District 211 forum addresses gender identity

A pair of Chicago-based experts told a gathering of parents and other community members from Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 Thursday that allowing children who believe they're transgender to self-identify is the best and safest course for these kids' developing identities and self-esteem.

Jennifer Leininger, program manager for the Gender and Sex Development Program at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, and David Fischer, senior analyst for the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group, spoke before an audience of about 50 people at the first of five scheduled community education sessions in District 211 on the issue of gender identity and gender development.

This first topic in what is expected to be a continuing series on student wellness issues was chosen because of the recent controversy over the district's agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to allow a transgender student limited access to a girls locker room as long as a privacy stall there is always used.

Though one audience question sought Thursday night's speakers' opinion about that policy, the speakers said the purpose of the session was not to debate any particular policy but to explain the roots and diversity of gender identity.

But Vicki Wilson of Palatine, co-founder of the group District 211 Parents for Privacy that opposed the locker room agreement, argued afterward that the session did not include differing points of view - even ones research-based.

She pointed to a letter from Michelle A. Cretella, president of the American College of Pediatricians, who wrote in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association that up to 98 percent of boys and up to 88 percent of girls who identify as the opposite gender as young children develop a gender identity matching their biological sex by the time they pass through puberty.

Wilson said she saw this as reason not to encourage children to pursue an irreversible medical transition.

But Leininger and Fischer said a transgender identity is not a pathological condition that can be diagnosed by another, but a normative variation of human diversity.

"I do work with psychiatrists and psychologists who help form this conversation," Leininger said.

She added that a study by The Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, determined that between 0.5 and 1.5 percent of the population may fall under some subcategory of transgender identity, but that it was difficult to be precise because of many members' reticence.

She said it's important to recognize the health risks of an unsupportive society. Those who don't receive support either at home or school are more likely to develop depression and other negative psychological conditions.

She quoted the late poet Adrienne Rich, who wrote that when someone of authority, like a teacher, describes a world in which a child sees no place for himself or herself, it can cause psychic disequilibrium, "as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing."

Leininger also cited a University of Illinois at Chicago study that found 50 percent of childhood bullying to be based on some form of gender or sexual orientation expectations.

"I think it's really important to see these aren't just numbers, these aren't just statistics," she said. "These are real kids in our schools."

She and Fischer also spoke of ways children of different ages can be talked to about gender identity. They said most children's own gender identity has been established between the ages of 4 and 6 and that there's no reason to believe it would be changed or influenced by a discussion about others' gender identity.

There were also questions about the validity of religious and cultural objections to transgender identification.

Fischer said the role of schools - particularly public schools - was not to get everyone to agree but to foster a climate of respect for different beliefs within a community.

"I love public schools," he said. "Public schools exist because we have a diverse society."

The speakers explained there was a difference between gender identity - what one sees oneself as - and sexual orientation, which is about whom one is attracted to. These two aspects of identity can combine differently in an individual, they said.

Wilson said she spoke with district officials of her concern about the cost of the community education sessions and the objectivity of the speakers.

District 211 spokesman Tom Petersen said the five sessions will cost an average of $750 each.

Leininger was the consultant the district and the U.S. Department of Education agreed on to conduct staff training. It was she who recruited the other speakers who will be appearing with her at the sessions, Petersen said.

The remaining 90-minute sessions will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 29, at Hoffman Estates High School; Thursday, March 31, at Fremd High School in Palatine; Tuesday, April 19, at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates; and Wednesday, April 27, at Palatine High School.

  David Fischer, senior analyst for the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group, and Jennifer Leininger, manager of the Gender and Sex Development Program at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, discuss the development of gender identity during a community education session at Schaumburg High School Thursday. Eric Peterson/
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