It Takes A Village To Bully A Transgender Kindergartner

Nova Classical Academy CREDIT: CBS/WCCO
Nova Classical Academy CREDIT: CBS/WCCO

When Dave and Hannah Edwards were lucky enough to win the lottery to enroll their child at Nova Classical Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, they were excited about the charter school’s small classrooms, the kind teacher they’d met, and the special attention their kid would receive. What they didn’t anticipate was an entire community rising up against their family as they became the latest victims of an anti-transgender backlash sweeping the country.

Over the course of the school year, the kindergartner would transition from a gender non-conforming boy to a transgender girl. At every step of the way, the Edwards sought accommodation from Nova to help protect her from bullying and make sure her classmates understood who she was, and at every step of the way, a growing force of anti-transgender parents shut them down, creating a public spectacle and only increasing the harassment their daughter experienced.

The Edwards have since pulled their daughter from the charter school and enrolled her in a different public school where she is a happy and healthy little girl. But they have also filed a complaint against Nova for the way she was treated in hopes of protecting other trans kids from enduring the same treatment. “Now that we’ve had to move and now that we’ve had this potential harm that’s been inflicted on our family,” Dave told ThinkProgress, “we’re invested in making sure this doesn’t happen to any kid again.”

Indeed, it is Dave and Hannah who probably experienced the most harassment. The story of what they endured over the past year mirrors a tactic social conservatives have used to isolate and attack transgender kids and their supportive parents in other schools. Because of the way Nova’s unique ambivalence dragged out and documented the process, there is ample evidence to demonstrate how ignorance and intolerance fueled the fear that forced the Edwards to leave the Nova community and file their complaint.

Cloudy With A Chance Of Bullying

At the beginning of her Kindergarten year, the Edwards’ daughter still identified as a boy. She still wore the boys’ uniform and identified with male pronouns. But they already knew she was gender non-conforming from the many girly things she liked. Plus, Hannah told ThinkProgress, “She would say things like, ‘In my heart, I’m a girl,’ or ‘In my heart, I think I might be half and half.’”

This proved problematic at school. Classmates would make fun of her for her shoes, backpack, or other preferences that were more associated with girls than with boys. The Edwards, both teachers themselves, approached Nova to discuss ways to minimize that bullying. “We came from a place of both being educators and really believing in children having the educational tools and language to talk about things and how that might make a difference.” Hannah explained. “Kids, when they’re given the opportunity, can really learn and grow and they want to be good people.”

Their first impression was that the school was on the same page. In fact, administrators agreed to incorporate the book My Princess Boy into an anti-bullying lesson about gender diversity. But when they emailed the school community on October 14th to inform them of this lesson, the backlash began. “Once parents knew, things changed completely,” Dave said.

CREDIT: My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis
CREDIT: My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis

The First Backlash

Letters and emails started pouring into the school board. Nova Classical Academy has a “Public Comment” submission form on its website, and it then formally publishes all of the comments it receives as part of the Board’s notes. These, combined with listening sessions, “Climate Committee” meetings, and the school board’s regular meetings created nearly weekly opportunities for concerned parents to share just what they thought about transgender people.

Just because the student deserves to be safe and respected, wrote parent Vince West in October, “that does not mean, nor does the law imply, that we have to celebrate gender non-conformism (or any controversial moral difference) in school (or anywhere).”

“Given the current climate at Nova, we are opting our children out of any teaching that goes against the natural order of gender identity on the 16th and any other teaching on this topic on some future date,” wrote parent David Bursey. “We all have differences. We recognize them and respect them but we don’t need to call attention to them and celebrate them as a school.” In another email, he explicitly opposed allowing transgender students access to bathrooms and sports teams that match their gender, adding that he even thinks respecting their preferred names and pronouns “is treading on murky territory.”

I have no ill will to any transgender people. But it is foolish to assume that such behavior is normal and should not raise any eyebrows.

A November letter from Bob and Carolyn Hayton, parents of five students in the school, insisted, “I don’t have to inform the school leadership that transgenderism is a behavior and thought mentality that is novel and only lately approved of in common culture. I have no ill will to any transgender people. But it is foolish to assume that such behavior is normal and should not raise any eyebrows. For children to find such things either alarming or strange is natural.”

