Bringing transgender issues into the open
JEFF GARD Northumberland Today Former Cobourg high school student James Spencer began living as a male in August.
The following is the conclusion of a three-part series looking at transgender in Northumberland.
No one knew James Spencer when he began attending a new high school in September.
That goes without saying, though, since until a month before the school year began Spencer was still living as a female — the gender in which he was born. The 16-year-old grew up as Samantha De Graauw and previously attended Cobourg District Collegiate Institute West.
This final part of the series actually shifts from Northumberland down the road to the Durham region. James now lives with his sister, Jessica, in Clarington and attends Clarke High School in Newcastle.
“Because I changed schools, the new friends I made all met me and knew of me as male so it was different,” James says.
His anonymity soon changed, both at his school and on a provincial and national level.
When he registered at Clarke High School, James was obligated to provide his legal name and gender. At the time he specifically asked about washroom use, unsure if transgender issues had arisen at many local schools.
At the time, James says, he was told by school administration that they were unsure how to proceed, but they would come up with a solution.
As James waited for permission to use the male washroom, he says, he was told he could use the washroom at a nearby Harvey’s restaurant. That’s what he did for a week and a half until he was informed there was a single-stall bathroom he could use in the school, but he would have to pick up the key from the office each time to do so.
When two months had passed, Jessica contacted the school to inquire if any progress had been made. She says she was told by an administrator it wasn’t as simple as just letting James use the boys' washroom because “she is female.”
“That really irritated (James) when I told him about it,” Jessica says.
James started a petition at his school the following day to gauge the amount of support he had from the student body. By the time of this interview, he had already garnered 267 signatures, which is within the majority of the school’s enrolment (about 465).
James wasn’t prepared to just accept a decision stemming from what he considered ignorance related to transgender issues.
“It (was) just sort of segregating me and saying that I’m, as a transgender person, wrong,” he says. “Any other male student in the school can (use the boys' washroom). There are homosexual students who can. It’s like saying that people of this day have no self-control and that there are, realistically, students that would voluntarily act as a different gender for months upon months on end, just to sneak into a bathroom of the opposite gender. It’s a ridiculous theory. I expected more problems from the students than the actual administration.”
“Honestly, I think more people would be more irritated if he went into the female washroom,” added Jessica, who noted they heard, but were not told, that James could use the girls' washroom.
Students also showed their support with more than just a signature on James's petition. They raised awareness for James by contacting major media outlets to share his story. They created ‘Team James’ T-shirts (although his is ‘Team Me’). There are also ‘I support James’ buttons, but James wears an ‘I Support Toby’s Law’ button.
James was surprised by the “attention and support” he received and says, “I didn’t expect that much of either.”
A meeting with the school board on Nov. 28 resulted in James receiving permission to use the boys' washroom. In fact, the news was delivered right away by the superintendent before the meeting focused more on a safety plan.
“It’s really awesome,” James said over the phone Wednesday. “I’m really happy.”
This decision not only affects James, but possibly future transgender students as well. While James would sometimes come home from school frustrated throughout the effort, Jessica would stress to him that “You’re helping blaze a path for people who are coming after you.”
Both James and Jessica say they appreciated the support shown and work done by Martin Twiss, the superintendent for education with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.
“We’ve certainly had students who are transgendered identify at our other schools, at least with the administration and school staff, before. I think the difference this time was the type of accommodation that was requested,” Twiss says. “In the past, the students usually want a discrete washroom, so we usually establish a non-gender-specific washroom — it’s usually a single stall bathroom — that we allocate for them to use so that they have some privacy. In this case we did provide that early in the year, but really the request was that James identified as a male student and wanted to use the male washroom so we had to give consideration to that. We did feel that was probably the best thing to do for his circumstance and to accommodate his request.”
Twiss said the school board will learn from this specific case, and will look at what other school boards are doing, to provide better supports for its schools going forward.
