Can trans kids fit in at same-sex high schools?

Posted at 7:00 AM, May 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-25 13:48:29-04

CINCINNATI – Which bathroom transgender people are welcomed to use may be getting all the attention in the latest battle of the nation's culture wars.

But there's another question regarding sex and gender that has received scant attention. What happens to single-sex high schools?

From Elder High School in Price Hill to Moeller in Kenwood, from Ursuline Academy in Blue Ash to Mother of Mercy in Westwood, Greater Cincinnati has educated generations of families in all-boys and all-girls schools.

But what happens when a student at a boys' school identifies as a girl? What about an eighth-grader who was assigned as female at birth now identifies as a boy and wants to go to St. Xavier?

The issue is not going away, and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, high school leaders and families are doing some soul searching. 

"How all that is going to play out I can't even tell you," said Susan Gibbons, interim superintendent of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati school system. " This is something that I started talking about a year and a half or two years ago, and we're just getting started."

Gibbons is working to assemble a committee to study the issues surrounding students who identify as something other than the gender on their birth certificates. She hopes the committee can have guidelines in place for the 2016-17 school year.

Susan Gibbons, interim superintendent of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati schools

"I'll be drawing on theologians, folks in the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, attorneys, educators and principals," she said.

Leaders from Moeller, St. Xavier, Mount Notre Dame and others said they're awaiting guidance from the archdiocese on the issues.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Covington, which oversees Catholic single-sex schools in Northern Kentucky, did not respond to multiple interview requests.

To date, no openly trans student has applied to a sex-segregated school within the archdiocese, Gibbons said. But some high school students have come forward as transgender, she said. She declined to say how many or at which schools.

"We've been able to work with those families and kept that as a very private family matter," Gibbons said, adding that the students she referred to were able to remain in school with the help of counseling.

More students with different gender identities are in school, she believes.

"By and large, those students are not identifying themselves and not telling us," Gibbons said.

Feeling Different

Samantha Mathews, 25, was one of those students. She graduated from St. Xavier High School in 2009 full of questions about her gender that she kept to herself.

Mathews played football for her first three years at St. X before choosing to be team manager her senior year. She made the switch after feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the locker room.

She attended Loyola University in Chicago, where she started exploring her gender identity in earnest after a childhood and adolescence of feeling different without being able to fully realize what that meant to her.

"I always knew something was up," Mathews said.

She liked trying on women's clothes in grade school, but the whole notion of people living as trans men didn't even occur to her until her AP psychology class at St. X broached the subject.

"(In high school), I never kind of took the chance to express myself. I almost felt like there was a hyper-masculinized feel around it," Mathews said. "There was one out gay guy, and he was definitely tokenized as the gay guy."

Mathews has successfully navigated the transition into living as a trans woman, but not without many challenges along the way.

After graduating from Loyola with dual psychology and theology majors in 2014, she taught at a Jesuit high school in Denver through the Alumni Service Corps, a Catholic program similar to Teach for America.

At first, Mathews dressed in traditionally male clothes and closeted herself, determined to keep her gender identity separate from her work in a Catholic school. But the decision induced panic attacks and depression, and she decided to come out to the administration after a couple of months.

The school almost immediately invited her to leave, and she returned to Cincinnati, where she is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Xavier University.

XU has fully embraced her, Mathews said, welcoming her to dress as she likes and to use whatever bathroom that makes her feel comfortable.

Through it all, she has remained a devout Catholic, attending weekly mass at St. Xavier Church downtown. When everything else about her identity seemed to be torn away, Mathews found solace in the faith in which she was raised.

"That's definitely been a challenge, but also a comfort. Whether I'm a son of God or a daughter of God, at least I know I'm a child of God," she said.

She realizes sharing her story with WCPO will open her up to public scrutiny and derision from some, but Mathews hopes to help make the path forward a little easier for students struggling with gender and sexuality issues.

Life and Death Stakes

At Heartland Trans Wellness Group in Mount Auburn, Jonah Yokoyama works to save the lives of young people who are struggling with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

He has lost clients to suicide after bullying or rejection by family or friends became too much to bear atop the challenge of self-realization.

Academic studies like this one indicate suicide and attempted suicide rates among transgender young people are much higher than the general population.