Eventually the school started censoring certain parts of the messages it received before distributing them. It was unclear what criteria it used for which portions it censored, and more importantly, the censorship did not work in some cases. Though the text looked redacted in the distributed PDF files, it could still be highlighted and read simply by copying and pasting it. ThinkProgress easily retrieved the censored text from the documents still available on the Nova website. For example, here is an excerpt from a letter submitted in December by Nova parent Paula Rothstein that was entirely blacked out but still totally readable:

And what exactly is the “need” of this child? A boy in kindergarten would like to be accepted as “girl”? Well, as a woman, I take offense at any boy who is pretending to share my gender when he quite clearly NEVER can nor ever will. Women go through far too much as REAL women to have a man who is immune to the unique challenges and pains we must endure pretend he is one of us. He is not. He never can be. And yet those responsible for fueling this agenda want to be granted access to our private restrooms, our locker rooms, etc.

Other comments — both censored and uncensored — similarly called out the Edwards as bad parents and asserted that their child did not deserve any accommodations or anti-bullying interventions. Similar sentiments were expressed at meetings.

In apparent response to this outcry, Nova Board chair Paul Mason observed in a November letter to the community, “The book My Princess Boy, a mere book mind you, has seemingly become a symbol for right versus wrong, good versus evil, conservative versus liberal, religious versus non-religious, majority versus minority and us versus them.” He called for compromise, asking the community to be “open to the idea of not getting everything you want” and to be “willing to sacrifice on some of your ideals for the greater good of the entire Nova community.”

It was unclear which side Mason was talking to or what compromises he expected the Edwards might accept, but opponents of the anti-bullying plan did not seem interested in any compromise at all. A narrative quickly emerged from the anti-transgender parents that they have the right to educate their children how they see fit, and many promised they would opt out of any lesson that actually affirmed students like the Edwards’ child. The lesson featuring The Princess Boy was canceled, and the backlash only escalated from there.

The school never pushed back, humoring all viewpoints equally. “In closed door meetings with us, they were very supportive and wanting to do the right thing,” Hannah recalled, but their public reactions to upset parents — or lack thereof — told a different story. Because no one on the board or in the administration said anything, “I think it gave these parents the idea that their discourse was important. Their dissent — their discriminatory language, in fact — was accepted. It gave them this leeway to go ahead and escalate the situation to rent the gym and invite the Minnesota Family Council.”

From Backlash To Media Storm

Dave and Hannah Edwards CREDIT: James Robins
Dave and Hannah Edwards CREDIT: James Robins

As the Edwards continued to seek accommodations to help their child get through Kindergarten without enduring harassment, the backlash turned into a movement against their family. As Andy Birkey has documented at the The Column, multiple conservative groups helped fan the flames of the controversy, including the Minnesota Family Council (MFC), the Minnesota Child Protection League (MNCPL), and the American College of Pediatricians.

MFC is the state’s social conservative organization, affiliated with national hate groups like the Family Research Council. In a January email, MFC invited supporters to the Nova gymnasium for a presentation about why to oppose these policies. “The transgender policy for St. Paul Public Schools is so radical that it requires schools to permit boys and girls to disrobe and bathroom together,” it claimed, “and ensures full compliance with Minnesota State High School League’s transgender athlete policy that permits biological boys to participate on girls’ sports teams.”

Parents opposed to what the Edwards were asking for had actually reserved the school’s gymnasium themselves and invited MFC to present. Autumn Leva, the group’s director of policy and communications, assured them that “disagreeing with someone isn’t automatically bullying.”

The Minnesota Child Protection League first formed to oppose an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy at nearby Anoka-Hennepin School District, which was introduced after a spate of suicides ravaged the district. The Southern Poverty Law Center designated them a hate group for their efforts, which have continued after ultimately losing in Anoka-Hennepin. In 2014, they ran transphobic ads trying to stop a statewide policy that would allow transgender students to play on athletic teams that matched their gender identity. They failed in that effort too.

At Nova, MNCPL helped explode the controversy into the local press. In addition to doing interviews about how parents were upset about the “false” teachings the Edwards were seeking, they sent out fearmongering mass emails claiming that the child was “seriously confused.” They also suggested that the Edwards were simply a pawn and that LGBT activists were just using them to target Nova for litigation. (In reality, Dave and Hannah would only seek support from the group Gender Justice months later after finding no other recourse.)

Reinforcing a child’s gender confusion, however, can result in making their confused thinking so intractable that the family will believe they have no choice but to hand their child over to a life time of these toxic medications and multiple surgeries.

