Viewpoints

Nicholas Kristof: From Caitlyn Jenner to a Brooklyn school

People all over the world have been following the emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, but few as enthusiastically as Spencer and Joshua, two students at a New York City high school who see her as an inspiring role model.

Spencer, 16, was born a girl and given a girl’s name, but he says it never felt right. On the first day of kindergarten, his mom dressed him in a skirt – the school uniform – and he cried.

“That’s for the girls,” he remembers protesting tearfully.

“But you are a girl,” his mom responded, baffled.

Still, he resisted so vociferously that for the rest of the year he was allowed to wear pants rather than the girls’ uniform.

“I knew I felt different from age 4, but I didn’t have a word for it,” he remembers. “In my mind, I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t I be a boy, even though I don’t have boy parts?’ It confused me.”

In third grade, he announced he was lesbian, but he said that didn’t feel right either. Finally, at age 12, after Google searches, he found the word that fit: transgender.

That didn’t make life easier. Spencer says he was bullied and mocked in middle school, and, at 13, he tried to hang himself. But he couldn’t manage to tie the right knot or reach the ceiling fan, and he finally cried himself to sleep in frustration.

Caitlyn Jenner has started an important national conversation, but this must go beyond what she wore on the cover of Vanity Fair. Too often we as a society become distracted in transgender discussions by questions of surgery or of which restroom a person’s going to use. In fact, as Spencer’s story suggests, the fundamental challenge is simply acceptance.

I visited Spencer at his high school, the Academy for Young Writers, in a gritty neighborhood in Brooklyn. It has provided that accepting home, and it offers some lessons for other institutions across the country.

These are complex issues. When a child born a boy comes to identify as a girl, it may be humiliating or dangerous for her to use the boy’s bathroom; it may also be distressing for other girls if a classmate with male anatomy uses their bathroom. And does such a child play on the boys’ sports team, or the girls’ team?

Yet these are issues that we will have to confront. One rough estimate suggests that perhaps one-third of 1 percent of people identify as transgender. That means that in a high school of 1,000 students, a few may well be transgender.

As topics become less taboo, examples become more visible. Miley Cyrus has now been quoted as saying that she regards her sexuality and gender identification as fluid. “I don’t relate to being boy or girl,” she said.

The Academy for Young Writers became a model because of a lapse. In 2011, one of the brightest girls in school, Tiara, seemingly headed for a great university, suddenly seemed poised to drop out. It turned out that the student was now identifying as a boy calling himself Seth - and the school had been oblivious. Seth ended up barely graduating and never went to college at all.

Courtney Winkfield, the principal, resolved that this wouldn’t happen again. She brought in a teacher to mentor students with such issues and to help students craft an anti-bullying policy.

Meanwhile, Spencer showed up and asked to use the boys’ bathroom and to be referred to as “he” and “him.” The school accommodated his request.

Some parents, teachers and students were upset, but the fuss seems to have calmed. Spencer says that thoughts of suicide linger but are now manageable. The school, he says, “saved my life.”

A classmate, Joshua, 15, is still figuring out gender. He uses the male pronoun and often wears boys’ clothing, but, when I visited, he was wearing lipstick, a wig and a dress. (For a photo, he reverted to boys’ clothing.)

“I have thoughts of being female, but not every day,” Joshua said. “I don’t want to put a label on me yet.”

Joshua, who says “you can call me both genders,” recounts a history much like Spencer’s: bullying beginning in kindergarten, and thoughts of suicide starting in fifth grade.

Today, both are on the honor roll. Indeed, with summer vacation looming, they worry about losing school as a safe space.

“It’s very, very scary, summer is,” Joshua said. “I don’t want to be on my own.”

I asked Winkfield what she would say to principals leery of sensitive gender issues. High school isn’t just about getting students college-ready, she said, but also about getting them world-ready.

“It’s easy to make this a granular issue about bathrooms or sexuality,” she said. “It’s really about preparing young people for the incredibly messy and complex world we live in.”

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.

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