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SA school praised for open support of transgender student

St. Luke's Episcopal School takes embracing stance on issue

SAN ANTONIO – A San Antonio school tested for how closely it will follow its inclusion and diversity policy is trailblazing the path for other schools and receiving accolades from equality groups and psychologists.

St. Luke’s Episcopal School last week said it will stand with a long-time male student who wishes to attend school as a girl. According to the chairperson of the board of trustees, Peggy Pace, there is no timeline outlined as of yet for the transition.

"The school community will be notified well in advance when the parents and the child decide the timing," said Pace.

Headmaster Thomas McLaughlin sent a letter to parents before Thanksgiving saying that the school welcomes diversity and respects differences in ethnic, cultural, and religious  backgrounds.

“The overwhelming response we received since this communication was shared has been extraordinarily positive,” McLaughlin said. “People have been very passionate in expressing their commitments to the school.”

While some families have expressed disappointment in the decision to accept the student and may decide that St. Luke’s isn’t the school for them, McLaughlin said the majority of families have supported it. Of St. Luke’s 241 families, three are said to oppose the position the school is taking.

McLaughlin said St. Luke’s mission statement is all about inclusivity.

“To us it’s way more than just words that appear on a wall in a classroom, which they do, but they’re really the benchmark against which we measure ourselves,” he said.

Outside school

Outside the boundaries of a school environment is a world facing many of the same issues on the subject.

Darrell Parsons, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who specializes in transgender issues, talks with teen patients on a daily basis who may be in various stages of dealing with their own gender identity.

“I work with a lot of individuals who are dealing with emotional mental health issues, all sorts of issues from depression, anxiety, transgender issues, LGBT issues,” he said. “(I) just try to help people navigate through life.”

Parsons said the teen years aren’t easy, and they never have been, no matter the decade.

But Parsons said social media and the cyber world make it especially difficult to navigate.

“Especially for the transgender teens. They’re not only dealing with all of that stuff, but they’re having to deal with not feeling comfortable in their own body, not feeling comfortable with who they are, and often times not understanding what’s going on with them,” he said.

At the same time, support like the kind at St. Luke’s is helping children express themselves without fear, he said.

“It’s not any easier as far as the emotions that come along with being transgender. Those are still there. But there are more resources available today,” Parsons said. “Here in San Antonio, we have Fiesta Youth, that’s a support group for teens 12 to 18. They meet weekly. There’s organizations like Equality Texas that is very active here in the state of Texas, promoting LGBT equality. (There are) more online resources (and) more therapists are now becoming knowledgeable about transgender issues.”

Embracing

Equality Texas is the only statewide LGBT advocacy group with a primary mission to fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people when it comes to things that negatively impact the community.

Robert Salcido, Equality Texas regional field organizer in San Antonio and board chair of Pride Center San Antonio, said while acceptance is one thing, he thinks the discussion needs to revolve even more around another word: Embracing.

“Really, the conversation we need to have is (about) embracing and including everybody in having equal and fair treatment,” he said. “(That) is really where we need to be.”

Salcido credits San Antonio for being an inclusive community.

“Our communities are coming together. They’re seeing that we can all thrive together and have a successful community if we can all just embrace one another,” Salcido said.

According to Salcido, the average age for a person to come out as gay, lesbian or transgender was 17 to 20. Currently, he said the average age is between 10 and 13.

“Our youth are definitely experiencing levels of acceptance where they feel comfortable to come out, they feel comfortable to be themselves and express who they are in an authentic manner, so definitely it’s happening younger and younger,” he said.

Following in St. Luke’s footsteps

Salcido said there is an opportunity for other schools to follow in the footsteps of St. Luke’s. While Equality Texas has not consulted with the school, Salcido praised them for taking a public stand and be forthcoming with the public.

McLaughlin said the families at St. Luke’s have come to expect that the school will act in a way that’s consistent with what they teach. He knows other schools will have to make their own decisions and policies based on students who may make the same choices.

“I think it’s highly probable that every school in the country will at some point have to wrestle with this issue,” McLaughlin said. “I think what made the difference for us is ... the outcome of the decision, when it was finally made, was very much rooted in our mission and our values. Those are very unique to our school. It’s such a clear part of who we are,” he said.

Each school district, at the discretion of their school board, has the choice of outlining their individual policy. As schools encounter the issue, school leaders would then consider resources like counseling.

“Bullying is going to happen,” Salcido said. “Unfortunately, that’s something that’s real prevalent in the communities and the school district. So that’s one thing the teachers need to be aware of, and be mindful and watch that if these students who express themselves, whether it be their gender expression or gender identity, that they are not having to experience this type of bullying.”

Parsons praised the school’s response.

“I applaud the school,” Parsons said. “I think it’s great. No kid should be discriminated against. I believe that teens need support, and it’s great that the school is doing that.”

He believes it’s not the norm, however.

“There’s still discrimination and prejudice and bigotry in the year 2015,” he said. “You would have thought America would have gotten over that.”

Parsons cited Houston’s equal rights ordinance that was recently repealed.

“We’re not there yet. There’s still a fight to be had,” he said.

St. Luke's decision to support its student has not been meet without criticism from some in the community. A spokesperson for the San Antonio Family Foundation said in a statement that the group "opposes transgenderism in all forms and implores St. Luke's Episcopal School to return to reality in order to unite their community."

To read SAFA's full statement, click here (PDF)

This story is the first part of two stories on the topic. Click here to see part two.