In December, MNCPL also distributed a letter from Michelle Cretella, president of the American College of Pediatricians, a tiny conservative group designed to be mistaken for the American Academy of Pediatricians. Writing directly to Nova’s Executive Director Eric Williams, she repeated the myth that most transgender kids desist in their identities, and thus should not be subjected to harmful medical practices. “Reinforcing a child’s gender confusion, however, can result in making their confused thinking so intractable,” she wrote, “that the family will believe they have no choice but to hand their child over to a life time of these toxic medications and multiple surgeries.” A few months later, the group would issue a national statement reiterating the same suggestion that transgender kids’ identities be rejected.

All of the buzz among conservative groups led to the Heritage Foundation featuring the story on its blog, The Daily Signal, in February. Rife with countless comments from anonymous “concerned parents,” the article openly named the Edwards’ child by name and humored the belief that gender identity “is too complicated for kindergartners to grasp.” It both reinforced unfounded fears about bathroom safety issues and amplified the rumor that the school was somehow targeted by LGBT groups.

“This was obviously orchestrated,” one anonymous father said of a pro-LGBT demonstration at the school with a we-love-our-transgender-kids message. “Their only purpose was to try to be intimidating. And my eighth-grade daughter was intimidated. It caused her stress and anxiety. And if you look at the definition of bullying, the irony of this whole thing is, that qualifies as bullying.” It was the anonymous father’s anonymous eighth-grader who was somehow the victim, not the Edwards’ kindergartner.

Dave said that it was “pretty awful that they would publish identifying information for our minor child. We saw the Daily Signal piece the morning after we had to pull her out of Nova. Having her name in the article reinforced that the administration wasn’t capable of controlling the situation. It’s also pretty terrible that every other publication chose not to include the name, and they very purposefully went for it.” Their daughter no longer uses the boy’s name cited in the article, but still did at the time.

Update:

Another blog (intentionally not linked here) actually pulled pictures of the child from Dave’s Facebook page. The family still hasn’t figured out how to have them taken down.

No Shelter From The Storm

Parents would use the hate groups’ talking points at every open meeting and in their letters, but the school would never create any buffer against it. According to Dave, when these comments were shared, school officials would never call them out as discriminatory. “They would instead say, ‘Thank you’ or ‘I appreciate your opinion’ and go on to the next comment. And what that did was create a really hostile environment that just kept getting worse and worse and worse because the school refused to take a position.”

The school’s ambivalent approach was on grand display at a December Climate Committee meeting. A draft of guiding principles for an anti-bullying curriculum was distributed that suggested that even though Minnesota state law protected various classes (including gender identity), Nova should still find a way to placate both sides when there is a disagreement between those groups:

These groups hold a variety of conflicting views on many matters, including contentious ethical and evaluative matters on which there is no consensus in our community. To privilege one protected class’s views by affirming or endorsing them would be, at the same time, to burden the class that holds contrary views. Giving this additional burden to a class already in need of protection is contrary to our goal of providing a safe and welcoming environment for all students. As such, in cases where two protected classes hold contrary views on a contentious topic, and there is no consensus in our community about the issue, Nova will affirm the right of each group’s members to believe what they take to be correct, and Nova will not teach one protected group’s views as correct and the other’s incorrect.

After the failure to integrate The Princess Boy, the school also then required the Edwards to go through a “process” for every change they wanted, a process that included getting consent from various parental committees. “Really it was just a process to try and force us out and make things worse and drag on,” Dave said.

Hannah’s sense was that the school was “trying to please this other side so they felt like they were heard, because they thought it was important to bring the community along with us by letting them speak their minds, but it just ended up being unsafe for my child because they were allowing this discriminatory discourse to happen.”

Because the school remained neutral as this “process” dragged out, Hannah felt that the approach “pitted the parents against not just LGBT people in general but very specifically our family and our child because it forced us to out ourselves in order to speak on her behalf. We had to also speak at these meetings and it was like we were arguing in public for our child’s rights.”

I think we just said that the reason that this is so concerning to us is that this is our child, so we are directly affected by it.

Dave and Hannah bore the brunt of the backlash, doing their best to protect their child from what was happening. Their original plan was to keep quiet that they were the parents of the gender-nonconforming child to protect the anonymity of their daughter, but they quickly found that doing so actually made it harder to protect her. At one of the early listening sessions about whether to include The Princess Boy, they endured hours of personal attacks — even though nobody knew who they were — including accusations that they were abusive parents. They felt they couldn’t hide any longer.

