Years ago, I was on the board of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, better known as GLSEN. One of our tasks was to do a School Climate Survey to see if and how a school dealt with LGBT issues. I went to my old high school and spoke to the then principal. One of the survey questions was, “Do you have any openly gay teachers?” To my surprise, he answered, “Oh yes, I think we have a few!” Stunned, because it was a school in a very conservative area, I responded, “Wow! That’s great that gay students have someone they can talk to.” He stammered, “Oh no, we don’t have any gay students at this school, and we certainly wouldn’t let any teachers talk about it. We wouldn’t want them flaunting their sex lives.”
Confused, and just before I launched into a lecture about using the “F” word, flaunt, I asked him how he knew there were gay teachers if they weren’t allowed to talk about it, and he responded, “Well, I can pick them out by the way they walk.” Facepalm. Needless to say, my alma mater didn’t receive a good review that year.
Happily, things have changed in many schools, case in point, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. An innovative school, SCHA came to my attention when I read a story about two students who published a children’s book featuring a nonbinary character, Candy, who goes on an exciting, superhero adventure to find a cape. The book, “A Cape for Candy,” is the brainchild of writer Ella Stevens and was illustrated by fellow student Whimsy Mark-Ockerbloom. Stevens was able to create her book because of the school’s CEL Capstone program, a platform where sophomore students can solve problems they face in innovative ways through design.
Tell me a little about yourself?
ES: I’m a junior, 11th grade. I started writing the book when I was a sophomore. As for LGBT stuff, I’m the co-president, there are two presidents… of our school’s GSA. We have a pretty hefty number of members at the school. It’s a great group, so I’m pretty involved there.
Ah, the Gay, Straight Alliance.
ES: Actually, ours stands for Gender and Sexuality Alliance. It used to be the Gay, Straight Alliance, but we felt it was kind of like excluding a lot of people. There are a lot of people who don’t just identify as gay or straight! We wanted to include everything else.
I like it.
ES: Yeah, so I do a lot of work with that kind of stuff. I was elected with a friend of mine to be co-president when I was a freshman, and I’ve been president since then — all of my sophomore year and all of my junior year so far.
How did you get involved?
ES: Being a member of the community myself, I’m really interested in LGBTQ issues. When I was in middle school, we had a club called “Diversity Club,” where we mainly talked about race and gender and all that. I found it really interesting and wanted to talk more about it. It really prompted me to dig more into my own life.
What does it mean to have a GSA at your school?
ES: It means a lot, and now it’s kind of morphed into something even more for me. When I was in middle school, we didn’t have a GSA until my 8th-grade year, and when we did get one, I wasn’t really into it yet. I just thought, “What is this?” but by the time I got to high school, I was learning more about myself and the world around me. Being able to have it at the school and being able to lead the group means a lot to me. I’m now able to help other people who are struggling with it. There are underclassmen who kind of look up to me for support, and I’m so glad I have ways to give it. And a lot of times, I find helping them helps me. I can’t imagine going to school without having that safety line.
So Whimsy, tell me a little about yourself.
WMO: I kind of do a whole bunch of stuff. I’m studying forensics and library sciences in college; I’m doing theater here at the school and theater outside of school; I do art; I’m in an acapella group … [Laughing] I’m a man of many talents!
Where are you originally from?
WMO: I’m from Philly, the whole time. My parents are from Connecticut and Canada, but they ended up in Philly, hunkered down and made a home here.
What were you like as a younger kid?
WMO: [Laughing] A nightmare! No, it’s actually kind of hard to say. I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but for a lot of trans people, you don’t remember a lot of your childhood just because it doesn’t fit into the narrative of who you are now. I kind of knew when I was little, and I do remember that if people would mistake me for a boy, I’d be like, “Yes!” I look back, and it makes sense for me now. I came out — I think it was two years ago? My sophomore year?
ES: Yeah, it was my freshman year.
WMO: So, three years ago. Nailed it! Yeah, it was a low-key thing at first where people probably thought I was gay. But then I came out to the entire school as trans during an assembly.
WMO: Well, it was during the “Day of Understanding.” [Laughing] It’s not like I just stood up in the middle of assembly and yelled, “What’s up? I’m Trans!” No, it was during a day of programming about diversity.
ES: We have a lot of diversity events.
WMO: We do, so I came out on the “Day of Understanding,” and then I sort of came out to my parents that day as well. Wait, no, I tried to come out the week before with a really bad joke that was not funny at all to them because I was panicked and depressed as I was thinking [dramatically] “Oh God, please don’t let them disown me! Please let me be funny!” But it wasn’t; it went right over my mother’s head.
