Exploring inclusivity of LGBTQ+ identities on campus and what students can do about it
Rebecca Beddingfield (she/her)
From Spirit Week to Interact to LGBTQ+ club, AJ Laxa (12) has been fully invested in his experience at American High School for the past four years. While Laxa identifies with all of these things, he also identifies as a trans man, which means that his gender is different from what his birth sex is often associated with. For Laxa, his journey for finding his identity started in late elementary school.
“[My mom] would always question how I dress and–it’s kind of Filipino culture like, ‘Oh, are you a tomboy?’ I didn’t know what that was; I would just keep researching and researching and I would be in these loops of going on the Internet and trying to figure out like, ‘Oh, what is the difference between gender and sexuality?’”
Laxa identified as gender fluid up until the underclassman years of high school after more research brought him a new understanding of his identity.
“I felt just like a man–like a transgender male–and I guess that’s just how I fall [on the gender spectrum],” says Laxa.
Others at AHS have discovered ways to identify themselves that feel more accurate to who they are. Akari Che (10) is nonbinary, which falls under what is known as the “transgender umbrella” that includes anyone that does not identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth.
“I think it was because identifying as female and being stereotyped as one felt strange to me for most of my life. In ninth grade, I guess I came to realize it’d be better to go by nonbinary,” says Che.
American High School is often labeled as extremely accepting and progressive, being a school in the Bay Area with what might be the most accepting generations of LGBTQ+ identities to ever walk the Earth. However, life at AHS still causes a plethora of problems for those who identify as LGBTQ+, especially trans identities, and many problems can be connected to education itself.
“I remember hearing that we were supposed to [talk about sexuality and gender identity in health class]. She even said we were going to but she never did. I think it would have been great to hear about that,” says Laxa.
Laxa not only embraced his gender identity but his sexuality as a queer man. However, the center of both topics often links back to the role of education. For Jane Doe, a closeted sophomore student at AHS, when her middle school did not teach her adequately about LGBTQ+ identities, she had to learn in a different way. Doe’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
“I think I always kind of knew, but I didn’t know it was an option to even like girls. In eighth grade my best friend told me she was bi[sexual] and I think that opened my eyes and made me realize that I’m just not really that attracted to guys,” says Doe.
Before even entering AHS, LGBTQ+ students often already have a sense of who they are without the education or potential allies to support them. When Shree Sathiyan (11) discovered her sexuality in middle school, the lack of education surrounding her identity affected the way she viewed herself that changed with a better education.
“I wanted to tell people. but also it was middle school and a lot of us didn’t really understand; even for me I’d say my thinking in middle school was close-minded in a way [that] I really didn’t want to tell even my close friends. Middle school wasn’t as accepting as high school so it led to me hating this part of me, but then as people grew more accepting by learning new things it helped me too,” says Sathiyan.
While high school does fill in some of the experiential gaps that middle school often did not, coming out of the closet could still have negative consequences for those at AHS. Doe sticks by her decision to stay in the closet, with plans to come out in her college years.
“Some people just aren’t as supportive and have homophobic beliefs. I’m scared most of them will cut me off or start spreading rumors about me,” says Doe.
Dating for LGBTQ+ students at AHS can also be a tricky matter, sometimes including transphobia and closeted relationships.
“Even before I had a crush on John, I had this mentality that ‘oh, people won’t date me because I’m trans,’ or they had to be anything other than gay or straight, because I had this internalized idea that people were just transphobic. Even with John, he added me on Facebook in sophomore year winter break, and I was going on his profile, trying to make sure that he was supportive. It’s just something that you have to do to make sure you’re in a caring relationship and they are not just doing it because they want to ‘experiment,’ so I felt really lucky to have a crush on someone and have them like me back for who I was,” says Laxa.
Fortunately, John Wagas (12) did prove himself to be supportive. He would poetically describe that “like a good love story, it has an unexpected beginning.” Wagas and Laxa would start talking after weeks of standing outside Peffer’s classroom door individually at brunch. When they finally started talking, Wagas describes how “he soon became my favorite part of every school day, and I looked forward to lunch because that meant being able to see him.”
However, similar to Laxa, Wagas would face transphobia directed towards the boyfriend that he deeply cared for. During PE of sophomore year, Wagas was part of a friendly discussion on being transgender with one of his friends that asked about Laxa when another person invited himself into the discussion with a series of inappropriate questions regarding transgender people.
