By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: transgender

The Globe profiles those Amherst students who exposed anti-trans counselors

Brooke Hauser of The Boston Globe has an in-depth feature story on the high school journalists in Amherst who exposed three transphobic middle school counselors whose idea of support was to pepper trans students with their fundamentalist religious beliefs. As Hauser writes:

The events have shocked and shaken this college town — long considered an LGBTQ-friendly, liberal enclave — at a time when trans rights are under attack across the country. And the picture that continues to emerge is a complicated one, layering issues of gender, religion, and race and forcing a community to reckon with itself.

Back in mid-May I wrote about the 16 students who produced a 4,800-word story for their student publication, The Graphic, overseen by their English teacher, Sara Barber-Just. They did great work, and it’s good to see them continue to be recognized for their efforts.

A tale of two school systems and how they responded to transphobic incidents

In Amherst, student journalists have reported that three middle school counselors engaged in anti-transphobic behavior, leading to suspensions while school officials investigate. In Middleborough, a seventh-grader who was sent home from school for wearing anti-trans T-shirts is claiming that his First Amendments rights have been violated.

Fortunately, the struggle for transgender dignity and respect is playing out differently in Massachusetts than it is in places like Florida and other red states, where the very existence of trans folks is under attack. Still, transphobia is everywhere, and all of us are faced with the challenge of protecting the LGBTQ community in a way that acknowledges everyone’s right to be heard.

I want take a look at the situation in Amherst first because it was brought to light by an intrepid group of students at Amherst Regional High School — 16 of them, who helped report a 4,800-word story for The Graphic, a 109-year-old student publication produced by the school’s journalism classes.

According to their story, published on May 9, three middle school counselors have “routinely misgendered and deadnamed transgender students and staff, invoked anti-LGBTQ prayer at school, allowed religion to overflow into conversations with students and staff, and failed to provide support to students who were facing gender-based bullying or intimidation at school.”

The article is deeply reported and well-documented, although I should add that the three counselors, Hector Santos, Delinda Dykes and Tania Cabrera, have denied the allegations. Cabrera is Santos’ daughter and is a new hire, though her actions reportedly are in a similar vein.

Astonishingly, The Graphic also reports that students, parents and school staff members have expressed concerns to top administrators, yet no action was taken until after their story was published. On May 11, Scott Merzbach of The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that three counselors have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. School Supt. Michael Morris declined to identify the three or to confirm if they were the trio named by The Graphic.

The Graphic’s story is filled with disturbing details, but I want to focus on one anecdote that I found particularly telling. A secretary identified pseudonymously as John said he was once invited to take part in a private prayer circle held on school property by Santos and Dykes. According to The Graphic:

At first, he didn’t see the harm. He said he identifies as both a Christian and an LGBTQ supporter.

“I was exploring my spiritual side at that time,” he said, noting that the circle did not involve students or teachers. “I thought we were just going to pray for strength to get us through the day. Who doesn’t need that?” But things shifted quickly. He alleges that after some introductory prayers, Dykes changed lanes, saying, “‘In the name of Jesus, we bind that LGBTQ gay demon that wants to confuse our children.”

John said he felt an immediate “tightness in my chest. I looked to the door, wanting to run.” He left shortly afterward, told a trusted colleague he felt they “were crazy to be saying that,” never joined their prayer circle again, and tried to avoid the two at work, making polite talk but keeping his distance.

According to the article, John reported the incident to Marta Guevara, the school’s director of student and family engagement, who in turn reported it to Supt. Morris — one of several disturbing incidents she brought to Morris’ attention. Yet there is no evidence that Morris did anything about it before he announced last week’s suspensions.

I also want to highlight The Graphic’s explanation of the care that it took in reporting the story, which appears at the bottom of the article:

All sources who are referred to by a first-name-only pseudonym wished to remain anonymous. Parents and children sought anonymity on the basis of privacy and an ongoing legal investigation. Some staff members sought anonymity due to fear of retaliation. Some staff members who are named did not speak to The Graphic but were copied on email correspondences that were shared with us by parents or hold district titles related to this report. Nothing in this article was reported secondhand; all stories and facts were provided by firsthand sources in person or via Zoom, phone, or email interviews. We reached out to everyone who was described as engaging in behaviors by others — rather than by their own account — and offered them the right of reply to each allegation. The children interviewed consented to the publication of their stories, as did their parents. The students and their journalism adviser consulted with a lawyer from the Student Press Law Center before publishing this report.

