September-October 2021

Being who they are

LGBTQ students are establishing their identities and asserting their rights—as MCPS works to keep up

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Sydney Spottiswood has taken on leadership roles at the Whitman Pride Alliance and MoCo Pride, a student-led countywide advocacy organization, to support LGBTQ students. Photo by Liz Lynch

Seventeen-year-old Sydney Spottiswood remembers having one of those “little kid school crushes” and worrying whether classmates at their D.C.-area Catholic school would find out. It was clear, even at age 7, that it wasn’t OK to have feelings for another girl.

“You get sent to hell for that,” is how Sydney recalls the fear at the time. So Sydney, who uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns, kept those feelings hidden and didn’t tell anyone that they preferred girls to boys. “It was something that I had repressed for a long time after that because I thought that it wasn’t something that should be known,” Sydney says.

Now a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Sydney recalls that time as the beginning of an awareness of not being straight. With no information to explain those feelings, Sydney turned to social media around age 9 and soon discovered the LGBTQ community. Checking sites like Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest, they came across explicit material before finding actual resources. “Being super young, you don’t understand how wild the internet is and how dangerous it can be,” Sydney says of that time. “That was my source of information.” Knowing they probably shouldn’t have looked at such material, Sydney didn’t tell anyone about it.

By sixth grade, Sydney says, they were beginning to understand that being gay wasn’t viewed as a sin by everyone. That year, Sydney came out to their mom as bisexual—being attracted to multiple genders—and said they wanted to transfer to a public school. Sydney says their mother “took it well.”

At Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, Sydney found their “tribe” of gender-diverse students and became involved in the school’s Gay Straight Alliance club—now called the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club. Though Sydney felt more comfortable at Pyle, they weren’t immune to the intolerant attitudes of some middle schoolers. “There’s this whole assumption that especially if you’re a girl that’s not straight, that you’re automatically attracted to every girl you meet,” Sydney says. “They’ll look at you weird, and if you’re, like, changing in a locker room for a gym class, they’ll all try to avoid you because they think that you’re going to try to get at them.”

Instead of withdrawing emotionally, Sydney found a calling as an LGBTQ activist. At Whitman, they have served as co-president for two years of Whitman Pride Alliance, the school’s chapter of the GSA club. Among club activities, Sydney has written and presented content at meetings and helped organize activities for National Coming Out Day, the Day of Silence and other visibility events, according to Sheryl Freedman, the club’s staff adviser.

Sydney also is the secretary for MoCo Pride, a student-led countywide LGBTQ advocacy organization, and along with other student activists helped Montgomery County Public Schools write the curriculum for its new LGBTQ studies course—one of the first in the country—that was offered to high school students for the first time this fall. The group also has held workshops on how to lobby MCPS and the state legislature.

The activism has helped Sydney become more open-minded, they say, and willing to learn about issues that affect minorities. “I am just more compassionate in trying to understand the nuances and trying to understand hate from a widescale perspective,” Sydney says.

On an evening in late May, Greg Edmundson, MCPS’ director of student welfare and compliance, welcomed students, parents and staff as he opened the district’s third annual Pride Town Hall, a three-hour virtual event offering breakout sessions on such topics as best practices for normalizing diverse gender identities in schools and how teachers can make their classrooms more LGBTQ-friendly. Roughly 700 participants had registered.

“One of our foundational beliefs in MCPS is [that] all students … feel valued, acknowledged and respected,” Edmundson said that night.

The town hall occurred at a time when acknowledgment of the gender diversity spectrum is rising, especially among younger generations. It is estimated that nearly 10% of U.S. youths ages 13 to 17 identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to a September 2020 report by the Williams Institute at UCLA. A 2020 Gallup poll released in February found that about one in six U.S. adults born between 1997 and 2002, the group known as Generation Z, identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. “Queer,” long considered a pejorative label, is now broadly claimed by the community as an umbrella term, according to activists.

Gallup says its poll numbers show that younger generations are more likely than older people to identify as something other than their sex assigned at birth and to reject the binary concept of gender and sexuality. Though some regard the poll figures as evidence of a fad, teen and adult LGBTQ activists say it’s wrong to assume the rising numbers mean that more people are suddenly deciding they are not heterosexual or cisgender, which means their assigned gender at birth matches the gender they identify with. Rather, they say a shift in societal perceptions along with growing support for the rights of LGBTQ people is creating a safer and more comfortable environment for those who previously may have kept their identities hidden.

