April 6, 2016

Trans Youth Forum at PDS on April 9 Features Wide Range of Programs

Transgender, gender non-conforming, gender questioning — a large contingent of trans youth, along with their allies and an assortment of educators, will gather at Princeton Day School this Saturday, April 9 for the 2nd Annual New Jersey Trans Youth Forum (TYF), sponsored by HiTops and GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network). 

“We do not want to lose these young people,” said Carol Watchler, co-chair of GLSEN’s central New Jersey chapter. “It’s important for educators and others to be aware of them. Young people find it very inspiring and supporting to come to an event where there are many people who are gender non-conforming, who identify as they do.”

Ms. Watchler emphasized how rapidly transgender awareness has grown recently. She pointed out that “transgender young people previously were not so visible. They have become much more visible in the past several years, and it’s important to have a place for them to share their experiences and work with counselors and teachers who have experience in this field.”

Focusing on the many components of well-being, under the theme of “Self-Care is Self-Love,” the forum will offer panel discussions on topics that include what schools need to know, how to make our schools and our clubs more inclusive, how to talk with our children, healthy relationships, legal issues, sexuality education, religion and spirituality, and workshops on the arts and self-expression, coming out and activism.

HiTops health educator and co-founder of the Forum, Corrine O’Hara described the momentum of the trans youth movement. “I’ve been getting more and more calls from parents, schools and individuals over the past few years. People want to know what’s going on and what they should be doing to make the space safer for trans youth. I feel we’re at the right place at the right time on this issue.”

“The Trans Youth Forum is more than just a forum,” added Daniel Fernandez, who is also a HiTops health educator and co-organizer of the TYF. “On this day, youth from all across the state and out of state gather for a jam-packed day of learning, networking, food, fun giveaways, and entertainment. But the forum is more than just a day of workshops and good food. On this day, youth gather to celebrate life, celebrate diversity, and celebrate themselves in a space that allows them to do so.”

Seeking to “embrace and encourage the multi-faceted truth of identity for gender non-conforming individuals,” the TYF will include a keynote speech by Katie Rain Hill, author of the award-winning memoir Rethinking Normal (2014) Ms. Hill, who transitioned during her sophomore year in high school, was the first openly transgender student to graduate from a school in Oklahoma.

An all-day seminar specifically for educators will be led by Dr. Eli R. Green, founder of the Transgender Training Institute and co-author of The Teaching Transgender Toolkit.

“Students who are transgender are frequently bullied by peers, facing rejection from families, and are generally lacking sources of support and affirmation,” states an introduction to Mr. Green’s training session. “As a result, many transgender students are struggling personally, socially, and academically, with significant negative consequences.” The training session will address understanding students who are transgender, while focusing on “strategies and best practices for creating safe and inclusive youth settings.”

In noting the progress made in raising awareness of this issue and helping transgender young people, Ms. Watchler compared transgender awareness to society’s acceptance of same-sex couples. She noted that, once people started to know gay people in their communities, in their work places and in their families, attitudes began to change rapidly and become more understanding and accepting.

“Just as we have learned to accept people’s sexual orientation, now we are learning to accept non-conforming gender identities,” Ms. Watchler said. “Schools are embracing this issue, learning what to do to ensure that young people are safe and have the support they need, and that they’re respected in school.”

Ms. O’Hara, who has been working with LGBT issues at Hi-Tops for the past 20 years, noted that trans youth concerns are unique and different, but there are many of the same factors at work. She described the similarity in the initial hesitancy to talk, the shame, the stigma, the anger and confusion. “It’s all there,” she said. “At the beginning it’s hard for people to be out, to talk about it.” She added that awareness of trans youth is happening more rapidly because of so much groundbreaking working in LGBT awareness.

“There is so much good will out there,” she added, “and so many resources.” She emphasized the importance of the Forum’s theme of “self-care, self-love — a need for taking care of yourself in the community, not listening to the negativity.”

A 2007 New Jersey law declared that people may not be discriminated against on the basis of gender identity or gender expression, and many school districts have passed their own policies to make sure that transgender students are safe and able to participate fully in the school community.

The Princeton Public Schools (PPS) policy, praised by Ms. Watchler as “a very strong policy, a model for districts to follow,” states that PPS ”is committed to providing a safe, supportive and inclusive learning environment for all students, including transgender students, and to ensuring that every student has equal educational opportunities and equal access to the District’s educational programs and activities.”

The PPS policy further states that “students shall have access to the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity. Where available, a single-stall, gender-neutral restroom may be used by any student who desires increased privacy.”

Elsewhere in the country progress in acceptance of trans youth is less apparent. Last week the North Carolina legislature passed, and Governor Pat McCrory signed into law, a bill barring transgender people from using public restrooms that match their gender identity and prohibiting cities from passing anti discrimination ordinances to protect gay and transgender individuals.

With 150 already registered for this year’s Trans Youth Forum, about 200 participants are expected, twice as many as attended last year. Recommended registration fees are $15 for youth and $30 for adults, but no youth wishing to attend will be turned away for lack of ability to pay. For educators participating in Mr. Green’s training session, the cost is $100, with sign-ups at hi tops.org/njtyf. A light breakfast and lunch are included for all Forum participants.

“With forums such as the TYF,” Mr. Fernandez stated, “we can create awareness, create change, create opportunity and, most importantly, create and provide hope and support that empowers youth of today.”