Other studies like this one show that a hugely disproportionate percentage of young homeless people identify as transgender.

Yokoyama, a trans man, doesn't need the studies to know that. He said some of the more than 700 clients that his center has served are on the brink of suicide while others have killed themselves.

Jonah Yokoyama offered a primer on terminology regarding gender and sexuality:
• Gender identify is our own internal sense of who we are. People who continue to identify with the gender they were assigned at birth are known as cisgendered.
• Gender expression is how we present ourselves to others: through facial hair, makeup, vocal intonation, clothes, etc.
• Sexual orientation is who we prefer to be sexually or romantically involved with. This includes but is not limited to being straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and more nuanced orientations like intersexual and pansexual.
• There are far more variations to gender identity than sticking with the gender we're assigned at birth or identifying as the opposite gender. Some consider themselves without gender – agender – while others see their gender as fluid and changing.

"There's a great need for the counseling here and there's a great lack of it," he said of high school students.

But there are resources, including Heartland, GLSEN and Cincinnati Children's Hospital's Transgender Clinic, which serves children as young as 5 who identify as trans to some degree.

Yokoyama has clients from single-sex schools, which he refers to as sex-segregated schools. Most end up transferring, he said.

"(The issue) has not been pushed too hard because they are feeling so unwelcome that they leave. There are some schools that have worked to recognize someone's identity until something like, say, medical transition presses the issue," Yokoyama said.

The Path Forward

"When a kid discloses their identify, schools need cultural competency training for the staff. They need to figure out how to serve and protect this student," Yokoyama said. "Let the kids use the bathroom that aligns with their identity or have a unisex bathroom, or don't force them to use that."

Mathews called for high schools to incorporate a standard procedure into counseling that would tell every student that they can discuss any questions about their sexual orientation or gender safely.

"I was in need of somebody, and no, I don't feel like I had that. Looking back, I feel like it would have been so beneficial to talk with someone, because I was swimming," she said.

She is unsure whether boys' and girls' schools should alter their policy to explicitly welcome trans students, but Mathews is certain that enrolled students should be supported and accepted.

"The school has a responsibility to take care of student who comes out at school," Mathews said.

St. Xavier does not have an official policy regarding transgender students, though the topic is very much on the minds of its leaders who are waiting on guidance from the archdiocese before creating a policy.

"St. Xavier High School is always looking for the best ways to love and care for all of our students," spokeswoman Becky Schulte said.

Last fall, the school invited Nic Sakurai to speak about self care and community care as part of the events surrounding Ignatian Values Day.

Nic Sakurai, a 1999 St. Xavier High School graduate and advocate for transgender youth. Photo provided.

Sakurai, who now identifies as agender – neither a man nor a woman – is a 1999 St. Xavier graduate who anonymously penned a column in the school newspaper titled "You Are Not Alone," along with a couple of friends. The column talked about being gay or bisexual and offered support to others who felt isolated.

Sakurai is now director of leadership initiatives at University of Maryland's LGBT Equity Center.

Sakurai's talk was themed "coming home," and discussed race, sexuality and gender as touchstones along the journey of trying to find oneself.

Sakurai is unsure about the place of all-boys schools going forward.

"That's part of my reaction. For me personally I don't know that I needed to go to a single-sex or single-gender school. My parents' driver and mine was to go to a great school, to go to a place of intellectual exploration that could prepare you for the world," Sakurai said.

Whether all students here will get that choice remains to be seen as archdiocese schools are eagerly awaiting the guidance the committee and Archbishop Daniel Schnurr will offer.

"We have to teach. We have to learn and we have to look at this issue. As hard as it is, we have to deal with it," Gibbons said.

In the meantime, the district and individual schools are navigating new terrain on a case-by-case basis.

Mount Notre Dame Head of School Judy Back Gerwe said her girls' high school spends a lot of time with every prospective student.

"We have not dealt with a transgender student expressing interest in Mount Notre Dame, but would work with that student to determine if our school would be a good fit just as we do with any prospective student," she said.

Gibbons said the archdiocese will proceed thoughtfully.

"This is such a personal family matter. Kids have a lot of psychological issues in high school, and this may be the hardest one we've run across," Gibbons said. "The bottom line is being respectful and caring of children and their families."

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