Nowhere To Go: Being Transgendered in High School

Many high school students face bullying and harassment. Among the most often targeted are those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ). Within that group, transgendered students face a particularly unique challenge. For them, even choosing which bathroom to use at school can open them up to discrimination.

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The Bathroom Conundrum

As recently reported in The Coloradoan, a controversy has emerged over 16-year-old Fort Collins High School student Dionne Malikowski and the issue of using the bathroom at school. Malikowski was born as a male, but now identifies as a female. But rather than use the girls' bathroom, the Poudre School District has instructed the girl to use staff bathrooms. They claim that using the student bathrooms will open her up to harassment from fellow students.

Yet Malikowski simply wants to be like any other girl and use the girls' bathroom. When she did, in defiance of school officials, she was suspended for three days. While they claim that they are providing a safe environment for the girl, the school's actions have intensified the bullying she was already receiving. By using the staff bathrooms, she is outed as different and more attention is drawn to her.

With Malikowski, the school district may be attempting to protect a student, but its misfires are driving her away. She often skips school to get a break from the negative attention. This is common among transgendered students. As time goes by, this can have a disastrous effect on these students' futures. In fact, LGBTQ students are twice as likely as the general student population to not pursue post-secondary education.

Separate But Equal?

While the Fort Collins school stumbles with this issue, one school in New York City is attempting a different approach. The Harvey Milk High School (HMHS) was designed as an entire school that would be safe for LGBTQ students. Named for San Francisco-based gay right icon Harvey Milk, the school is a joint venture of the New York City Department of Education and the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI).

Founded in 1979, HMI is the nation's largest non-profit agency that serves LGBTQ youth between ages 12 and 21. In addition to HMHS, they offer after-school programs, housing assistance, family therapy and other services. The organization's founders, life partners Dr. Emery Hetrick, a psychiatrist, and Dr. Damian Martin, a New York University professor, formed HMI after hearing about a 15-year-old homeless boy who was beaten and forced out of his emergency shelter for being gay.

HMHS has proven to be a resounding success. Almost 90% of students in the 2008 class graduated, far above the average in New York City. Approximately 60% of its students pursue advanced programs or college after graduation. While the solution seems to be in providing a separate but equal environment, it's difficult to argue with the results.

In Colorado, Dionne Malikowski's mother plans to transfer her daughter to a different school because of both harassment from other teens and the bathroom issue. They hope to find a nearby school that is willing to provide for the girl's safety not just in words, but in practice. HMHS provides an exemplary model, though one that might be difficult to duplicate in districts that can't match New York's size and budget. Still, HMHS may provide a signal to other districts throughout the country about the importance of treating all students, including those who identify as transgendered, with dignity and respect.

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