Richard Montgomery senior Julia Angel is the president of MoCo Pride. She’s calling for more LGBTQ representation in MCPS’ English and history courses, and for more information on gender identity in a required health class. Photo by Liz Lynch

Richard Montgomery High School senior Julia Angel, president and one of the founding members of MoCo Pride, says societal changes combined with access to social media and other online resources have broadened the ability of younger people to explore what being LGBTQ means. “You’re able to see all these other people who are just sharing their life stories that you relate to, and that allows you to do more thinking about your own identity and realize: Hey, maybe I don’t fit into this heteronormative, cisgender system that I’ve been taught my whole life,” says Julia, 17, who lives in Bethesda and identifies as queer.

Despite growing acceptance, coming out remains a challenging process, especially for young people. A 2018 report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which surveyed more than 12,000 LGBTQ teens, found that 24% can “definitely” be themselves as an LGBTQ person at home. Nearly 50% who were out to their parents say their families make them feel bad for being LGBTQ. And at school, 70% said they have been bullied because of their sexual orientation. Only 26% report that they always feel safe in the classroom.

Heading back to school this fall, Leo, a senior who says he identifies as a transgender man, didn’t plan on using a restroom during the school day. Before the pandemic, using the boys bathroom was “risky,” he says, because security or staff might question him. MCPS’ gender identity guidelines require all schools to have a designated gender-neutral bathroom, usually located in the nurse’s office, and Leo’s high school, which he doesn’t want to name, allows students to use the nurse’s bathroom and a staff bathroom as well. But he says the staff bathroom is in a dark hallway far from classrooms. “There have been many times that I have been going in and staff have been coming out, and they have been giving me a very quizzical look, more often like a scowl: This is a staff bathroom. Why are you coming in here?” he says.

So Leo found it was easier to wait until after school, when he can use the boys bathroom with less fear of harassment. Feeling uncomfortable about using the restroom is just one of the issues that Leo has to navigate at school. Before he legally changed his name to Leo, substitute teachers would use his former name—what the LGBTQ community calls a “deadname”—because it was listed on class rosters. It’s an occurrence that experts say is invalidating and often emotionally harmful.

MCPS no longer requires students to obtain a court-ordered name change or to change their student records as a prerequisite to being addressed by their preferred names and pronouns. Leo occasionally encounters a teacher who doesn’t use his correct pronouns, so he immediately schedules a meeting with the teacher to solve the problem. “I am very no nonsense when it comes to that,” he says. “Students shouldn’t have to forcibly advocate for themselves like that, but I’ve done what I’ve had to do.”

Getting teachers and staff to use and respect an LGBTQ student’s pronouns is a necessary step in creating a climate of acceptance, activists say. But it can be a fraught issue for students and staff. “How do you get teachers to respect your pronouns if you’re not out with your parents?” one student wrote in a chat room during the Pride Town Hall. School officials say that students who aren’t out to their parents can ask guidance counselors for help in informing teachers about which name and pronouns to use during class and which to use for other activities, such as parent-teacher conferences.

Students posted dozens of questions in chat rooms during the town hall about bullying and other issues, which presenters tried to address. “Do nonbinary people count as trans people because me and my friends were talking about it and we don’t know?” one asked. Another questioned: “Does anyone find it weird that society accepts women wearing suits, but not men wearing dresses?”

MCPS officials say the district’s gender identity guidelines, first adopted in 2017 and updated annually, provide a road map for fostering a welcoming environment and ensuring that staff and students respect those who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming. The guidelines, based on federal law and state recommendations, define common LGBTQ terms such as “transgender,” which refers to someone whose gender identity or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s sex assigned at birth, and “gender nonconforming,” a reference to someone whose gender expression differs from conventional or stereotypical expectations.

Under the guidelines, transgender and nonconforming students have the right to dress “in a manner consistent” with their gender identity or expression. And schools must allow students to participate in a way that’s consistent with their gender identity whenever students are separated by gender for school activities.

Other guideline topics include bullying, sports participation, and requirements to provide gender-neutral facilities such as bathrooms and locker rooms, and to designate “safe spaces” for students, such as a counselor’s office or a specific teacher’s classroom.

