Helping the young with gender transitions

Graciela Slesaransky-Poe has advised schools as far as Seattle. Her work began with her son.
Graciela Slesaransky-Poe has advised schools as far as Seattle. Her work began with her son. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)

Arcadia dean guides school districts. It's deeply personal for her.

Posted: June 30, 2014

As third graders at Hallowell Elementary School in Horsham got ready for their break in December, they had no idea they would be hearing the name of their classmate - a quiet boy who often played with a group of girls - called for the final time.

The transgender student returned to class in January with a new moniker and wardrobe, living as a girl.

It was a day many adults in the Hatboro-Horsham District school had been working toward for months, and officials say they were surprised by what happened next.

"We got not one phone call of concern," said Steve Glaze, principal of Hallowell. "The only calls we got were people wanting to know how they could help this child."

  A lot of credit for that smooth transition, officials agreed, belongs to an expert who worked closely with the Montgomery County school. Graciela Slesaransky-Poe, dean of the education school at Arcadia University, spent weeks advising staff members how to handle kids' inevitable questions, deal with the restroom issue, use the best terminology for gender variance, and watch for harassment on the bus and in the lunchroom.

'No shame'

A former disability-rights expert, Slesaransky-Poe has worked with school districts around the country as educators cope with new challenges in welcoming students who are more open about their gender identity at a younger age, and with parents who are demanding more support in the classroom.

The roots of Slesaransky-Poe's mission are deeply personal. It was not long after her own son turned 3 that she realized he did not conform to traditional gender roles, that he preferred to dress up as a princess and pretend to have long hair by throwing a blanket over his head.

The year before he entered first grade at Cynwyd Elementary in Lower Merion, she approached a guidance counselor to ensure his gender nonconformity would be accepted in the classroom. Unlike transgender youth, who feel they are trapped in the body of the opposite sex, he identified as a boy, but didn't always act the way some people expected.

"I'm very affirming and positive," said the Argentine-born Slesaransky-Poe. "The reason I talk about my son openly is there is no shame involved. . . . There is nothing wrong with him."

She needed to know that the school felt the same way.

Lisa Ruzzi, the Cynwyd counselor, concedes now that "I was a little panicked," but she and other school officials took on the challenge. They worked through a program developed by the Human Rights Campaign called Welcoming Schools that provides training and tips on dealing with diversity.

They look back on their efforts with her son - now a 13-year-old middle schooler, who loves trapeze and circus school - as a huge success since he hasn't experienced any bullying or name-calling.

"He's accepted. Most of his friends are girls," his mother said, "but he gets along with everyone."

Slesaransky-Poe, who also has a daughter, has since provided training to eight schools in the region, and others as far as Seattle and Texas. In one Philadelphia-area private school, she advised staff assisting a youngster whose transgender father was pregnant.

There are 700,000 transgender U.S. adults, or about three in every 1,000, according to a 2011 study from the University of California-Los Angeles. Shame has given way to increased openness.

Schools are also responding to new legal protections for these students. In Washington, the federal Department of Education reiterated this spring that Title IX antidiscrimination protections include gender identity, as 13 states - but not Pennsylvania - have passed laws banning bias in schools against gender-variant students.

"In the early days, we often wouldn't have any kids who would self-identify as gender-variant in any way," said Joanne Glusman, president of the Main Line Youth Alliance, which holds a weekly group for LGBT teens at Central Baptist Church in Wayne. Now, there are five to eight participants on a typical Friday night, she said, and they are younger than in the past.

In her 15 years of counseling, Michele Angello, a Wayne-based psychologist specializing in gender issues, said she was also seeing younger clients, including some at age 3, and has worked more on advising parents on how to advocate for their child in schools.

Not every classroom is as welcoming as the ones at Hallowell or Cynwyd schools.

A 2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network of nearly 300 transgender students, age 13 to 20, found that 53 percent said they had been pushed or shoved in school because of their gender expression, 87 percent said they had been called names or harassed verbally, and 39 percent reported hearing a school staff member make a negative remark about their gender identity.

Slesaransky-Poe said she was asked to work with a school district in Texas five years ago after a gender-variant boy killed himself the night before his 11th birthday.

Often, she said, when students are bullied and schools are asked to do something, "they blame the victim. . . . 'If he were to be more fill-in-the-blank,' or, 'Kids will be kids.' "

In local schools, Slesaransky-Poe described the core of her work as dealing with words. "What people need mostly is language, understanding the terminology," she said. "They need to know the difference between transgender and transvestite," a person who likes to dress like the opposite sex.

Training, she said, includes role-playing with questions that staff members will likely be asked, and she prefers to involve a wide circle, including bus drivers and cafeteria aides, who work where bullying and harassment traditionally occur.

'Amazing'

Communicating with parents is also key. Several years after Slesaransky-Poe's son enrolled, Ruzzi said, the school received a call on a Friday from the parents of a second-grade girl who planned to come into class that Monday as a boy.

"Graciella wrote this beautiful, beautiful letter to the classroom parents, asking them for their support," Ruzzi recalled. The child experienced no major problems.

That level of school support often surprises apprehensive parents. "I could weep at how amazing they are," said the mother of the Hatboro-Horsham third grader, who asked that neither she nor her child be named.

She said the boy that she gave birth to had always played with girls' things. When kids asked why he always carried dolls, he'd say, "I don't care, I like dolls," his mother recalled.

After a few years of school, however, the child became withdrawn. He sometimes wrapped his mother's scarves around him like dresses, but his parents wouldn't let him wear girl's clothes or makeup.

'It's OK'

One day, his mother was reading him a book called Princess Boy, about a boy who wore dresses and played with girls' toys, and the child perked up.

"She said, 'You can do that?' I could see the wheels turning," the mother recalled.

"She said, 'You know I'm a girl and I've been a girl my whole life.' She blurted it out, at 8. I said, 'I know, it's OK.' "

In October, after consulting with a therapist, the parents went to Hallowell to tell them their child was calling herself by a new name and identifying as a girl at home and wanted to make the transition at school. All agreed to wait until after the Christmas break, which allowed school staff members to train with Slesaransky-Poe and to send a letter home to parents.

"What we are doing is giving people permission to be who they are," said Slesaransky-Poe.

She thinks of her own son. Since that day she first broached his gender variance with Cynwyd officials, he has thrived.

"This is a guy," she said, "who is excited about life."


kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@kathyboccella

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