Making schools safer for transgender students

By Dr. Amy Moran, Teaneck middle school teacher; Erik Gundersen, Pascack Valley superintendent; Jackson Evangelista, Northern Valley student, and Patrick Rumaker, NJEA Review editor

On July 21, 2017, Gov. Chris Christie signed S-3067 into law. This new law required the New Jersey commissioner of education to develop and distribute guidelines concerning transgender students to school districts. The law delineated 11 factors that the guidelines should cover to ensure “a safe and supportive learning environment that is free from discrimination and harassment for transgender students, including students going through gender transition.”

The need for the law was underlined this past September when Kylie Perez, a transgender student at East Side High School in Newark, was beaten by seven students after one student yelled, “There’s the tranny!” The incident was caught on a school security camera and witnessed by dozens of students. The seven students were suspended as the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office investigated the attack as a bias crime.

According to S-3067, the commissioner’s guidelines must, among other directives, “ensure that a transgender student is addressed at school by the name and pronoun preferred by the student that corresponds to the student’s gender identity.” The law also provides guidance on confidentiality, student records, student identification cards, restroom and locker room usage, and participation in student activities.

The law also requires the commissioner to provide school districts with guidance and resources for providing “professional development opportunities for teachers, administrators, guidance counselors,  bus drivers, coaches and other school staff regarding issues and concerns relevant to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students and making developmentally appropriate information about LGBTQ issues available in school facilities, which may include providing pamphlets or books in school libraries, counseling offices, and nurses offices.”

In response to the need for a safer school climate for transgender students, the Bergen County Education Association (BCEA) hosted a luncheon with the county’s local association presidents and school district superintendents in September.

At the luncheon, sixth-grade teacher, LGBTIQA+ Alliance adviser and NJEA member Amy Moran delivered a presentation on ways to advocate for transgender, gender nonbinary and intersex students. Erik Gundersen, superintendent of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, discussed his school board’s passage of a policy for transgender students. Jackson Evangelista, a senior at Northern Valley Regional High School, shared his story as a transgender person. Behind the scenes, Evangelista’s adviser at Northern Valley, Marisa Januzzi, assisted him as he prepared his remarks.

The NJEA Review editor invited Moran, Gundersen and Evangelista to write an article for the magazine that captures the essence of the presentation they delivered at the BCEA luncheon. You’ll note that Moran and Gundersen introduce themselves by identifying the pronouns they prefer—a growing practice to ensure that social and professional situations are inclusive of all identities. You may wish to consult the vocabulary sidebar on Page 27 prior to reading the main article as it will clarify the meanings intended by the authors.

Throughout this article you will see the initialism “LGBTIQA+.”  The LGBTI part stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex. The “Q” sometimes to refers to the word “queer,” which has steadily grown in positive use since at least the 1990s to reclaim the word from its pejorative history and to honor the full spectrum of human identity. Unfortunately, it is still all too often used as a slur. Care should be used to determine the appropriate context for its use.  The Q can also refer to “questioning,” as when individuals are unsure of their identity. The “A” sometimes refers to “asexual” and other times to “ally.” The plus sign indicates inclusion of all identities in addition to and between the letters LGBTIQA.

A member’s perspective

I’m Amy Moran, and I use she/her pronouns. I’ve been a middle school teacher in Teaneck Public Schools for 23 years. This is my 11th year as the advisor for the LGBTIQA+ Alliance at Teaneck High School called Spectrum. In the talk we gave at the BCEA luncheon for superintendents, I spoke about some key ways to advocate for our transgender, gender nonbinary and intersex students.

Teaneck teacher Dr. Amy Moran, speaking at a BCEA luncheon for local association presidents and district superintendents on Sept. 26

First, do some schema-building! We need to expand our vocabularies about issues that affect the transgender, gender nonbinary and intersex students in schools. This expands our intellect and our empathy. Both matter because we have a hard time being compassionate toward people and things we don’t understand. Many of the terms I’ve written about here are listed and defined on Page 33.

Second, understand that transgender, gender nonbinary and intersex students attend our schools right now.

• One out of 137 teenagers is transgender. That’s 0.7 percent. In a high school of 1,200 students, that’s eight kids.

• At least 1.7 percent of people are identifiable as intersex at birth, which is as common as being born red-headed. However, many intersex characteristics aren’t identified until or after the age of puberty, making 2 to 4 percent a more accurate estimation. In your 1,200-student high school, that’s 20 kids.

• In Spectrum at Teaneck High School, we currently have twice as many gender nonbinary students as transgender students who come to meetings and only one “out” intersex person.

From these statistical and anecdotal numbers, we might infer that in a school of 1,200 students, eight are transgender, 16 are gender nonbinary, and 20 are intersex. That’s 44 kids. Differently put, anywhere from 3 to 5 percent of the student body of a 1,200-student high school is transgender, gender nonbinary or intersex. That’s around 36-60 students.

It’s time for us to revise and refine our understandings about LGBTIQA+ youth in schools. Specifically, if you think you don’t have any transgender, gender nonbinary, or intersex students in your schools, it isn’t because those students aren’t there. It’s because your schools aren’t safe enough for them to come out in.

