For most of Americans growing up, issues about homosexuality weren’t widely discussed. Transgender wasn’t a term used routinely in conversations. State and federal legislators didn’t spend their time dictating bathroom rules.
That clearly has changed, as the topics spur daily headlines.
With the issue of transgender rights coming up more frequently, Neil McNerney, a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Leesburg, said some have called the issue a trend that will come and go, but he believes that’s a misconception.
“Some in the LGBT community kind of scoff at that and say ‘why would anyone want to have these challenges and deal with prejudices and family issues because it’s trendy?’” he said. “I think we have become much more aware of it because people in the LGBT spectrum are feeling more comfortable sharing it. I don’t think the prevalence has changed, the knowledge of the public has changed.”
In many cases, schools are on the front line—both in terms of dealing with new laws and helping young people work through stressful personal and family issues.
In Loudoun, concerns of LGBT students came to prominence in January when the county School Board narrowly voted not to include protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity to its equal employment policy, with advocates on both sides of the issue turning out in droves to speak out in advance of that vote.
High schools haven’t always been the most welcoming environments for LGBT students, and according to transgender advocates, taunting and harassment are often a fact of life. But around Loudoun, students and staff members are working to make schools more accepting places.
Most local high schools have Gay-Straight Alliances (or Gender Sexuality Alliances) that include transgender students. The Milk Club (or GSA) at Freedom High School in South Riding has been working to build bridges with similar organizations at schools across the county to offer strength and a unified voice for LGBT students. At Woodgrove High School near Purcellville, school counselors are working to promote inclusion through the We’re All Human Club launched just over a year ago in cooperation with the Ryan Bartel Foundation.
Geri Fiore, Woodgrove’s director of school counseling, says school counselors can play an important role in helping transgender students navigate their transitions—and in helping foster understanding from peers and staff members.
“We work with students because it does affect their social and emotional health. We work with teachers, we work with families who may have questions about what to do and where to start,” Fiore said.
Fiore and counselor Barbara Bell advise student leaders of the school’s We’re All Human Club. The club’s overall mission is to promote inclusion and reduce the risk of suicide among all students. And promoting acceptance of transgender students certainly falls under that umbrella, Fiore said. According to a 2014 study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide, compared with 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population.
“I think for the kids who are going through the change or trying to figure things out, as long as we can support them emotionally and they know that they have a good group of friends and their family and counselor behind them, they can be more successful academically and in anything else that they do. Having that core of support is critical,” Bell said.
Woodgrove counselor Steven Cohen has worked with transgender students, and said in many cases, adults are the ones who need educating. School counselors have a role in teaching the staff and other students on issues like the importance of using the pronouns requested by the student, he said.
“Just like with any other student, you’re trying to figure out what their needs are. Sometimes it’s [adults] trying to get education making sure students have a safe place in school and working with teachers,” Cohen said.
For Loudoun-based transgender rights advocate Connie Rice, the conversation about LGBT issues really heightened in 2015, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision making same-sex marriage a right nationwide.
“I think that the marriage equality decision by the Supreme Court lead several groups to organize and find ways to attack the LGBT community anyway they can. This could explain why they centered on ‘bathroom bills’ despite the fact that no transgender person has been convicted of attacking anyone in a bathroom,” Rice said. “These bills use the bathroom hysteria to push an agenda that goes far beyond the bathroom portion. It’s not about bathrooms. It’s about denying transgender people’s very existence. The high profile transitions of several celebrities including Caitlyn Jenner and some excellent television programming around her transition also brought these issues to the public attention.”
McNerney has seen more LGBT individuals among his clients over the past four or five years. He offered a few suggestions for those who have friends or family who are transgender, or who just want to understand the issue better.
“The biggest thing is to realize this is just one aspect of this friend or family member or work colleague. There are so many other pieces to this person—their culture, hobbies, talents,” he said. And to remember that these individuals “[are] still facing a tremendous amount of discrimination and vulnerability which causes a tremendous amount of stress.”
He also encouraged people to ask their LGBT friends, family or work colleagues appropriate questions. “If you have curiosity, questions that don’t go past the normal types of things you would feel comfortable asking anybody, asking those questions is fine. That’s a great way to learn.”
Danielle Nadler contributed to this report.