle of your definition for “gender expansive” students: a perceived girl, complete with an “F” on all the paperwork, who neither looked nor acted like the other girls. Fortunately, I had friends and teachers and administrators who worked with me to make my time in school an overall success. As an adult, I’ve worked with organizations like the Initiative for Transgender Leadership and THRIVE to ensure that more students like me have equally supportive experiences. So tonight I am here to show my support for the proposed Transgender Nondiscrimination Policy. As you can see, your students already get it. I encourage you to follow their lead. Thank you for your time.
Applause followed me as I returned to the hallway. Other speakers waiting there offered me smiles and congratulations. I thanked them and stepped off to the side to take a few deep breaths and calm my racing heart before rejoining the audience to listen to more speakers.