Parent of transgender girl calls on DOE to establish clear policy to battle discrimination

Updated: Apr. 11, 2016 at 11:02 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A public school second-grader has made the transition from a boy to a girl, but without an official Department of Education policy to help guide officials, her family says she's at risk of being discriminated against.

"I want every school to have a plan," said the student's mother, Wendy. "I want every kid to feel comfortable being who they are -- whether it's trans, whether it's gay and lesbian -- anything. Just being who they are. Trans kids transitioning, it's hard enough as it is. Never mind not being supported or having to go through turmoil to get there,"

Wendy said her daughter Kai is now 7, but has identified as a girl since the age of 2. Instead of playing with boy's toys, Kai wanted to dress up like a princess.

"With Kai, she knows. She knows that she's a girl. She knows that she was born with the wrong body. And if she makes the decision to going back to being a boy, we make another transition -- even if it's another hard, long road. It's our road. I'll still support her no matter what," said Wendy, whose last name Hawaii News Now is not using to protecting her daughter's identity.

Kai often dressed as a girl at home, but never publicly.

Wendy says Kai has been seeing a psychologist since the beginning of the school year to help her learn how to cope with some of the bullying she was facing on campus because she didn't behave the way her boy classmates did.

"There was a mourning process -- like losing my little boy. And now, I can see where I gained a little girl. I have a new daughter," Wendy said.

Three weeks ago, Kai made the choice to transition to being a girl full-time.

"The first day she wore a skirt and her uniform shirt to school, which I'm sure was shocking to everyone at school. It was shocking to me. I mean, I think it was probably harder on me than on her. I dropped her off at school and watched her walk in with her head held high. She's so brave. She's so confident," Wendy said.

Wendy says she spoke with the school counselor to prepare officials for the transition. She understands this is uncharted territory for Kai's school, but also knows that under Title IX, federal law prohibits her child from being discriminated against.

"I went to the counselor and talked to the counselor about it and said, 'This is what's going on. Kai is going through a transition. I want the school to be prepared. Kai wants to switch pronouns. Kai wants to be a girl. We're going to have to help her along with this transition. I'm not sure exactly how it goes. I'm sure you're not exactly sure how it goes, but we're going to have to work together and make this work," Wendy said.

Wendy says officials weren't certain of how to proceed. Kai's teacher asked Wendy if it was OK for Kai to explain the situation in class. So Wendy helped Kai write a letter, which was shared with the class the following day.

"I am transgender. That means that I think I was born in the wrong body. I have always felt like a girl. I dress like a girl, but that's not it. I want you to think of me as a girl. Many of you don't know how hard it is to go through this but I want you to know that every day is a struggle. All I ask of you is to please just think of me as a girl. And respect my feelings," said Wendy, reading from the letter Kai shared with her second-grade class.

"That's all he wants. All she wants. That's all she wants. She wants her peers to look at her for who she is inside."

After seven years of using one pronoun to refer to her son, Wendy admits even she's still adjusting herself and doesn't assume it will be easy for others -- but she does expect the DOE to have some guidelines in place to ensure her child is protected.

"The teacher, the counselor, the principal -- they just weren't given the right tools to handle this," said Wendy.

Wendy says the lack of an official DOE policy has already lead to unnecessary heartache -- from which bathroom Kai can use to whether or not administrators have the right to send a letter out informing other parents about the transition.

"There was no plan in place for the school. They were not educated about this at all. I was printing out pamphlets for them and bringing them in. I was educating them on laws. I was educating them on transgender. They didn't know things they should have known. They should have known weeks ago that Kai should've been able to use the girl's room without a letter going home. They should've known that it was illegal for that letter to have been sent out," Wendy said.

No letter was sent home to parents, which is why Hawaii News Now isn't identifying Kai's school.

Without clear guidelines, Wendy is afraid Kai is being treated unfairly. She says Kai has been asked to wear shorts instead of skirts and has been told not to use the word "transgender" to explain her situation, because that's "too mature of content for an elementary school."

Officials with the state Department of Education says the public school system is working to create a transgender policy. In the meantime, each situation is handled on a case-by-case basis.

"The department right now is really hoping we can move this along but we want to make sure we put the right amount of time into this -- and that means getting the right voices, taking a look at best practices, following the law -- but overall, what's best for the student," said Donalyn Dela Cruz, DOE spokeswoman.

DOE officials say creating a policy isn't limited to just determining which bathrooms on campus a transgender student can use. A policy would also cover other issues, like how children will be addressed within their registration system. They say they hope to have a draft before the Board of Education in the next few months.

"What we want to do is make sure that a child who believes that its time to transition that we work with that child, the parent and the school to make sure that accommodations are made. In our guidelines and proposed guidelines and policies -- we want to make sure that first and foremost, we're sensitive to every student and their individual needs and that's what we have going on right now in our schools," said Dela Cruz.

Wendy says she hopes in sharing Kai's experience, it will prevent other families from suffering through an emotional and uncertain process without a concrete policy to turn to for guidance.

"Just treated equally. Just treated the same as every other student. That's all I ask for. I just want him -- her -- treated the same as everyone else," said Wendy.

Wendy says Kai is flourishing in her new life as a girl -- with a newfound confidence that has inspired hope.

"The only person that said something was a little girl who asked, 'Why are you wearing a skirt? And Kai said, 'Because I'm a girl'. And the little girl said, 'It looks really nice on you'. And that was the only thing that was said to her, so my fears were completely squashed," said Wendy.

"It's a tough road. It hasn't been easy. But nothing that's worth it is easy."

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