Visible –>Familiar –> Comfortable –> Normal = Safe

Finally, school culture evolves toward inclusion and safety for all students based on visibility, familiarity, comfort, and normalcy. If LGBTIQA+ issues are visible—in the hallways, the curriculum, the school clubs, in the things teachers and administrators say and do publicly, and more—then they become familiar to students and staff. Once LGBTIQA+ issues become familiar in the school culture, they become more comfortable to talk about and exist among. Once something is comfortable, it can feel normal. And once LGBTIQA+ issues are considered normal in the school, that school culture is more likely to be safe for everyone in the school community.

Conversely, as long as LGBTIQA+ people are not perceived as normal in schools, we will never be safe there.

“If you think you don’t have any transgender, gender nonbinary, or intersex students in your schools, it isn’t because those students aren’t there. It’s because your schools aren’t safe enough for them to come out in.”

I’m especially proud of the work Erik, Jackson, his advisor Marisa Januzzi, and I did to prepare for our talk at the BCEA luncheon because it exemplifies the value of multiple voices and stakeholder perspectives, specifically those of a superintendent, a transgender student, his school-based advocate, and an activist teacher/adviser/county-level union committee member.

We showed superintendents how to recognize cisgender privileges while working to convert their personal compassion into visible and measurable actions that support transgender, gender nonbinary, and intersex students in their school districts. Our hope is that they’ll take what they learned and widely support this wonderful group of young people in their school communities.

Northern Valley Regional High School student Jackson Evangelista speaking with BCEA President Sue McBride at the BCEA luncheon.

A superintendent’s perspective

I am Erik Gundersen, and I use he/his pronouns. I am not an expert regarding gender identity. I am still becoming familiar with the needs and challenges that our transgender students face as they struggle with their sometimes difficult journey through high school. However, it is my mission to become more knowledgeable and share how one district addressed transgender rights and what that district could have done differently as it continually strives to create an increasingly safe environment for all students.

In the fall of 2015, the Pascack Valley Regional High School District Board of Education was presented with a policy guidance document from its advisory company regarding transgender rights. The need for such a policy was surprising to the policy committee as many believed that our transgender population was already being served well by the supportive actions of our building principals and counselors.

Through the board’s discussions, it became apparent that this policy was necessary, as the adoption of such a policy would serve as a mechanism for assuring our transgender students that they would be safe and supported by the district.

Pascack Valley’s actions and what we could have done differently

Pascack Valley adopted a transgender policy because we believed a policy would make it clear that we support the rights of transgender students so they may feel empowered to be free and enjoy their adolescent years just as much as any cisgender student. We held a parent information night to educate the public about the rights of transgender students, but we focused on the legal aspects of the policy. After the meeting, we realized that we should have spent more time correcting the misconceptions that uninformed people have about what it means to be transgender.

Pascack favored a policy where decisions regarding gender identity rest solely with the student, but the goal of the district is to foster a positive and safe dialogue between the student and their family regarding this sensitive topic.

We introduced at least one gender-neutral option for restrooms in both Pascack Hills High School and Pascack Valley High School. Moving forward, we will add additional gender-neutral options, and make certain that students know that gender-neutral restrooms are an option for all students who seek additional privacy.

“Pascack Valley adopted a transgender policy because we believed a policy would make it clear that we support the rights of transgender students so they may feel empowered to be free and enjoy their adolescent years just as much as a cisgender student.”

Pascack Valley Regional was not the first district to adopt a transgender rights policy, but we did receive the greatest amount of attention from the news media, various state and national organizations, and the public at large. Threats of lawsuits, claims that the district was undermining the rights of parents, and concerns about possible sexual misdeeds in restrooms and locker rooms were techniques that were used to instill fear and lobby our board of education to reject the policy.

In the spring of 2016, the board of education passed its transgender rights policy and tweaked it again in the fall of 2016 to provide further clarification on the rights of parents. The district and the board of education did what was right, making a statement that all students, despite race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender are equal.

For those districts who say, “We don’t have any transgender students right now, so we are not going to adopt the policy until we have a need,” or “We are giving the students the support they need, we don’t need a policy to be supportive,” I urge you to state loudly and proudly that you have a policy that protects the rights of all students regardless of their gender identity.

Speakers and attendees at the BCEA luncheon for local association presidents and district superintendents on Sept. 26. From left: Bergen County Interim Executive Superintendent Norah Peck; Teaneck middle school teacher and Spectrum adviser Amy Moran; Jackson Evangelista’s father, Bienvenido Evangelista; Northern Valley Regional Superintendent James Santana; Jackson Evangelista’s mother, Evelyn Evangelista; Pascack Valley Regional Superintendent Erik Gundersen; Northern Valley Regional student Jackson Evangelista; BCEA President Sue McBride; and Northern Valley English teacher and GSA adviser Marisa Januzzi.

