Michigan mom defends her trans kid against a hostile town

"If we’re not educating, then it’s never going to stop."

George Long Elementary School. CREDIT: Grass Lake Community Schools
George Long Elementary School. CREDIT: Grass Lake Community Schools

The small town of Grass Lake, Michigan is the latest to be divided over how schools respond to transgender students. A dedicated group of parents opposed to any inclusive policy is quickly escalating pressure against the school board, which has so far been mostly committed to respecting the one out student’s identity.

Terri Neely, that boy’s mother, has decided she can no longer stay silent about her family’s struggle, and a video of her tear-filled remarks at a school board meeting this week started to receive national attention. She agreed to speak exclusively with ThinkProgress about how her family has been targeted and the toll that it’s taken on the mental health of her son, Cruz.

“When these people outed us and said such horrible, hurtful things, I stayed quiet for as long as I could, thinking it was going to protect my son,” Terri said in a phone interview. “But, you know, they’re not stopping, and everybody knows who we are, and if we don’t start correcting the information that’s out there — educating people about what this really means — then it’s never going to stop and it’s only going to get harder and more difficult for my son and the other kids out there dying to be themselves.”

Terri Neely CREDIT: Terry Neely
Terri Neely CREDIT: Terry Neely

Like many parents of trans kids, she had to follow her own journey to understanding and affirming her son, and she’s hopeful that others in her community can learn to do the same from her story.

Cruz’s transition

Two school years ago, Cruz was in second grade and still living as a girl, even though he looked like a boy and believed he was a boy. “I kind of pushed back for a long time,” Terri admitted. “I was scared.” After an incident in which a substitute teacher asked him to leave the girl’s restroom, leaving him with “major anxiety,” she worked with the school to arrange for him to use a private restroom if he wanted.

“It didn’t work for him,” she said. “He was still living as a girl, mind you, but it still was too segregated. It made him feel even more of an outcast and so he just started holding it all day.”

Last summer, he was insistent he wanted to start “living as his true self,” saying, “I know I’m a boy; I’m going to be bullied no matter what; I’d rather be bullied for who I am than live as someone I’m not, so why can’t we do that, Mom? Why can’t we?” The family started allowing Cruz to transition, and by January of this year, they were ready to approach the school and ask for a change.

The school agreed that they would address Cruz by his new name and pronouns and — with some hesitancy because of how the laws could change — agreed to let him use the boys’ restroom as well. However, the school would not send a letter home to parents, let Terri address her son’s class, or offer any education to assist his transition. “It was up to Cruz to tell all of his peers, his nine-year-old friends, that he was a boy named Cruz,” she said. “They totally left it up to a nine-year-old to explain that, which, as you can imagine, is difficult.”

From her understanding, there were some other kids who were uncomfortable at first, but they simply opted to use the private restroom and eventually stopped bothering. “Kids just didn’t care. They were were understanding in a way that kids can be.”

The difference in Cruz’s life was dramatic. “It was like a miracle. He used to have two-to-three-hour-long meltdowns every night. His anxiety would represent itself in anger, so he would act out, and it was all related to his gender identity.” Terri acknowledges that the family’s misgendering in the past hadn’t helped. “We weren’t trying to cause a problem, but we didn’t understand either.”

“When that day hit when he could finally just be who he had always believed himself to be, it was literally the best four months of school ever,” she said. “It was just magical. A light went on in him that I had never seen before.”  Cruz thrived academically, socially, and no longer had meltdowns every night.

A light went on in him that I had never seen before.

But the fight had barely just begun.

A family targeted

As parents caught wind of Cruz’s transition, a few started targeting the Neely family directly, tagging them on social media and effectively outing them to the community. “We weren’t hiding, but we weren’t making a big deal about it publicly,” Terri explained. She was open to answering questions and helping people better understand, but these individuals didn’t seem interested in listening.

Eventually, people started posting pictures of their family and targeting a new business they’d just opened. Terri felt like people were trying to harass and shame them for supporting their son. “I was silent for a while because I didn’t want to make myself more of a target and I didn’t think the best way to go through educating was unsafe Facebook banter.”

There was an outpouring of support to defend Terri and her family, and she encouraged them to try to respond with love and kindness instead of fanning the flames of negativity. But the opponents continued to organize themselves, and in August, they demanded the Grass Lake School Board take action to defend the “privacy” of their children, which, they claimed, was threatened by sharing a restroom with a transgender student.

In an attempt to appease these concerned parents while still respecting Cruz’s identity, the school proposed a compromise. But the plan did not ease the opposition’s concerns, and posed big consequences for Cruz.

A compromise gone wrong

A week after the August meeting, school officials approached Terri with a plan. They stood by allowing Cruz to use the boys’ bathroom, but they were going to build stalls around all the urinals to try to address other parents’ privacy concerns. They asked if she would agree to not let Cruz use the boys’ facilities until the construction was complete.

“I agreed,” she said. “It was against my better judgment.” Those who opposed Cruz’s inclusion at school had claimed the family had never compromised, so Terri thought it would be a way to better reach the people who believed her son posed a risk to their kids. “I just thought it would help others see this isn’t something to be scared of.”

Cruz, however, was “absolutely devastated” by the news. He didn’t want to have to go back to school and “not feel whole and not feel completely supported and understood by those in authority.” He felt as if he was being forced to be separate from the other boys, and that meant that he was not a real boy, and his depression set back in.