The adviser, by the way, is Sara Barber-Just, an English teacher at Amherst Regional High School who in 2014 was honored by Williams College with the George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching. It sounds like the student journalists at her school are being extraordinarily well served.


If school officials in Amherst were slow to investigate incidents of anti-trans hate, officials in Middleborough might have been a little too quick. Liam Morrison, a seventh-grader at the Nichols Middle School, has been sent home from school twice, according to Christopher Butler of The Enterprise — the first time for wearing a T-shirt that read “There Are Only Two Genders” and, the second time, for amending that to “There Are (Censored) Genders.”

Now, there’s no doubt that Liam is learning some hateful lessons at home. The question, though, is whether he has a First Amendment right to express those views in a school setting. Sandy Quadros Bowles of Nemasket Week reports that his choice of attire has been the subject of a school committee meeting as well as a demonstration by anti-trans activists and counterprotesters.

Liam is being represented by the American Family Institute, a religious-right organization that says that it’s planning to take legal action against the school system. Samuel Whiting, lawyer with the institute, claims that Middleborough educators are “doubling down on its violation of Liam’s free speech rights.”

School officials, by contrast, argue that the T-shirts violate state law because they “may be reasonably considered intimidating, hostile, offensive or other unwelcome.’’ In addition, the school system’s dress code states: “Clothing must not state, imply, or depict hate speech or imagery that target groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, or any other classification.”

So, are Liam’s free speech rights being violated or not? I think it’s a close call. State law presumably has more to do with how teachers, administrators and other employees behave than with students. School dress codes, on the other hand, may be enforced as long as they are reasonable. This ACLU guide to dress codes suggests that the Middleborough code might go too far, though, noting, “All students, whether transgender or cisgender, must be allowed to wear clothing consistent with their gender identity and expression,” and “Schools can’t discriminate based on the viewpoint expressed by your clothing.”

Given all that, it seems likely that Liam Morrison may be correct in claiming that his free speech rights are being violated. His choice of wardrobe is unfortunate, to say the least, and he and his parents really ought to think about why they find it necessary to express hatred toward his transgender classmates. But he has a right to do it.

Let’s hope that he’s soon confronted with a sea of pro-LGBTQ T-shirts.

Did Trump know what he was doing when he banned transgender troops?

Photo (cc) 2014 by Darren Johnson.

I think the key to understanding President Trump’s ban on transgender troops is contained within a much-discussed Politico story. According to the article, by Rachel Bade and Josh Dawsey, Trump was trying to appease right-wing House members who wanted Trump to rescind funding of transgender-related medical treatment for military personnel. In return, those House members would support funding for the wall that Mexico is not going to pay for.

Now, refusing to pay for medical care is bad enough. But Trump went much further than anyone expected by banning transgender people from the military altogether. Here is the key excerpt from Bade and Dawsey’s story:

“This is like someone told the White House to light a candle on the table and the WH set the whole table on fire,” a senior House Republican aide said in an email. The source said that although GOP leaders asked the White House for help on the taxpayer matter specifically, they weren’t expecting — and got no heads up on — Trump’s far-reaching directive.

So what happened? My guess is that Trump, raging at the world and lacking any understanding of the issues, didn’t realize that right-wingers for the most part were not asking him to ban trans troops. As you can see from this Washington Post analysis by James Hohmann, the most conservative Republicans from the most conservative parts of the country are speaking out against the ban. Trump literally didn’t know what he was doing.

And it wouldn’t be the first time. During the campaign, you may recall, Trump said that women who undergo abortion should face “some form of punishment,” as CNN reported. Leaders of the anti-abortion-rights movement freaked out, waving their arms frantically and insisting that they don’t say things like that anymore. Trump backed down. To use a word that is quickly becoming overused, Trump is strictly transactional. He made his comments not out of any deeply felt sense that abortion is always wrong but to cement his ties to the religious right. And he tweaked his position once he realized he was off-key.

So it is, I suspect, with the transgender ban. This was not deeply thought-out; by all accounts, it wasn’t thought-out at all. It was Trump on Twitter, doing what he does. He blundered into going much further than anyone other than Tony Perkins (New York Times article) was asking him to go, and now he — and all of us — have to live with it.

Let me close on a less what-does-it-mean-politically note. Wednesday turned out to be one of the worst days of the Trump presidency — perhaps the worst since he announced the first version of his ban on Muslims trying to enter the country. We should all feel sick and appalled at Trump’s casual cruelty and his willingness to indulge hatred if he thinks it will give him some momentary advantage.

Love your neighbor.

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