Pulled from the shadows: Georgia transgender students hope for positive change

White House directive casts spotlight on little seen population
Rose is a transgender student who graduated from Druid Hills HS in May. Sitting on her back porch, she talked about the difficulty of being a transgender student in high school and the challenges ahead. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Rose is a transgender student who graduated from Druid Hills HS in May. Sitting on her back porch, she talked about the difficulty of being a transgender student in high school and the challenges ahead. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Editor's note: When the federal Department of Education sent letters to states, urging them to let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice, many parents were upset, the state Superintendent expressed concerns about safety and conservative politicians used the opportunity to grandstand. Meanwhile, local schools worked quietly to find their own answers to the question, such as allowing transgender students to use bathrooms not assigned to boys or girls, such as bathrooms for disabled students.

Original story: Rose wore what she thinks of as her "mask" when she accepted a high school diploma in May.

To most of the world, the tall and slender DeKalb County teenager with shoulder-length brown hair is Thomas, a student who loves literature and was in the Governor’s Honors Program. To a select few family members and friends, the teenager is Rose, a transgender student, born a male but identifying as female. She concealed that throughout high school.

“I felt like this (diploma) is being given to this ghost that everyone is forced to believe in,” she said, referring to “Thomas” listed on the diploma.

“They’re giving it to my mask.”

Many of Georgia’s transgender students live a dual existence. Like Rose, they sometimes hide their gender identities to evade the backlash that can come from friends, classmates, family and the larger society.

Consider the reaction to the Obama administration directive in May, telling school systems to accommodate transgender students in bathrooms and locker rooms. It created a political backlash from Congress to Georgia’s upper tiers of politicians — Georgia’s attorney general joined 10 other states in suing the administration — to local citizens. And it cast people like Rose into a spotlight for conservative Americans, who believe their values, identities, religion and norms are being undermined.

Days after the White House directive, hundreds of Fannin County parents showed up at a school board meeting and railed for more than two hours against federal overreach, the dissolution of Christian values, and concerns about safety. Many said they would pull their children out of schools if they opened transgender bathrooms.

The directive pulled this little seen and small slice of Americans into the spotlight.

Life in the shadows was easier.

Some transgender students contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution declined to share their stories. Parents expressed fears of of having their children’s names and photos published, worried their children could become targets. One student’s parent didn’t want that student becoming “the face of transgender students” in Georgia.

That is the world transgender people navigate, and living as they do has its affects. A report released Wednesday by an LGBT rights organization that found transgender students are more likely to be bullied than even gay, lesbian or bisexual students. And other information says they suffer from high rates of depression and suicide.

But several gave The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a peek into their lives.

Cultural and religious resistance

Accurate counts of transgender people vary widely, in large part because federal researchers do not ask about gender identity. A 2015 U.S. Census report estimated about 90,000. A report Thursday by UCLA’s Williams Institute estimated 1.4 million, with 55,650 in Georgia. But the small group stirs big reactions.

The basic premise of being transgender – identifying with the gender that is the opposite of a person’s sex at birth — can be hard for some to reconcile with their religious beliefs and long-held social norms.

“The very first identity people get is as a male or female. When a baby is born everyone wants to know is it a boy or girl,” said Eric Wright, chairman of the sociology department at Georgia State University. “So, a lot of it is not understanding the trans experience, it’s sort of threatening to one’s own identity.”

Examples are not hard to find. A judge in east Georgia last month refused an Augusta University student's name-change request to Rowan Elijah Feldhaus, saying Elijah was too masculine and could be misleading. Feldhaus was born female and identifies as a male. A Gwinnett church posted a sign in June saying "Satan made gays & transgender." The head of Georgia's ACLU chapter resigned her position instead of defending the bathroom guideline, and Georgia's state superintendent of schools voiced "safety concerns" about allowing students "of different genders" to share a bathroom.

“It frustrates me (that) they lack empathy about how we just want to live our lives,” said Feldhaus, 24, who is taking hormone replacement therapy. “We’re the ones who feel unsafe.”

The resistance here reflects Georgia’s red conservative politics and beliefs, Wright said.

“We are in a much more conservative environment because we tend to be more religious in the South,” Wright said. “We endorse more traditional roles in masculinity and femininity and that leaks over into our political culture.”

State Sen. Josh McKoon, has been an outspoken critic of Obama's directivesaying the issue should be handled locally, and expects it to be struck down by a federal injunction. If that doesn't happen before Georgia lawmakers convene for the next legislative session in January, McKoon, R-Columbus, could introduce a bill allowing parents of students injured as a result of the federal guidance to sue the school district.

“If we’re going to tell parents you are compelled by law to send your kids to this school that has adopted a policy that you are concerned about and your child is harmed, I think the school district has to bear the responsibility and the liability for anything that occurs,” he said.