“When he was using the boys’ bathroom, he was so happy. He no longer would say things like, ‘I wish I were dead’ or ‘Everybody hates me.'” But those kinds of feelings all started up again, Terri said, and have continued, because he’s still using the private bathroom. “Really, he doesn’t use the bathroom much at all; it’s only if he really, really has to. Emotionally, he thinks about it all day and it tears him down.”

Emotionally, he thinks about it all day and it tears him down.

But Terri also rejects opponents’ claims that Cruz is obsessing too much about a bathroom. “It’s not just about a bathroom, just like it was never about drinking fountains during the civil rights movement. He feels all of that hatred and discrimination coming at him.”

That led to this past week’s school board meeting, where Terri pleaded with the board that the compromise was not working for her son. “My son now says he wants to kill himself again,” she told the board and packed crowd. “He wishes he were dead because everybody hates him.”

The pressure mounts

Terri remains optimistic that the school will continue to support her son, but the urinal stall plan hasn’t done much to calm those opposed to his inclusion at school. Indeed, their tactics are continuing to escalate.

Organized as a group called “Concerned Parents & Taxpayers of Grass Lake,” the anti-trans group has taken several steps beyond simply speaking at school board meetings. For example, they launched a petition on change.org that, in addition to spreading many falsehoods about trans identities, calls for the school to force Cruz and other trans kids to permanently use only unisex restrooms.

Earlier this month, the group spread fliers to every home in Grass Lake. The flier claims, falsely, that the school’s policy allows for the “intermingling of the sexes in the bathrooms.” It also objects to the fact that taxpayers will pay for the urinal stalls given they oppose the policy of inclusion in the first place.

The “Concerned Parents” group has also sent a series of letters designed to intimidate the school to cater to their demands. The first was a letter to the school from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an anti-LGBTQ hate group that challenges transgender inclusion policies in schools across the country, which threatened legal action if the school did not reverse its policy.

One was a letter to the Michigan State Board of Education, insisting that they don’t want their children “to be forced to share bathrooms and locker rooms with their peers of the opposite biological sex” and claiming further that the urinal stalls “may bankrupt our tiny school.”

Another letter was sent to the school board with a lengthy list of demanding questions about how Cruz was accommodated and how they can continue to express their opposition to the policy. At its end, the letter threatened that if the board did not reverse the inclusive policy at its September meeting — which it didn’t — the group would begin organizing to try to recall every member from their positions.

Several parents have also stated that they are pulling their children from the school.

Terri doesn’t understand their fears, especially their concerns about locker rooms and overnight field trips. They imply that students will falsely represent themselves to engage in inappropriate behavior, but she doesn’t understand why Cruz should have to suffer because of what other kids might do. “They just think it’s a risk and it’s dangerous. I really can’t even fathom it.”

The school’s legal footing

The school, for its part, hasn’t made many public statements. It issued a “Procedural Statement” in August announcing the urinal stall compromise and the creation of a Health Committee to make recommendations for guidelines the school board could consider. That statement also explained that a decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals protected the student and that the school would continue to abide by that precedent until such time that it is overturned by the Supreme Court.

ADF contends there is no such ruling from the Sixth Circuit, although ADF was on the losing side of that decision. While that case is still underway — and thus a precedent isn’t finalized — the appeals court did rule in December that a transgender student in Ohio must be allowed to use restrooms that match her gender as the case proceeds. ADF is defending the school, Highland Local School District, which refused to provide such accommodations. At one point, the school argued that it didn’t have to do more to accommodate the student because her suicide risk had been lowered from high to moderate.

It’s also unclear that the “Concerned Parents” group will get very far with the Michigan State Board of Education. Last December, they voted 6-2 to approve an expansive new set of guidelines for protecting LGBTQ students across Michigan schools, including allowing students to “use the restroom in accordance with their gender identity.” Terri had actually testified in favor of those protections. The anti-trans parents argue that because the Trump administration rescinded federal guidance protecting transgender students, the Board should reconsider its as well, but the two are not directly connected.

Terri hopes the Grass Lake School Board speaks out more, responding to parents’ concerns, but standing by their policy. “Frankly, they need to step up and say, ‘It’s the right thing to do,'” she said, acknowledging that no matter what the Board does, opponents of the policy will still be unhappy. If they reverse the policy and refuse to respect Cruz’s identity, Terri says she’ll have to remove him from the school.

We’re doing our best to make sure our kid stays alive and is happy and thriving like every parent wants for their child.

“Once he’s able to use the boys room again, he’ll be good for now, but if they continue to fight and make threats, I’m going to have to continue to be present as much as possible.” For now, she says, Cruz is being treated well at school and isn’t being bullied much. The only kids who haven’t adjusted are the ones whose parents are objecting to the policy, “because, of course, it trickles down to the kids.”

Despite the ongoing struggle, Terri holds out hope that more education will help many of the parents better understand who her son is and what he’s going through, so they will appreciate why forcing him to use a segregated gender-neutral restroom is harmful to him.

“We are just doing the best we can as parents like everyone else is,” she said. “We’ve used every available legitimate resource we have. We’re doing our best to make sure our kid stays alive and is happy and thriving like every parent wants for their child.”