About a half hour east of the city of Lansing is the small town of Williamston, home to less than 4,000 residents who have spent the last several months dealing with what some think of as big-city issues.
In November, Williamston Community Schools’ Board of Education added the terms gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation throughout its Board policies, as well as created a specific Gender Identity clause that seeks to ensure a safe, welcoming and stigma-free environment students, faculty and volunteers who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming*. By adding the terms, the school is more specifically recognizing the growing needs of a diverse world.
“(Williamston was) being proactive. The state school board went through months and months of editing, they put their policy in place, and Williamston was just trying to follow suit and try to address the issue before there were problems,” said Andrea Rafferty, a Williamston resident and mother to a transgender daughter.
Indeed, the state Board of Education in September 2016 drafted guidelines in response to requests from educators across the state as it relates to ensuring protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students. The draft guidelines were presented by the State Board for public comment in March 2016, then revised it to reflect that feedback.
And much like the State Board of Education, Williamston faced opposition in its decision to create a more inclusive environment for students. A group called Williamston for Truth – which boasts on its Facebook page that it exists to “uphold truth and liberty”– seeks to recall all of the local board members who voted in support of the policy for Williamston.
And more recently, David Kallman, a known anti-LGBTQ attorney, filed a civil lawsuit against the district on behalf of those opposed to Williamston’s inclusion policy – yet another action that Brian Rafferty said is tearing apart a community that is ready to move on.
“Here’s what bothers me about the legal action, the politics – it’s the wedge it’s driving in our community. To be in that board meeting and listen to the language and accusations being tossed around primarily by the opposition, and then to go in a grocery store or restaurant, or a coffee shop, and look around, I’ve never before had to wonder ‘were they at the meeting? Did they hear me speak? Where do they stand on this?’” Brian Rafferty said. “I’ve never experienced that before in my community, and it bothers me.”
Per the State Board of Education, in 2016, nearly 9 percent of Michigan students identified as LGBT, and 12 percent of them didn’t go to school in the prior year because they felt unsafe – twice the rate of straight and cisgender (those whose gender matches their assigned sex at birth) students. And among those who identified as LGBT, 46 percent had grades consisting mostly of C’s, D’s and F’s, which was also nearly double the number of non-LGBTQ students with similar poor academic performance.
And the Rafferty family is no stranger to that. Their daughter, Emma, spent her senior year at Williamston but had not yet come out as transgender.
“When Emma first came out to me, my first response was, ‘Oh this is just a phase, then this is another way to get attention, or to not do well in school,’” Brian Rafferty recalled. “It took some struggling to get through that denial.
“But I had something at stake (in the policy discussion) that the opposition doesn’t, that’s my daughter,” he continued. “People opposed to it … they truly don’t understand the reality, and it’s very easy to fight against something abstract, it’s harder when it’s something real.”
Andrea Rafferty agreed, adding, “Many don’t want to know. You don’t know how you would react until it’s your daughter saying, ‘Mom, I need to be a boy,’ or son saying, ‘I need to be a girl,’” she said. “It’s very sad that many people could disown their child for being different.”
And that is all the more why the policy Williamston is implementing is so important, Brian and Andrea Rafferty said. Not only does it create a safe space for children who may not otherwise have one, but it could also help more students want to go to school and focus on doing well.
Brian Rafferty said his daughter told him and his wife that she knew something was different as young as five years old, but she wasn’t able to come out to her parents until after high school.
“For over a decade, she had no sense of a safe place or a notion to share that. There was nothing in society that said, ‘It’s okay, we can talk about this,’” he said. “Had a policy like this been in place when we moved her, I think she would’ve been able to manage her anxiety and struggles better, but also be more successful as a student.”
When the State Board of Education considered its guidance, it also considered that LGBT persons were also 4.5 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their non-LGBT peers – something that tears at Andrea Rafferty as a mother.
“There are young people killing themselves because they don’t have any place where they can go,” she said. “I’m on a Facebook group for parents of transgender children, and I cannot even count the number of parents who have posted that their son or daughter killed themselves because they couldn’t get proper care or because the school wasn’t supportive or (parent) not accepting that child. School should be a safe place for students to go.”
Brian Rafferty added, “I look at the struggles our daughter had … (and) I know how intelligent she is, and when she engages in something, how passionate she can be. I mourn how well she could have done had she had a safe space to be herself. I don’t want any more students to lose their opportunities because of somebody’s fear. If someone is going to be afraid, let it be a parent who is an adult and can manage the fear, not a student who is learning to be a person.”
*A person who identifies as transgender is someone whose sex assigned at birth is different from who they know they are on the inside and can include people who have medically transitioned as well as have not. Gender non-conforming persons do not identify with the societal perceptions of any gender.