Some Georgians have taken a middle road, expressing concerns but also allowing for accommodations.

Katy Oubre has a 16-year-old daughter in the Gwinnett County school system with special needs who typically uses a restroom near her classroom that has one stall. She’s worried her daughter will be unable to alert her or a teacher if a male classmate maliciously claiming to be transgender student attempts to use a restroom while she’s inside and harms her.

“What if someone says ‘Today, I feel like a girl so I feel entitled to use the girls bathroom,’ ” said Oubre, a youth minister. “They can say that and the law is on their side.”

Oubre, who stressed she is not discriminatory toward transgender students, believes someone will take advantage of the federal guidelines.

“I want to believe everybody is good, but not everyone has the best intentions,” she said.

Oubre said a “fair and appropriate” solution is for schools to have designated restrooms for transgender students rather than allow them to use the restroom of their choice.

Other Georgians take a more combative stance.

Fannin County school resource officer Anthony Walden organized many of the parents and residents who showed up at that meeting. During his testimony before the board, Walden called transgender bathrooms a slippery slope to allowing perversion in school.

Life in the shadows

For the transgender students interviewed, Obama’s bathroom guidance addressed just one of many challenges they face. One student said his school didn’t put his legally-changed name on his diploma. Feldhaus said some administrators and a teacher referred to him as “her,” despite his request to be addressed with male pronouns. Feldhaus spoke of trepidation, that someone may object, when he used the men’s room.

James Montgomery, 19, who just completed his freshman year at Georgia State University, was not as open about his transgender identity in a rural high school. One teacher mocked Montgomery during his hormone replacement process to transition from female to male.

“Oh, your voice is deeper,” the teacher said, Montgomery recalled. “Have you had a cold for the last three months?”

Jessica Fisher knows there are people who never will accept her.

“It’s one thing to be different in the way I listen to heavy metal music, and it’s another thing to be different in a way that offends politics, religion and a person’s sense of science,” she said.

Fisher, 24 and born male, is a senior at Kennesaw State University. Growing up in Bartow County, she knew she was different as early as third grade, but didn’t have the words to explain it. She settled on gay — the only gender identity term she knew at the time — and told her mother in fourth grade.

In middle school, Fisher said she was bullied and intimidated. She remembers almost daily harassment by a neighbor who would follow her off the school bus telling her to “drop the queer.”

Toward the end of high school, Fisher, like many transgender students, kept her head down and just tried to assimilate.

Campus support

None of the region’s six largest school districts keep data on numbers of transgender students and are not required to do so. Unless students voluntarily share their gender identity, helping them navigate school challenges can be difficult.

Some school officials, LGBT activists say, discourage students from starting alliance groups with the word “gay” in the name for fear of retaliation.

Transgender students interviewed said they would feel more included if schools did a better job teaching sex education, improving anti-bullying programs and helping students explore their gender identity. They also want sensitivity training for teachers and student records updated to be more inclusive of transitioning students.

Some schools have quietly made accommodations without federal or state intervention. Cobb County's Walton High School allowed Eris Sage Lovell, who transitioned from male to female, to use a gender-neutral restroom. Georgia's colleges have implemented multicultural programs for LGBT students, installed gender-neutral bathrooms around campuses, and for the most part, allowed students to choose which facilities they use. Kennesaw State University, for example, has housing specifically for LGBT students.

This fall, Christian Zsilavetz, a transgender teacher who's been an educator for about 25 years, plans to open Pride School Atlanta. The private school will be the first of its kind for LGBT students in Atlanta, and a place for them and their teachers to openly discuss their identities.

Hiding no more

That type of school would have allowed Rose, the DeKalb County high school graduate formerly known as Thomas, to experience high school more freely.

Rose, 17, asked the AJC not to use her last name, in part, because some relatives are unaware of her new identity. She plans to begin the official name-change process in July when she turns 18.

“I have to spend a lot of my time hiding,” she said. “I have to live a double life.”

Rose began questioning her sexuality in the seventh grade. By sophomore year, she told a friend via email about her gender identity. That friend was receptive; others were more surprised. Her mother initially panicked. Her father, she said, was more accepting.

High school classmates never learned the truth. They wondered instead about the sexual preference. The silence resulted in crude questions from classmates about sexual encounters.

“I wore an armor of anger,” Rose said, to ward off bullying.

Rose does not plan to hide her gender identity when she enrolls at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. this fall. She applied there because of its strong liberal arts curriculum, and she heard it is LGBT-friendly.

She’s excited about college, but nervous.

“I can do it. I have survived,” Rose said. “It’s sort of like when Ajax survived the tsunami sent by Poseidon at the end of the Trojan War and climbed on top of the cliff … Hopefully, Poseidon doesn’t send an earthquake and send me down the chasm.”