The guidelines also say students should be allowed to fill out a form stating their name, gender and pronoun preferences, and that staff members do not have the authority to disclose a student’s gender identity, even to parents and guardians, “unless legally required to do so or unless students have authorized such disclosure.” That provision is now the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by two county families who claim that it violates federal law, according to court documents initially filed in October 2020. Edmundson, who says the MCPS guidelines were legally vetted before adoption, says he can’t comment on the lawsuit because it is ongoing.

According to Edmundson, all staff must complete an annual 30-minute compliance training on the guidelines and how to implement them. School officials are reexamining restroom designs when constructing new schools to make sure bathrooms comply with the guidelines. “That’s a perfect example of [why] we go back to our guidelines and revise…to ensure that all of our students feel welcome,” he says.

MCPS held its first Pride Town Hall in 2019 at Wootton High School in Rockville; about 300 people attended. “That was like a watershed moment,” says Mark Eckstein, who spearheaded the event along with the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, where he’s chair of the LGBTQ committee. Before that, MCPS hadn’t publicly focused on LGBTQ issues, so there was concern about the public’s response, he says. “A lot of schools just don’t do that because there’s that opposition. So they’ve really come a long way,” he says.

Eckstein, a gay father of two MCPS students, says the district’s approach continues to evolve. “They’re just starting to understand what it is to walk in the life of a trans kid or an out gay kid on the football team,” he says. “When you add intersections of race and immigration status and all these other things like nonaccepting parents, it’s a very complicated thing. There are no easy answers.”

In August 2019, MCPS gave students the choice of using a gender-neutral “X” classification when registering for school.

This fall, the district unveiled a one-semester elective LGBTQ studies course that includes researched material written by MoCo Pride members on identity, culture, LGBTQ history and the fight to protect and expand LGBTQ rights.

Every middle school and high school now has a staff-sponsored GSA club; three years ago, only seven schools did. Robin Lombard, the MCPS outreach coordinator for the MoCo Pride Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization that provides resources and advocates for the county’s LGBTQ community, meets regularly with MCPS high school GSAs.

“The fact that every single high school openly has an LGBTQ student group that the students can hold positions in just like any other club…is a big step in terms of visibility and support,” Lombard says.

Even with the steps that MCPS has taken, Leo and other LGBTQ students say school remains an uncomfortable place where some students sling homophobic slurs and bully them and staff members aren’t always accommodating. This fall, a transgender eighth grader, who did not want to be identified, and his family filed several complaints with Julius West Middle School in Rockville after he was repeatedly bullied about his gender orientation during the first weeks of the school year. Administrators at Julius West, which is working to prevent bullying and bias as a designated “No Place for Hate” school, say they’ve taken steps to support the student and discipline those involved.

A letter Principal Craig Staton sent to the school community asked parents to remind their children to respect other students and their identities: “LGBTQ slurs like ‘that’s so gay,’ ‘he’s so gay’ are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Leo says he is working with administrators at his school to ensure it’s safe and comfortable for LGBTQ students. “Middle school was mostly hellish. High school is slightly less hellish,” says Leo, who has suffered mental health issues related to dealing with his gender identity. Some transgender students don’t express their identities publicly until they’ve left high school, but Leo didn’t want to wait that long.

“I prioritized my own health and safety over the comfort of those around me, as I should have,” says Leo, who has a supportive family. It was more important that “I was a functioning person who could get up in the morning rather than making my high school career slightly more comfortable for those around me. I don’t really give a crap if they’re comfortable if I’m happy and alive.”

The pandemic only worsened the mental health crisis faced by LGBTQ youths, advocates say. A 2021 national survey of nearly 35,000 LGBTQ youths ages 13-24 by The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youths, found that 70% experienced “poor” mental health “most of the time or always” during the pandemic. In addition, 42% of LGBTQ youths seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to the survey.

During the MCPS town hall, Izzy Majarowitz, the advocacy director for MoCo Pride and now a 17-year-old senior at Northwood High School in Silver Spring, said the school district can help LGBTQ students by doing a better job of uniformly implementing its own guidelines. “I definitely know that a lot of times, bullying and harassment can actually get swept under the rug and there isn’t necessarily great attention paid to it, and that shouldn’t be happening,” Izzy said during a breakout session with MCPS administrators on best practices for normalizing gender identity.

Student activists say teachers must stop dividing students by gender for activities, including saying such things as “ladies first,” and all schools need to reconsider gender-oriented traditions; some schools have already moved to gender-neutral homecoming and prom courts. Also, the curriculum should be updated to include references to LGBTQ people, they say. “There’s basically no LGBTQ representation in our English and history courses,” says Julia Angel, the Richard Montgomery High School senior, who also advocates for updating the required high school health course to include more information on gender diversity.

