Huffpost Chicago
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jen Richards Headshot

Separating Church and State: How the Aurora Decision Failed Transgender Students

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

On October 15, 2012, the board of Aurora East District 13, a high school in the western suburbs of Chicago, unanimously voted to adopt a policy that had been crafted by the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, in consultation with Assistant Superintendent Christine Aird and parents in the district, and had been vetted by legal counsel. This policy would allow students who consistently presented in a given gender to use the appropriate bathrooms, play on the congruent sports teams, and have their correct name and pronouns be used in the classroom. At the time, board members had no objection.

Given the endemic issue of bullying, and the dramatically disproportionate rates of suicide attempts for transgender youth, such a policy would seem a nonissue. The very next day, however, the Illinois Family Institute issued a statement in opposition to the decision. They further encouraged parents and community members to convey objections to the school board, stating:

This is a biased, radical, and offensive school board decision that all Illinois taxpayers -- especially Aurora community members with or without children in school -- should vigorously and tenaciously oppose.

The release included a link to send an email to the members of the East Aurora High School Board of Education "asking them to immediately repeal their misguided decision to promote fraud."

The campaign elicited the intended reaction, and the board reacted with an emergency meeting on Friday, October 19, where the four of seven members present voted unanimously to rescind the policy. In a profound irony, this happened on Spirit Day, an annual event that asks people to wear purple as a visible support of LGBT youth and in opposition to bullying, a campaign that began in response to the many who commit suicides caused by such bullying. Rather than standing with those most in need, the school board succumbed to the bullies in its own midst, proving just how necessary such a campaign still is.

The IFI wrote that the school was "now accommodating the disordered impulses and unproven beliefs of a statistically miniscule segment of their population and in so doing ignores the beliefs of the majority." More egregiously, they claim the policy "reflects a gross distortion of compassion and profound ignorance about what truly helps the few students who suffer from gender dysphoria or Gender Identity Disorder." The statement neither provides any evidence for these claims, nor provides any suggestion as to what would truly help the unfortunate few suffering from such disordered impulses.

I live in Chicago, but grew up in Wheaton, near Aurora and just down the road from the Illinois Family Institute. Wheaton is often referred to as the Vatican City of Christian Fundamentalism and claims to have more churches per square foot than any other town. I was invited to many bible studies, was often the subject of quite earnest attempts at soul saving, and grew accustomed to hearing Jesus discussed at cafes as if he were a particularly wise and friendly neighbor. Over the years, I learned to discriminate between those who were motivated by love and those driven by judgment.

It's a fairly easy distinction to make. The former were as eager to listen as they were to speak, expressed curiosity, laughed readily, and were concerned with poverty, equality, and social justice. They had a way of not supporting certain behaviors without seeming to outright condemn them. I counted such people among my friends, and even though we'd strongly disagree with each other on many issues, including sex and gender, we were engaged in real dialogue. The latter simply talked at you, were unwaveringly convinced of their rightness, and sought to win. They would passionately decry what they saw as moral abrogations, but expressed little concern for at risk populations. The former took in foster children, ran clothing and food drives for local people in need, and their missionary work abroad typically dealt with building infrastructure; the latter railed against homosexuality and abortion, single parents on television, and built really, really big churches.

Of course, such clean assignation is a simplification. In any individual, motives are commingled and ever evolving. Institutions, however, by the very need to perpetuate their own existence, are more definitive in their orientation. Even a cursory glance at the IFI website quickly reveals that its primary concerns are social, such as "protecting" marriage and promoting "authentic abstinence," which it does by working against gay marriage and comprehensive sex education. The motivation of the Illinois Family Foundation isn't in question; it "works to educate Christians and the general public on matters of moral concern; to initiate, promote, encourage and coordinate activity designed to safeguard and advance public morality consistent with Biblical Christianity." The question is whether its voice should be dictating policy in a public school.