What was the joke?
[Laughing] Yes, I do.
WMO: Well, she didn’t, but two days later, we were in the therapist’s office because I was so depressed. My mom and dad asked the therapist, “So is this a sex thing?” and I was like, “No, no, no, no, no!” [Laughing] It was the worst day of my life! No, not the worst, but it was horribly embarrassing. It was a long journey; I had to gradually explain to them what nonbinary means, what trans means, the proper use of pronouns, oh my God, it was the worst!
How have they come along?
WMO: Better. As I’m figuring it out, they’re coming along for the ride. I’ve eased them into accepting that I was nonbinary masculine. At first, they were a little freaked out by the idea of me fully transitioning to a guy, which I don’t want to do; I want to stay a kind of neutral masculine dude.
What was your experience Ella?
ES: It’s interesting, you know that everything Whimsy learned about all this was from the internet.
WMO: Yeah, mostly Tumblr.
ES: But I learned most of it at school through the diversity club, which is kind of whacked — that Whimsy had to find it on their own, while I learned it at school. Because it’s not something our parents really spoke about. Though I did have gay neighbors, and my mom would say, “That’s so and so, she has two moms!” And that was about it. But to answer your question, it’s complicated; I’m still trying to figure — I mean I don’t think I even had an identity for ...
WMO: [Laughing] No identity! You weren’t even a person?!
ES: Ha, ha. No! I’m still looking! Well, this year, I think I found at least one thing I’m more or less solid on, gender identity. I’m pretty solid on being female. I’m not totally vibing on she/her pronouns, but I’ll work on that.
Well, labels seem less important these days.
WMO: The world’s ending anyway.
ES: Yeah, I have more pressing things to deal with now. Like, I have a math test on Thursday. Now that’s something I’m worried about. I can discover my identity on Saturday!
ES: As for my sexuality, I jump back and forth between am I attracted to this? Am I attracted to that?
WMO: You’re attracted to me!
ES: Whimsy! So, as for me properly coming out, I went to my first Philly Pride parade this June, and I basically put a coming out post on Instagram. It wasn’t anything specific like I am a “blank” identity; I just said, “I’m gay.” [Laughing] I enjoy using overarching umbrella terms, they’re quite nice.
What made you decide to write a book? Had you written before?
ES: No, it was actually a school project. It’s a semester-long project for the CEL Capstone program. CEL is the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, and it’s a project-based program designed to encourage students to think about real-life entrepreneurial challenges and opportunities. It’s part of what we learn in every grade, but the Capstone program gives sophomores hands-on project-design experience. Our teachers Edward Glassman and Juliet Fajardo were the facilitators. It’s a cool program; they want you to build or create something that solves a problem that you or people you care about are affected by. So my project was to write and publish a children’s book with a nonbinary hero.
Why did you think it was important?
ES: It was inspired by my trans friends. I hate seeing people constantly getting misgendered; it can really have a destructive effect on people’s lives and mental health. And it’s something so simple to do, just using a word, the right pronoun, the name of choice, can mean so much to someone. And I thought, what’s the root of the problem, are people just not used to using the correct pronouns, or are they just horrible people? One thought I had was that people are not used to it because it’s not something they hear at a young age, so I decided to create a children’s book using they/them pronouns and a nonbinary character. I didn’t want it to be about some special nonbinary character; I wanted it to be a character who just happened to be nonbinary.
When did you get involved, Whimsy?
WMO: Ella walked up and asked me if I would illustrate her book, and I said, yeah. She gave me some weird sketches that were — well, Ella’s more of a writer, let’s put it that way. But I got the idea, and from there, I created Candy. The main thing I wanted was for Candy to have a neutral physique and a bubbly, fun personality. I thought of some second graders I knew and went from there. The mother is slightly based on my mom; I wanted a character that felt safe and accepting. And she has blue eyes like my mom and reddish hair, which my mom always wanted!
That sounds like a lovely tribute. Now for some silly questions: if you were on “Survivor,” what would be the one item you’d bring?
WMO: Being practical, I’d go for a crowbar. You can open things, you can break things, and you can hit things. It’s an all-around perfect — or wait, maybe a Swiss army knife would be smarter? No, I’ll stick with crowbar; I want to whack things, plus it’s more dramatic.
ES: If I were on “Survivor,” I’d bring a 12-pack of Sharpies and a pad, because I’m too lazy to try and actually survive, so I’d just sit on the side and color the whole time.
Nice. Is the book available?
ES: Not yet, we’re working on getting it up on Amazon as a free Kindle ebook. Hopefully soon. You’ll just have to keep an eye out for it.