A kindergarten teacher showed a drawing of an elephant in a cage to the young artist’s parents.
“The elephant is very sad because she is stuck in a cage,” said the father of the kindergarten child. “She is very sad because she is trapped in a cage and no one will listen.”
For all her young life, the child tried to tell her parents that she was a girl even though she had been assigned male at birth.
“He would pick up dolls and we would take them away and hide them,” the mother said. “We would just snatch them out of his hands.”
We didn’t understand what was happening to our beautiful boy, the parents explained. They thought it was a fad or something that their son would eventually outgrow. “He would tell us he thought God had made a mistake,” the father said. “I think he gave up on telling us and began to tell his kindergarten teacher.”
The emotional exchange is from People Magazine’s Web series Meet the Keswanis: a Most Modern Family. A clip from the series was shown at the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission’s (MHSOAC) Transitioning Back to School: Gender Mental Health & Education Summit in Oakland September 7. About 70 people attended the one-day summit.
The meeting was part of the Commission’s Schools and Mental Health Project’s outreach and engagement strategy with California’s diverse communities. The Commission’s hosts for the meeting were #Out4MentalHealth and Gender Spectrum.
“We do community forums, we do site visits, we do meetings like this,” said Toby Ewing, Executive Director of the Commission. “The idea is to learn about what’s working and what’s not working and the strategies we should be pursuing in order to bring about transformational change to our mental health system.”
The purpose of this meeting was to understand how schools can better support the mental health and wellness needs of children who have a gender identity that does not match their sex assigned at birth. The Schools and Mental Health Project lead Kai LeMasson said, “Children who are gender expansive or non-conforming are at risk if those around them fail to affirm their sense of self.”
Poshi Walker, #Out4MentalHealth co-director & LGBTQ program director for NorCal MHA, stressed the importance of safe and supportive environments both at home and at school. “Trauma, shame and rejection in children are the trajectory into mental health problems and suicide ideation in transgender and non-binary youth,” ze said. “It starts young.”
MHSOAC Commissioner Gladys Mitchell attended the education summit.
“If we could do more anti-bullying to show kids the consequences of their behavior toward people or situations that are different, I think that’s real effective,” Commissioner Mitchell said. “Kids get habits based on their home environment. So you come to school and you have this bad attitude toward a kid that’s different. That comes from home so maybe schools can hold forums on helping us adults understand that being kinder, nicer, gentler people at home will translate into less bullying in the schools.”
The summit included a presentation by Joel Baum of Gender Spectrum, an organization that seeks to create a gender inclusive world for all children and youth through trainings, workshops and other resources.
“I believe that we can transform our society and that schools play a really big role in doing that,” Baum said. “This talk about gender is about creating spaces where kids tell us who they are rather than we telling them who they are.”
Baum’s presentation included the film described above, as well as a discussion about our society’s existing binary system where either you’re a boy or a girl or a man and a woman and there’s little room for anything else.
“When we talk about gender, we need to recognize that the simple binary system assumes two bodies, two genders and end of story,” Baum said. “But it is so much more than that. Binary just doesn’t work and it doesn’t account for everyone and we just need to admit we need a better model.”
The summit included a panel discussion comprising Ilsa Bertolini, of the Oakland Unified School District, Kelly King, of the Glendale Unified School District, Rick Oculto of Our Family Coalition, and Dianne Jones, the mother of three LGBTQ children.
At the meeting, Jones discussed some of the issues her children faced at school. She elaborated further in an interview later.
“Cal was a well-liked student and was even nominated to the homecoming court senior year,” Jones said. “But there were definitely some concerning incidents in elementary, junior high and even high school,” she said. “We also had some issues outside of school at summer camps.”
Jones went on to say that issues her children faced related to substitute teachers, gendered graduation robes, gender neutral bathrooms, locker room concerns, sports and Cal’s desire to change their name, to name a few.
“As a non-binary person, Cal was essentially forced to either give up competitive sports in high school or pick which team to be on,” Jones said. “Cal is a runner. Both cross country and track are nice because the whole team practices together, but when it’s time to race, you either have to race with the men or the women. Cal raced with the women’s team, but it wasn’t without difficult feelings of compromising something fundamental about themselves.”
Gabriel Garcia, the Boys and Men of Color coordinator with the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), a national organization that seeks to empower Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese American communities to create a socially just and equitable society, attended the meeting.
“The thing I did want to learn more about was the analysis that the folks in the room had on gender as it relates to other cultures,” Garcia said. “It’s one thing to dissect gender, but if you add the dimension of California's cultural diversity, there are a million different questions that need to be addressed.”
Garcia hoped to discuss the interaction between gender and ethnic identities as it relates to bullying. He said that a statewide survey conducted by his Asian American and Pacific Islander Coalition Helping Achieve Racial and Gender Equity (AAPI CHARGE) confirmed that Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) youth experience some of the highest rates of school bullying with 1 in 2 AAPI youth respondents saying they had been bullied at school. "However, when we broke down the survey data by gender, we found that non-binary folks had extremely high rates of bullying,” he said. “Among non-binary AAPI folks, 69 percent reported being bullied at school. For folks who identify as non-binary, we need to understand how their ethnic identities also inform their experiences and challenges."
Garcia said he felt encouraged by the meeting. “There’s a lot of great work out there that people are doing to make California more gender inclusive,” he said.
Baum explained that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most children have a pretty good sense of their gender identity by age four. “They may not have the language for it, but they can say ‘I know what I am’ and in some cases, ‘I know what I am not.’”
The mother from the Meet the Keswanis clip said that once she understood what her child was trying to tell her, “I just wrapped my arms around her and I said: ‘you will never have to be him again, ever.’”
Baum said that the parents in the film, whom he knows personally, are really good parents. “In this situation, you had a really super young kid trying to get the adults around her to see who she was,” he said. “The parents simply didn’t have a framework for what was happening to their kid. She couldn’t talk about it with her family. So where did she talk about it? She talked about it at school to a kindergarten teacher who had the wherewithal to recognize what was happening. Thank God for kindergarten teachers!”