My brother and sister-in-law are now homeowners in the East Aurora school district. It's a beautiful community, though of late my main motivation to visit has been to play with Wally, their new puppy. They don't yet have children, but if they did, those children would attend East Aurora. If I were to have a niece of nephew, I'd want them to feel safe at school, regardless of their gender identity or expression. I know my family feels the same way, because though my brother is a classic suburbanite who readily confesses his understanding of gender and sexuality is wholly traditional, he supports me, his transgender sister.

When I first told him I had begun transition, he began a series of interrogations, finally interrupted by his wife's declaration that "What your brother means to say is that he loves you no matter what." They have never wavered since, giving yet further proof that love surpasses understanding. They know I'm not confused, that I didn't choose to be trans, and have seen how much happier I've been since transitioning. For those who know trans people, who have seen our struggles up close, no evidence, scientific or biblical, is required.

The East Aurora school district has already announced that a new committee will meet to discuss "potential new anti-bullying and discrimination policies." Statements from community members, including the parent of a trans child, indicate that the school has done a good job at dealing with bullying. The proposed policy, however, was not addressing harassment, but rather trans students' access to gendered spaces and the right to be called by the proper name and pronouns.

Anti-bullying is a minimum protection, and I am confident that even the IFI would agree that school should be safe for all students. The issue now is the intention of the original policy, the lines being drawn by those who oppose access for trans people, particularly minors, and the unavoidable symbolic weight of Aurora's handling of these issues.

The nation's eyes are now on Aurora. This issue is not going away, and more and more trans people will come out younger and younger. Schools will either have to react when a problem arises, perhaps even in the wake of a tragedy, or act now and prevent a crisis. Schools across the country are therefore looking to Aurora. If they allow the objections of a misinformed group to risk the safety of students, other groups will be prompted to do the same, and other school boards will hesitate to act. The IFI recognizes this as well:

In addition, gender/sexuality anarchists are working to establish this kind of policy in every elementary, middle, and high school in the country. If this policy is allowed to remain in place, it will embolden activists all over the state and country. Conversely, if the school board is forced to repeal it, conservatives will be encouraged by a rare victory.

Let us be crystal clear: This is an issue concerning separation of church and state. A religious organization has bullied a secular school into acting as proxy for its agenda. The IFI is explicitly dedicated to promoting a "public morality consistent with Biblical Christianity," pressured the school to rescind the policy based solely on religious grounds, and did so in direct opposition to the consensus of science and psychology, as well as the students, parents, teachers, the assistant superintendent, and Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, who together crafted the policy in the first place.

This should have been an objective issue. The IFI has made it a moral one. Either way, they are on the wrong side, and they are putting the lives of children at risk.

East Aurora school board members: We need a county wide policy for gender-nonconforming students, and the opportunity to model such a solution is now handed to your community. You can stand by the original policy, and up to those who would put fear or judgment before reason and compassion. There are ample resources at your disposal, to educate yourselves and your community about the reality and needs of transgender youth. If there are any students so bold, courageous, and safely able to speak up, listen to them. Ask your teachers, because they must see the risks faced by these students up close. Ask the trans people in your community, of which there are many. They are accustomed to navigating public spaces, to allaying the fears of trepidatious co-workers, and some are well rehearsed at explaining away the misconceptions held by others about trans people. I likewise offer myself and my d network of wonderful, informed, active, and visible trans people. We're more than willing to come and meet with you, your students, their parents and teachers, to answer question and clarify why the stakes are so very, very high.

A new day is dawning for trans people. Of that, there is absolutely no doubt. The collective and growing momentum of public opinion, medical support, legal action, and media attention make the acceptance of transgender individuals every bit as certain as a rising sun. The parents, school board members, and residents of Aurora have a choice before them. It's as simple and stark as this: Either welcome the dawn, or retreat further into the darkness until no such choice is offered.

In the meantime, look for me, my family, my friends, and others like us, in your community. Whether you see us or not, we are here, and we will shine.