“Any student that is coming out with that kind of change in their life, we worry about their safety,” Twiss says. “First of all, it can be very stressful for them personally and we want to make sure they have access to the appropriate counseling support.”
“We also want to make sure, though, that if they run into a conflict, for example, in the washroom, that they have a way of reporting it quickly and promptly to the school staff and administration and a plan in place to address that.”
Cheri DiNovo, an NDP MPP for Parkdale-High Park, became of aware of James’s situation at Clarke High School and is pleased it has been settled.
“This is an instance where school boards need to get on board with the law and educate themselves,” DiNovo says. “This is work that’s going to be continuous. There’s lots of misinformation that’s out there, there’s lots of transphobia still.
“I’m always happy to come out and speak at schools,” she also said.
DiNovo introduced Toby’s Act (also known as Toby’s Law) as a private member’s bill to Ontario Legislature earlier this year for the first time it passed. She first introduced it in 2007. The act was brought forward to amend the Human Rights Code respecting gender identity.
“Toby’s Law was tabled three times before the fourth time I had some success with it and got the other parties on board so I’m delighted that it passed this year,” DiNovo says. “Really, this is the first time that transpeople have had the full weight of the Ontario Human Rights Code on their side, so that’s good news.”
DiNovo says Toby’s Law is named in honour of Toby Dancer, who was the music director at her church.
“I’m an United Church minister as well as being a politician so I always wanted to enshrine trans rights in law and particularly do it in Toby’s honour,” DiNovo says.
In October, the province of Ontario made it legal for transgender individuals living as the opposite sex to be able to change the gender on their birth certificate without first undergoing surgery.
“This is the result of Toby’s Law, and as a result of that we’re going to see lots of regulatory changes,” DiNovo suggests. “I’m delighted about that.”
A decision to go from living as one gender to the other is something that builds over time, James says — not something that happens overnight.
“It was something that I had subconsciously thought about for as long as I can remember, but I only started coming to terms and acknowledging it in Grade 9 and I only started coming out to friends and close family in Grade 10,” James says. “It’s still a kind of newer experience for me because I only started living as male full-time in August.”
James says he wasn’t as aware about the gender issue when he was very young because he did have several female and male friends. And while he did play with Barbies, like any girl (at the time) would, he played with toy trucks as well.
“I kind of did an even mix of a lot of things,” James says.
As an older sibling, Jessica says the change can be “overwhelming” but also indicated that the essence of who the person is doesn’t really change.
“I knew him for 15 years as my little sister and now I’ve got a little brother so there are some definite changes that happen, but I don’t care. Whoever he is, he’s my family,” Jessica says.
James says the decision to change schools was just about wanting to live with his older sister, but he did enjoy getting the fresh start where no one knew who he was.
“I got to experience that for a little while before all of this puffed up,” James says. “At the same time it has some downsides simply because some of my friends (in Cobourg) who are really supportive still and I talk to on a daily basis aren’t with me.”
James says he told his best friend he would be living as a male before he even told some of his family members.
“Her reaction was, ‘I already knew.’ She had figured it out before I did, but she hadn’t come to terms with it before I did,” James says. “She was completely cool with it and as I went on it was a whole bunch of similar reactions to what Jess gave me, which was ‘I don’t care, you’re still my friend’ or ‘I don’t care, you’re still you.’”
Next for James is the wait to enter the CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) Gender Identity Clinic in Toronto, which could take eight to 12 months. He just recently received the required referral.
“It kind of makes you think about everything a lot, which can be a very good thing, but at the same time I’m impatient,” James says.
Jessica also believes the wait can be good because “there are some things James is uncertain about for transition and this gives time to really think.”
James says when you begin living as the opposite gender from which you were born, “it makes you notice other things people might take for granted. I know a male-to-female who, while most women are complaining about menstruation and everything, they really want that.”
In his own case, James says, “I’m going to assume that some guys find it annoying to shave their face all the time for work, but I’m like, ‘I want to do that!”