“It was beyond unsettling for me and made me so disgusted that he would say such things about trans people and ask inappropriate questions about my boyfriend. My friend and I tried to tell him to go away and to leave us alone, even telling him that he was being offensive, but he kept bugging us for the rest of the period,” says Wagas.
And for those with different pronouns that appear on their legal documents, coming out can require a lot of effort. Most transgender students at AHS are minors, meaning that they cannot legally change their name without parental consent. Students like Laxa have to jump through a lot of hurdles from their name on the class roster to the yearbook to avoid being “dead named,” a term corresponding to a transgender person being referred to by their birth name that they no longer identify with.
“Mrs. Smith and Mr. Savoie [are some] of the only teachers who have been openly accepting, like, they use my pronouns. Sometimes teachers forget, which I understand, but they have to be reminded of it. But Mrs. Smith especially was the one who caught on really fast. And even to this day, she calls me sir whenever I go to her class, and it’s so nice to hear,” says Laxa.
Teachers are one of the important keys of inclusivity in a reality where many parents are not accepting of their children’s identities in the LGBTQ+ community. In this scenario, teachers often become the adults that these students turn to for support.
“[My parents] weren’t accepting, which affected my school work because my head wasn’t in the right spot 100% of the time,” says Zainab Hassanin, an alumnus from AHS. “Many teachers helped because they were accepting and offered their support knowing my parents weren’t.”
For those with transgender identities, this support from teachers can be expressed as early as the first day of school. While many teachers chose to call names off the roster, running into the inevitable risk of deadnaming a student, others take a creative approach. One of these creative minds is English teacher Mrs. Smith, who, instead of calling names off the roster, hands out small informational cards on the first day. On the front side, each student fills out the name they would like to be referred to in class, the pronunciation of that name, and a motto that that student lives by.
“I’ve been doing a variation of the info card since I first started teaching, so that would be about nineteen years ago, and the pronunciation of the names was part of my own experiences in school since my first name is Dara, and the D-A-R-A combination can apparently be pronounced a wide variety of ways, so I guess it came from a place of empathy,” says Mrs. Smith.
Along with teachers and education, students of all different backgrounds play a role in creating a more inclusive setting for their peers. One practical thing, Laxa says, is making the clarification of pronouns more commonplace.
“I like when people who are cis put their pronouns in their bio. It kind of normalizes that. It’s kind of hard to have cis people change entirely, but it’s the small things that matter,” says Laxa.
Even outside of the social media bio, sharing personal pronouns in real life can make a more inviting situation for those under the transgender umbrella. While Che is more comfortable with they/them pronouns, they do not actively tell others their preferred pronouns.
“I guess I haven’t really come out to my friends yet. I don’t think of it as something so important that I should announce, although I have mentioned it to some friends when the topic had come up,” says Che.
And some cisgender students are stepping up to the plate, one of them being junior Audrey Yu, who in her leadership position, took time to individually ask her peers about their preferred pronouns.
“I accidentally misgendered someone [in high school] and I felt awful about it. I wanted to be a person who would help others feel more comfortable, especially in an unknown environment. I think it was also because I remembered how a lot of my internet friends had pronouns that didn’t coincide with their looks and the stereotypes, and a lot of people would just assume, and that just didn’t sit right with me,” says Yu.
While AHS is moving forward on the pronoun front, some parts of the campus feel stuck in the past. Outright negative sentiments towards the LGBTQ+ community are still prevalent, predominantly among cisgender male students. Laxa explains that he feels socially conscious sometimes using the gender-neutral restrooms when people are around due to the fact that they are largely known as staff-only restrooms.
“I do use them [gender-neutral bathrooms], but there is a process to have to use them, and it’s kind of tedious to have to do that… Personally, I’ve experienced more guys who are anti-transgender people, so that’s why I usually use the girl’s restroom when there’s a bunch of people around,” says Laxa.
One of the ways those sentiments are expressed is through LGBTQ+ related slurs. These often create an uncomfortable situation for those in the community. Sathiyan gives an example of the type of situations that can arise, this one specifically occurring in the parking lot at AHS.
“One day I was in the car with one of my friends and this one dude who I didn’t really know started saying f*g and a lot of other slurs, and it did make me super uncomfortable. Luckily, my friend who was driving saw it and asked the dude to stop which made me kinda happy. The dude didn’t stop though, which sucked, and [there’re] people out there that don’t understand the weight of words no matter how many times you tell them,” says Sathiyan.
Allies become educated, listen to understand, seek inclusivity, and speak up for those in the LGBTQ+ community. You can learn more about different LGBTQ+ identities and what it takes to become an ally on The Trevor Project Website.