“When it finally got to us,” Hannah recalled, “I think we just said that the reason that this is so concerning to us is that this is our child, so we are directly affected by it. At that point, we were feeling like we had to say who she was in order for them to even listen.” They had to make her real instead of just a hypothetical student.

Though there were certainly families in the community who supported the Edwards, it proved true that the requirement of going through the committee process very much forced them to be the sole advocates for the changes their child needed and deserved. “We didn’t have a choice if we wanted her to receive support,” Dave said, “because they were saying that any anti-bullying stuff had to go through this committee and they were saying any education on gender fell under that category. We had no choice but to participate.”

That process dragged out from October to January before it seemed like the school felt the need to take a position, but by then, their family had already been directly targeted by strangers who knew nothing about their child. Still, as Dave looks back on how things transpired, even though they encountered “all of these really out-there bigoted people who openly wanted to discriminate against our kid,” what ultimately drove the Edwards out of the school was the administrators who “weren’t willing to be brave and stand up for our kid and provide an environment that was safe for her to transition.” That’s why they filed a complaint.

In The Eye Of The Hurricane

CREDIT: Dave and Hannah Edwards
CREDIT: Dave and Hannah Edwards

In the midst of all of this strife, their daughter was still going to Kindergarten every day at Nova and figuring out her own identity. Though she had started the year identifying as a boy, that changed shortly after winter break.

“As she went back to school, it became clear that she was a little bit unhappy when she was referred to by male pronouns,” Dave recalled. In fact, if they were out at a restaurant and she was “mistaken” for a girl — as it were — she’d be glad, which was a change from when she’d previously correct individuals.

Then, Hannah recalled, “she came home from school one day after winter break and said, ‘Mommy, I was out at recess and I just kind of looked up at the sky and was thinking — I’m not a boy at all.’ She’d had this meditative reflective time to really think about it and it was like she was admitting it to herself. After that we started noticing her asking more, ‘Call me girl,’ ‘Call me daughter.’” She even introduced herself to Hannah’s boss as “her daughter,” and she started correcting her parents when the wrong words were used.

Even still, Dave said, they waited. They didn’t take a hard shift. “We waited for her to correct us and for her to insist that, ‘No, I’m not a boy, I’m a girl. Please call me she.’”

You can tell when your child means something or it’s very important to them. It’s different than a make-believe or pretend or half-way.

After she did that for a certain number of weeks, they couldn’t ignore it anymore. As Hannah explained, “You can tell when your child means something or it’s very important to them. It’s different than a make-believe or pretend or half-way. Being insistent is insistent; it’s different.”

The Edwards aren’t concerned if their daughter should someday “desist” and start identifying as a boy. “If I didn’t support who my child is now,” Hannah reasoned, “that could be very hurtful and damaging. You parent the child you have today. My child is here today; this is what she needs now. If that changes three years from, I parent her at that time at that day and give her what she needs at that point.” They will continue to follow her lead.

With the leading medical organizations all supporting this affirmation, they found it odd that so many could still be so skeptical of how they were parenting her. When one parent asked Hannah how she knew her daughter wasn’t just pretending to be a girl, she said, “Well, to me it was like she was pretending to be a boy for a while because she thought that’s what we wanted or that’s she needed to do.”

As they embraced these changes and worked to create a safer climate for her at school, they tried to shield her from the backlash. When they’d have conversations at home, they’d ask her to leave the room so that she wasn’t impacted by it. But the backlash found its way to her directly at school anyway, with parents equipping her classmates with talking points to reject her along with bullying.

One of her classmates had directly said to her, “My parents told me it’s a lie that a boy can ever be a girl, and so that I can never call you a girl. You’re not a girl.”

One of the last things she said about Nova was that it made her grumpy because nobody believed or wanted to call her a girl. That was because one of her classmates had directly said to her, “My parents told me it’s a lie that a boy can ever be a girl, and so that I can never call you a girl. You’re not a girl.” Hannah doesn’t think a kindergartner came up with that kind of rhetoric on their own.

Now that she’s in a new inclusive school, their daughter is noticeably happier. “She’s able to come and be herself,” Hannah said. “She doesn’t have to be out. She can just be a girl, which is what she is. She doesn’t wake up and think about it. She wakes up and just exists like any other kid does. I think that’s been a relief for her.” Even though she might not say it out loud, “You can see the difference in her behaviors and in her actions.”