Sheryl Freedman, the Whitman Pride Alliance adviser, says there was “a shift in awareness” among staff at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year that students may use different pronouns and different names than what appear on their legal school documents. During staff training, teachers were encouraged to state their own pronouns when introducing themselves to students and to allow students to fill out a form on which they could state their preferred name and pronouns and whether they were comfortable having those identifiers used in front of peers and family members. Staff development sessions of OneWhitman, a program designed to promote diversity and inclusion, focused on such issues as what to do if a staff member misgenders a student or witnesses another student acting in a homophobic manner.

“I do think the majority of staff with whom I’ve spoken really do want to respect a student’s identity and really seek out ways to support that,” Freedman says.

At Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, physical education teacher Stacy Farrar says administrators asked teachers at the start of the school year to fill out a get-to-know-you template, including listing their pronoun preferences, and use it to make a welcome sign for students. She says she made a sign, though not all teachers did. She asked her students to fill out a similar form and realized belatedly that it did not ask about preferred pronouns after three students stated their preferences while answering another question about what else she should know about them. “I felt badly because I hadn’t specifically asked the pronoun question,” she says.

Farrar, who has been an MCPS educator for 28 years, says she is trying to be more cognizant of using students’ preferred pronouns and not using gender-based language when teaching. “Sometimes I go into the locker room and I say, ‘Ladies, are you ready?’ and now I have to check myself on that,” she says.

Norah, a queer 16-year-old high school student from Silver Spring, was just beginning to figure out her gender and sexuality when the pandemic closed schools. At home with her family, she discovered that months of lockdown gave her time to think about herself and explore queer activism, free from the “gender boxes” and expectations that she faced in school. “I was realizing I don’t connect as much with womanhood as I thought I did, and that’s all right and that was fine with my family,” says Norah, who wanted to be identified only by her first name.

“When someone looks at me, they’re like, ah yes, that’s a girl, I’m going to use she/her pronouns, I’m going to use feminine terms for this girl in front of me,” says Norah, now a junior and active in the GSA club at her school. “But when no one is perceiving you, and when no one is putting their understanding of gender and sexuality on you, there’s a lot more room for you to process it yourself. And that was very revealing for me and a lot of my friends.”

Robin Lombard, who works with GSA clubs in MCPS high schools, says attendance increased when GSA meetings were forced online because of the closure of schools. For some students, fitting a virtual meeting into their schedules was easier than trying to attend after school. Others found a new freedom with the virtual sessions, she says.

“Some students said, ‘When it’s in person, when I go in that classroom, I [feel] like anyone who’s paying attention knows that I’m part of the club, which means anyone who might have a problem with me, sees me go into that room,’ ” she says. “Online, no one saw them go into the Zoom.”

For some LGBTQ students, especially those who weren’t out at home or didn’t feel comfortable expressing their identities in front of their families, lockdown meant they didn’t get the support provided by friends during in-person meetings. “For a lot of the students, the GSA is the only time they are at all relaxed. They’re spending—some of them—every moment tense and on guard … except for the brief period of those meetings, so the loss of that, I believe, had a substantial mental health impact,” Lombard says.

Norah hopes school administrators will ensure that their staffs understand they must follow all of the “amazing” MCPS gender identity guidelines, which exceeded her expectations. During the 2020-2021 school year, her GSA club hosted virtual presentations for students and teachers on the importance of using students’ preferred pronouns. “Can we get some help on the actual ground level?” she says. “Because I know that all the teachers who read that document aren’t going to actually implement it.”

Since going back to school this fall, Sydney Spottiswood has seen change taking root. They have noticed that Whitman staff members are including their own preferred pronouns when communicating with students. And “get to know you” forms distributed by teachers ask students to state their preferred pronouns and when it’s OK to use them, such as in front of family and classmates, Sydney says.

Sydney recently received a letter from a distant uncle who is gay. He’d heard about their activism, including the work on the LGBTQ studies course, and said he was “really happy” to see LGBTQ youths advocating for themselves. Now in his 60s, he recalled that being gay when he was younger “was just not something to be talked about and [was] something to be ashamed of,” Sydney says. “It was very touching.”

Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring and is a contributing editor at Bethesda Magazine.