A student’s perspective

I am Jackson Evangelista. I am a senior at Northern Valley Regional High School at Demarest and am female-to-male (FTM) transgender. I discovered myself in the summer of 2015 on Tumblr and YouTube. I started to relate to other transgender people’s stories, but the thought of telling my family and friends terrified me because I didn’t know how to start the conversation of coming out to them.

I told my friends and my sister over text because we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a while. Then I told my parents in the car, and that was one of the best days of my life.  Everyone that I have told was supportive and accepting, but with school approaching, I was scared of being bullied by my peers. Ultimately, I came to realize that it took me 15 years to discover who I really am, and that I had an amazing family and good friends so I wasn’t going to let anyone bash me or take away my happiness.

I struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my sophomore year because of my gender and body dysphoria, which eventually led me to having suicidal thoughts in June of 2016. The whole year was terrifying and lonely because I didn’t have many friends who were transgender. Even though my family and the friends I’d told about myself had my back, they couldn’t relate to me.

This battle with depression and anxiety was between me, myself, and I because I knew I was born into the wrong body and that I couldn’t do anything about it. But seeing that I had inflicted pain on my family and friends because of this battle broke my heart.

“I have amplified my voice in the hope that my peers would feel inspired and encouraged to use their voices as well.”

My hopes and dreams are to join the Air Force after high school, fall in love, get married, and start a family. I want to experience the simplest things in life, but how was I going to do that if I took my own life? During my recovery, I channeled my struggles and challenges into the work that I’m doing now.

I created a PowerPoint presentation in October 2016 about my journey called “Little Light.” At first, I took it to my GSA club. Then my principal heard it and got me a gig speaking to all the principals and superintendents in our district, and eventually, I was even invited to join a panel addressing all the NJEA presidents and superintendents in Bergen County.

My target audience is the children because I want my struggles discovering myself to be useful to them without incurring the same risk and because they are our future. As adults, we need to guide children into creating this world where we love, care, and respect others and are empathetic toward all people. Empathy is crucial and nonnegotiable. Having the ability to feel someone else’s pain and what they’re going through is an amazing thing, because it’s a connection between others; we need that now more than ever.

I felt stressed preparing for the BCEA luncheon because I thought I had to change presenting my story to addressing transgender student policies. That was not the case at all. As the luncheon date approached, I realized that my story can influence policies, and that I brought the emotional component to the table. I’m glad that I was the last one to present before Amy Moran did the closing, because I took it home emotionally.

I did not expect to get a standing ovation, let alone the tears in audience members’ eyes. The whole atmosphere of the room caught me off guard and overwhelmed my heart. I was ecstatic and overjoyed the entire day. This experience was definitely one for the books.

The collaboration between Amy, Erik and me was an honor because it was my first experience working with limited time, which made me learn to think about what to prioritize. We did a good job weaving our presentations together to create an impact at the luncheon. I have amplified my voice in the hope that my peers would feel inspired and encouraged to use their voices as well.


Discussions about the rights of transgender persons are happening more and more—often without clarity on terms. Below are definitions of some key words used in this article.

Sex – whether your physiology—hormones, chromosomes, gonads, genitalia, and how they work together— is female, intersex, or male. Sex is about a person’s physical body.

Gender – the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Gender is a social construct that has little to do with your physical body. It is almost always assigned at birth by well-meaning community members who sometimes get it wrong. For many people, gender works on a sliding scale.

Gender identity – one’s personal experience of one’s own gender. Gender identity can correlate with assigned sex at birth (cisgender), or can differ from it completely (transgender). All societies have a set of gender categories that can serve as the basis of the formation of a person’s social identity in relation to other members of society. This also can work on a sliding scale.

Gender expression – the ways in which we all express our masculinity and/or femininity. It is usually an extension of our gender identity, our innate sense of masculinity or femininity. Each of us expresses a particular gender every day by the way we style our hair, select our clothing, or even the way we stand. Our appearance, speech, behavior, movement, and other factors signal that we feel—and wish to be understood—as masculine or feminine. Gender expression is highly regulated and policed by the majority of our culture. We need to check our implicit biases when we police others with our judgments about their gender expression.

Cisgender – ‘cis’ means ‘on the side of’, so cisgender is when the gender you were assigned in infancy (according to your body’s visible sex traits) matches the gender with which you currently identify.

Transgender – when the gender you were assigned in infancy does not match the gender with which you currently identify. Sometimes people identify as F2M or M2F.

Binary – a system of organizing information into either/or, this/that, male/female, 0/1. In cisgender-normative social settings, it’s expected that females are feminine and males are masculine. No variation is permitted. This binary structure excludes transgender, gender nonbinary, and intersex people.

Gender nonbinary – when someone’s gender identity and/or expression do not fit into the masculine or feminine binary. They may consider themselves genderfluid, genderqueer, gender independent, or something else. These people may likely use pronouns that reflect that as well, such as “they/them” or something else. Male-bodied people, intersex-bodied people, and female-bodied people may also identify as gender nonbinary, if that’s what works for them.

Intersex – Intersex people are born with sex characteristics—including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns—that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.