The Complaint

At the end of March — a month after pulling their daughter from Nova — the Edwards filed a complaint against the academy. They allege that the school’s actions were in violation of the St. Paul Human Rights Ordinance, which protects against discrimination in education on the basis of gender identity and expression.

In the complaint, they accuse the school of continuing to “appease factions of the community who denied the school’s obligation to follow the law”:

When begged to clarify their communications (e.g., regarding the school’s policy on uniforms) and to take a clear position on the rights of gender-nonconforming and transgender students, the leadership refused outright or introduced delay after delay, while the bullying and hostility continued unabated. The leadership also chose actions — such as expressly inviting or even encouraging families to “opt out” of any education about gender and gender equality law — which indicated that the school was at best ambivalent about the rights of gender-nonconforming and transgender students. By its actions, the leadership also forced our family and our minor child to be publicly outed in order to try to participate in decisions that would affect her safety.

The complaint also details how disastrously the second round of negotiations went with Nova. After the Edwards’ daughter socially transitioned, they sought more education from the school so that students could better respect and appreciate her as their classmate. The complaint explains that these requests were summarily dismissed in a February 29th meeting:

We were told that the school was not willing to use effective materials like I Am Jazz; would not ever conduct gender education, whether proactive or corrective, without first introducing delay and inviting or encouraging families to “opt out”; and would not even — as a bare minimum — simply inform our child’s classmates of her preferred name and pronouns, without first delaying for days and inviting or encouraging families to “opt out” of this information.

Hannah hopes the complaint helps protect other students from the same backlash. “It’s important for the nation to see this and realize that this case-by-case approach is not about some nameless number. It’s a person — a vulnerable person, a child — who’s affected and not having their needs met. I would love to just walk away from Nova and just never think about it again — because she is somewhere safe — however, I don’t want someone in three years from now to come to Kindergarten and have this experience or to be in 2nd grade and have this experience. And not just at Nova, but anywhere.”

Gender-Neutral Bathroom Leads To Fight At Los Angeles SchoolEducation CREDIT: Shutterstock A fight erupted in the Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday over the addition…thinkprogress.orgDave also thinks that enforcement of policies is important too. “If you’re not prepared to follow through and protect these kids with actions, it doesn’t really matter what you have on paper.”

What’s also significant about the Edwards’ story is that it’s not unique. Parent-fueled activism has also been the source of controversy in other school districts where trans students were just minding their own business and going about their lives without incident.

This past August, for example, similar stories played out at schools in Missouri and Ohio. In both of those cases, the schools had agreed to accommodate the transgender students, but then parents launched protests, including involving national conservative legal groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom. In the case of Hillsboro High School in Missouri, students even held a walk-out in protest of the transgender student, Lila Perry, who had to be kept in the principal’s office for her safety.

Likewise, the Pacific Justice Institute, another conservative legal group, has sought out parents looking to object to a transgender student at their kids’ school. In 2013, they found such a case at Florence High School in Colorado. After being harassed by her entire community simply for using the restroom, the student was actually placed on suicide watch. Parents invented the claim that she had “inherently harassed” other students, but all that the supposed “harassment” actually entailed was going into the girls’ restroom to use it for its proper function. The other students were “victims” because they saw her in there fully dressed.

What if Dave and I weren’t there fighting for our daughter?

As the Edwards have been fighting their fight all year, the issue has also arrived in the Minnesota legislature. Lawmakers there are considering a bill (HF 3396) that, like North Carolina’s HB2 and bills proposed in several other states, would ban transgender people from using restrooms that match their gender identity. The Edwards testified against the bill earlier this month and saw many of the same people who have attacked their family testifying in its favor.

Even though the bill is not likely to become law thanks to a promised veto from Gov. Mark Dayton (D), the legislation is a reminder that the fight to protect transgender kids is not over.

“What if Dave and I weren’t there fighting for our daughter?” Hannah wonders. “What would have happened? A school should be a place where kids are safe. I just feel like that’s a bigger message to send to the community. There are people who are alone in this and we need to be there for them as a society.”

As educators, they believe that schools have an important role to play in protecting kids who don’t get the support that they need. “Public schools are the safety net for those kids,” Dave said. “That’s the design of our kind of system — so that we don’t just let kids be horrible, and unsuccessful, and drop out.”

Instead, they want all kids to go on to be successful and happy — just like their daughter finally is.