Hundreds of Montgomery County Public Schools students, parents and staff members on Saturday celebrated the growth in recent years of LGBTQ-themed curriculum, extracurricular activities and awareness in the district.
MCPS’ fourth annual Pride Town Hall event at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda featured a resource fair for LGBTQ students and breakout sessions focusing on topics such as inclusivity of LGBTQ history in school curricula, responding to anti-LGBTQ bias and creating an inclusive school environment. Activist Gavin Grimm, the plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit over bathroom access in a Virginia school district, recounted his yearslong fight and described how discussion of LGBTQ rights has evolved beyond “Born this way.”
This year’s Pride Town Hall comes as many states, including Texas and Florida, develop policies that exclude LGBTQ discussions in schools or prohibit families from pursuing gender-affirming treatment for trans youth. As of last month, at least a dozen states were trying to restrict discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools, NPR reported.
MCPS administrators noted the increasing number of LGBTQ extracurricular programs in schools since the first Pride Town Hall was held in 2019. Greg Edmundson, MCPS’ director of student welfare and compliance, who is also the Title IX coordinator, said there were six schools out of 200 in the school system that had a gender and sexualities alliance (GSA) in 2019. This year, every middle and high school in the county has a GSA, he said.
Edmundson also said that a dozen high schools in the county have an LGBTQ history course.
“Next year we will have it in 15 of our schools as an elective, so that’s a really great thing for us,” he said.
During one breakout session, students and parents learned about ways to incorporate LGBTQ figures into American history classes. At one point, session leader Tiferet Ani, a social studies content specialist in MCPS, passed out documents to everyone with information about an LGBTQ historical figure and their picture. She asked the students and parents in the room to ask themselves if they had learned about the person before and, if not, why they may have been excluded from the curriculum.
When Ani asked if anyone had heard of their historical figure, one person answered that theirs was the poet Walt Whitman, and that they knew of Whitman but didn’t know he was gay.
No one else in the room recalled having previously learned about their historical figure.
One eighth grader at Takoma Park Middle School, said after the session that the figure she received was William Dorsey Swann, a formerly enslaved person in Maryland in the 1800s who later became the first known drag queen in the United States.
During another breakout session, fifth graders from Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda spoke about efforts the school is making to be more inclusive of LGBTQ students. The students said they feel it’s easier for them to express themselves, and teachers are becoming more sensitive to respecting students’ pronouns, although sometimes a teacher will accidentally misgender a student.
In a video shown during the session, several students suggested using more gender-inclusive language such as “children,” instead of “boys and girls,” and avoiding gender-specific activities such as sports that pit boys against girls.
After the session, Julien Chun-Hoon, a fourth grader at East Silver Spring Elementary School, said he learned a good deal at Saturday’s conference when it comes to respecting other students’ identities.
“It’s really valuable that we can be in an environment where our pronouns and what we want our gender to be is respected,” he said.
Earlier, Grimm spoke to attendees in the school auditorium. A transgender man, he sued the Gloucester County, Virginia, school board after it prohibited him from using the boys restroom during his sophomore year of high school in 2014. After a lengthy journey through the court system, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in Grimm’s favor in August 2020. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and in August 2021, the school board agreed to pay Grimm a $1.3 million settlement, the Washington Post reported.
At a certain point during his sophomore year, Grimm realized that the adults in the Virginia school system wouldn’t protect him, and he had to advocate for himself, he recalled Saturday.
“When you are a child in a small area like Gloucester that you know is not supportive, that you know is not safe, you know that you’re going to have challenges being affirmed as being who you are — it’s even harder to speak up and to make sure that your voice is heard,” he said.
Grimm, now 23, said at the age of 15, when he came out as transgender at school, he didn’t consider himself “brave or innately powerful.”
“I did what I did, because regardless of how I felt about myself, I believed in what I deserved,” he said.
“If you feel empowered, or you feel strongly about any issue within your school… you always have the power to raise your voice and make those choices to speak up for yourself.”
Grimm said one silver lining that came about after he came out during his sophomore year, was that four other transgender students transitioned, and at least two said they did so because they had heard Grimm’s story about not being allowed to use the boys restroom and were motivated to stand in solidarity with him.
“That was the moment where it was no longer about me needing to use the bathroom,” he said.
Grimm said he is particularly satisfied that the dialogue surrounding LGBTQ rights has changed in the past seven or eight years, since he was in high school
“I feel like we used to focus a lot on the concept of ‘born this way.’ And I think that’s great. I think we should say ‘we are who we are, and this is just who we are innately,’” he said. “But I’ve seen young people challenge that and say, ‘I don’t care if I was born this way. That shouldn’t qualify whether I deserve my rights.’ And I think that is just so awesome for young people to realize. They don’t have to qualify who they are by any measure. They are just who they are.”
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org