Recently I had the opportunity to speak at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. Before the lecture I spent an hour walking around their beautiful campus, thinking about how to frame my discussion about equality, harassment and my family without getting too emotional. I was concerned that breaking into tears might distract from my message, which acknowledges that we have indeed come far these past five years, but further stresses that there is still a great deal of work to be done.
I am the proud father of identical twins: one is a boy and one is a girl. My beautiful daughter Nicole is transgender. This talk was important to me, a chance to meet with senior staff, middle management and students and have a conversation about transgender rights in schools.
As I crossed the campus grounds, a fresh bed of white pine needles silenced my steps, and I relived some of the painful moments that my dear friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Amy Ellis Nutt brought back to life in her book about my family, Becoming Nicole.
Her story portrays years of fearful transformation for my family. By age ten, Nicole openly attended school as the girl she is, but despite our support she experienced severe bullying, harassment, and discrimination. I still have nightmares. In 2009 our family went into hiding to be safe, a burden that no family should have to endure. But change is coming for some of these kids; today, Nicole is a happy, lovely college student and activist, quick to laugh or tell you what she thinks.
Here’s what I said at Bowdoin that day: As parents, we want to help our children grow. We want be able to let go of the reins and release our children into safe and supportive communities. That can be hard to do, because we know that people fear the unknown, and that even people who want to help are sometimes still uncomfortable and afraid to ask the hard questions.
Students, faculty, administrators, staff—and parents—can learn a great deal from Nicole and her transgender peers. Your school community needs to make the first step and ask them what challenges they are facing. Then you need to listen. Ignore the urge to defend existing policies and procedures, just listen. Listen to these amazing young people tell you about the bullying, harassment, and discrimination that exists on your campuses. If you listen, you will begin to understand the gentle, but painful daily reminders embedded in your systems that reinforce the notion that transgender youth are different. Nicole’s school isolated her, effectively telling her every day that she was neither a boy nor a girl, she was an “other.” Let’s develop policies, procedures and facilities that do not classify anyone as an “other.”
Books like Becoming Nicole go a long way in initiating open dialogue that goes beyond asking for gender-neutral bathrooms, that goes beyond promoting tolerance. Establish a climate that mandates equal rights for everyone in every community that you touch. Listen. Learn. Transform.