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updated: 3/16/2017 9:15 AM

Transgender student: I am mad, I am upset, and I am invalidated

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  • Coming out as transgender did not go well in middle school for Charlie Zielinski, he writes. But he found the emotional support he sought when he tried again during his sophomore year at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park.

      Coming out as transgender did not go well in middle school for Charlie Zielinski, he writes. But he found the emotional support he sought when he tried again during his sophomore year at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
By Charlie Zielinski
Special to the Daily Herald
Editor's note: This essay began as a letter to the editor from Charlie Zielinski, 18, a 2016 graduate of East Leyden High School, who came out as transgender while a student there. The Schiller Park resident works at Target and plans to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago.

As a transgender student, I am mad, I am upset, and I am invalidated.

It hurt to have a federal bathroom guideline that protected transgender students taken away from the LGBT community. The Obama administration guideline stated that public schools had to let transgender students use the bathroom of the gender they identified as, or lose federal funding. This was a big step for the transgender community to be recognized like that on a federal level, and it was important for the students who didn't feel protected or safe.

I know exactly what it feels like to not be protected in school. When I first tried to come out as transgender, I was in eighth grade. I thought I was ready at that time, so I decided to talk to my vice principal to let him know that I was transgender and that I was ready to go by a different name. I wanted to know what his plan would be to make me feel comfortable, safe and welcome.

When I walked into the office, I was nervous. My heart was beating four miles a minute, my hands were damp and my legs were shaky. My body stiffened at the response I received, one I wasn't expecting. Rather than getting help or support, I was told, "This is a phase," and, "We can't do this because it will be an open window to bullying," and, "This will make students uncomfortable." I was not expecting the administration to call my mom and hold a meeting about how what I feel is a phase, while I was sitting outside of the room.

I was never allowed to use the bathroom that I preferred, but I was granted temporary use of the nurse's bathroom. Eventually, I would have to go back to the girls locker room because this was a phase. This all happened even though my middle school's motto was all about being good to your peers; apparently that didn't apply to the administration.

That experience changed my life. It hurt having the school's administration tell me that what I was feeling is not normal, and that I would grow out of it. These were the people we were supposed to count on to help us whenever we had a problem. School administrators knew that I had depression, but appeared to not care how this would affect me. After this happened, I ignored my gender identity for a few years, and started transitioning from the nurse's bathroom back to the locker rooms and bathrooms that I felt uncomfortable in.

Charlie Zielinski rejoins the people who supported his decision to come out as transgender at East Leyden High School. From left are Principal Jason Markey, Assistant Principal Karen Ritter, Zielinski and Assistant Principal Anita Huffman.
  Charlie Zielinski rejoins the people who supported his decision to come out as transgender at East Leyden High School. From left are Principal Jason Markey, Assistant Principal Karen Ritter, Zielinski and Assistant Principal Anita Huffman. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

When I began high school, I started feeling more comfortable with myself again. I decided to come out during my sophomore year because I just couldn't take it anymore.

I went to my school counselor. Walking through the door, the same nerves were back.

Heart beating six miles a minute, damper hands, shakier legs. My middle school vice principal's words rang in my ears: "This will not stand in high school."

This time, though, I was met with the support I was expecting the first time. My counselor talked for an hour to me -- not my mom, not anyone else; just me. She reassured me, and I finally felt safe and protected at school. She talked to all of my teachers about it and how I wanted to use my new name, Charlie. She talked to the administrators, who both worked with me to think of a plan to make me feel comfortable and protected.

This is what a school should do when students comes out as transgender: Accept them and see what can be done to make them feel comfortable and safe. Not feeling safe in school is tough, especially for children, who spend most of their lives at school. That's why having the federal bathroom guidelines for transgender students was so essential: it protected the students against discrimination.

Those guidelines are not just about bathrooms. They're more about accepting, protecting and validating a school community. A common argument against such inclusion is that the transgender community is "not that big." One study says about 1.4 million people, the population of Phoenix, identify as transgender.

The community is larger than most people think, and larger than what most people want to believe.

Charlie Zielinski chats with East Leyden High School Assistant Principal Anita Huffman, one of the administrators who offered support. "This is what a school should do when a student comes out as transgender: Accept them and see what can be done to make them feel comfortable and safe," he writes.
  Charlie Zielinski chats with East Leyden High School Assistant Principal Anita Huffman, one of the administrators who offered support. "This is what a school should do when a student comes out as transgender: Accept them and see what can be done to make them feel comfortable and safe," he writes. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Because of the Trump administration's actions, transgender students are going to go back to feeling afraid and that they don't belong in their schools. There will be more laws like one passed in North Carolina, which stated that people have to use the bathrooms that correspond to the sex they have listed on their birth certificates.

We are not hurting anyone by going to the bathroom that we feel more comfortable in. We are the community that gets a lot of hate; two months into 2017, and there have been seven murders of transgender people.

We took a big step forward with the bathroom guidelines set by the Obama administration, but we took a few steps back taking them away a few short months later.

And leaving such guidelines to the states, I fear, will result in more discriminatory laws, when we just want to be validated and comfortable.

We are not hurting anyone. We just want to feel protected.

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