Four months shy of graduation last year, Hazel Edwards walked into a meeting with her principal and guidance counselor at Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter. She had studied the rulebook and intended to make sure she could wear a dress to prom and graduation.
“It felt like they were looking at me with three heads,” Edwards, 19, recalled recently. “I knew they were sweet, kind people. We always had a good relationship. I was really trying to understand where they were coming from.
“During the conversation, ‘You’re a boy’ was being said to me. They were just thinking it’s not possible.”
Edwards said she had felt supported by her teachers and especially the theater department, but she wanted more official recognition of her gender identity. When that didn’t happen, she decided to leave school. Soon, she picked up an internship with the Bryson Institute, the training arm of The Attic Youth Center.
In September 2015, three months after she was supposed to have graduated, Edwards returned to Boys Latin with Kel Kroehle, director of the Bryson Institute. The principal, Dr. Noah Tennant, had asked for a training, which 86 faculty members attended.
“My principal said to me, ‘The student is now becoming the teacher,’” Edwards said. “He was there crying basically.”
Tennant was out of the office this week and not available for comment.
Edwards said it would’ve been nice to have administrators affirm her gender identity while she was still at school. But she doesn’t hold it against anyone.
“I know my purpose is to educate folks,” she said. “The positive outweighs the negative if they take away from what I’m saying. And, if I hadn’t left the school, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Edwards is studying for her General Educational Development tests and plans to take all four modules by the end of the year. She spent the last six months helping to write the transgender and gender-nonconforming policy that the School District of Philadelphia adopted last month, and she now works as a research intern with the University of Pennsylvania on a team that plans to evaluate the policy’s effectiveness.
Getting the policy off the ground
The School Reform Commission, the governing body of Philadelphia schools, on June 16 adopted a policy that addresses names, pronouns, privacy rights, dress code, physical education, gender-segregated activities like sports teams, and restroom and locker room access that correspond to gender identity.
In a point unique from many other transgender student policies, it also stipulates that schools should use gender-neutral language in communication with all students and families, regardless of a student’s gender identity.
The policy covers 134,538 students in 218 city schools. It does not apply to the 63,441 students in 83 charter schools in Philadelphia, which make their own policies, said Fernando Gallard, spokesperson for the district.
“The policy showed up nearly as we wrote it, which is really exciting,” Kroehle said, noting about a dozen Attic youth went through four drafts of the policy. Some adults guided the process, but the youth were the ones who pulled apart the wording from several model policies, including one from GLSEN, an LGBT-advocacy group for K-12 educational settings.
“We’re now working in tandem with the school district for the process of implementation,” Kroehle said. “We want this to be a living and breathing document in the school in advance of a conflict.”
It was November 2015 when Rachel Holzman, deputy chief of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities with Philadelphia schools, first went to a meeting at The Attic. The parent of a transgender elementary-school student had approached Holzman about the need for a policy, and Holzman wanted input from The Attic.
Two transgender teens and two gender-nonconforming teens shared their experiences at school with Holzman. Edwards was part of the meeting, as was Adrianna Branin, 17, who graduated last month from the Franklin Learning Center in a royal-blue robe designated for males.
“I literally cried the whole meeting,” said Branin, who came out as genderqueer at the beginning of their senior year. “I absolutely hated my last year of high school because of how people reacted to my gender.
“I was consistently approached about my gender. It was consistently a topic of conversation among students. People could treat me any way because there were no rules in place.”
Amy Hillier, an associate professor with Penn in the schools of Design and Social Policy and Practice, offered the Attic youth guidance as they wrote the policy.
“My role was to help get the green light and put some initial language down,” she said. “I brought my privilege as a white Penn professor and they brought their courage.”
Hillier remembered a conversation about the need to include “questioning” in the definitions section of the policy. She said the youth wanted to make sure the policy accounted for gender outside the male and female binary.
Branin said their favorite parts of the policy are the ones that stipulate treating biological sex as a private record and that gender-neutral pronouns must be used in school communication. Branin expects to parlay their experience on the policy in their future work in college. Branin will attend the Indiana University of Pennsylvania as a biochemistry and pre-med major. They would like to work as a plastic surgeon with a focus in transgender medicine.
“‘Doctor’ is a gender-neutral title,” they said. “I enjoy the thought of Dr. Branin instead of Ms. Branin.”
‘We’ve come a long way’
The policy for transgender and gender-nonconforming students at Philadelphia schools ended up mirroring the accommodations provided to students in the Multiracial-Multicultural-Gender Education Policy that the district adopted in 1994. It outlines social consciousness in curriculum, after-school programs, community partnerships and professional development, among other things.
The Attic also worked on that policy, said executive director Carrie Jacobs. Rita Adessa, who ran the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force, wrote the 1994 policy and lobbied for weeks to get time for Attic youth to testify about its importance.
“There were police officers on the sides and in the back,” Jacobs said. “Now in 2016, the youth actually worked with the school district to write the transgender policy. It went from a contentious process to a collaborative process. I hate to say, ‘Oh, we’ve come such a long way,’ but I’m certainly very pleased by it.”
Everyone involved in the policy said the real work would come in the policy’s implementation. Hillier said she received funding to conduct a yearlong participatory action-research study. She expects to deliver preliminary findings at the end of the summer with a full report later.
“It can say everything on a piece of paper,” Edwards said, “but if people aren’t following it, what’s the point?”
Holzman said school counselors would likely train with The Attic during in-service days in September. She added student outreach on the policy is still in the works.
The transgender and gender-nonconforming policy is posted at www.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/administration/policies.