EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – While the Board of Education has tabled its final vote on a proposed policy outlining how the district should treat transgender students, community members continue to voice their thoughts on the topic.
The policy, which the board passed 8-1 on first reading in early November, was tabled at the request of the board’s policy committee. The policy outlines how students’ gender identity should be expressed to the district by transgender students and their parents. The policy as proposed would allow transgender students to choose the pronoun by which they want to be referred, and the restroom, locker room, physical education classes and extracurricular activities they prefer.
The transgender policy was not on the agenda for the board meeting Tuesday, Jan. 10, but a few residents spoke up in favor of the policy, a contrast in tone from the Dec. 13 meeting, when the only public commentary came from those opposed to all or part of the proposed policy.
Mico Lucide, who went by the name of Michael Heriegel when he graduated from Egg Harbor Township High School in 2009, is a volunteer at Stockton University’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Center. He said he felt compelled to respond to the negative public comments made at the December meeting.
“I know the policy is not on the agenda tonight, but this is not a town of hate and exclusion, and I can’t let those voices be the only ones that are heard,” he said. “I know the policy will do a lot of good. Don’t let my hometown become known as the place that had the opportunity to do good for a group that really needs it now more than ever and refused to act.”
Lucide said that having a separate school for transgender students, which at least one resident has suggested, carries constitutional issues. Claims that being accepting of transgender people would lead to moral degradation are unfounded, he added.
“Personally, I feel that a society degrades when we go out of our way to attack people for who they are or go out of our way to make people feel they are undeserving or go out of their way to actively fight against people getting rights,” Lucide said.
Jen Sanders, a federal law enforcement officer for the U.S. Department of Justice and a national trainer for LGBT issues, said she wanted to speak up as both a parent in the community as well as someone who is involved in policies that are put in place for transgender inmates at correction facilities.
“I think your pending policy is good. We have two really good kids in the community. Neither of them are transgender, but that doesn’t matter. Somebody’s kid is transgender,” she said.
“I’ll tell you what happens to trans kids when they feel like they don’t have a place to be or they get pushed to the side: They commit suicide. As a therapist, we can’t see that. We have to let them know there is a place for everyone. That’s what inclusivity is," she stressed.
"Please don’t let the knee-jerk reaction of a few people who just don’t know what transgender is guide your thoughts on this. This is about a safe space for all.”
Her wife, Katie Ditmire, who also is also a therapist, said including people is always a better option than “sending them to the margins and sending them into discrimination."
"I think this community is better than that, and I’ve seen better of it,” she said.
In an email to The Current, resident Nicole Barr, who has a transgender son who graduated from the high school in 2014, said she attended the December meeting with the intention to voice support for the policy, but was uncomfortable speaking up after hearing the opinions of those who oppose it.
“My husband and I were at that meeting and had plans on speaking, but after hearing all of the negativity and ignorance we decided not to, as it was just too emotional for us,” she wrote.
She said her son has since made a widely circulated Facebook video in response to the policy and the community reaction that they hope others will watch.
In the video, her son Alexander Barr, who is a college student in Philadelphia, discusses what it was like to attend the schools as a transgender student and gives a description of what being transgender means.
He says in the video that he is a straight male who is attracted to women.
“Take a look at me and let me know which bathroom or locker room you’d prefer me in," Barr says. "I hope you said men's.
“If you did, that means you are not opposing the policy and that means that you want the policy to go into effect. Otherwise students such as myself are going to be in the locker rooms and bathrooms with your daughters. So in the darkness of your ignorance you are actually pushing for what you are against,” he said.
He questions the rationale behind the opposition.
“My next question: Why would you want to submit a child to that abuse? And don't try to sugarcoat it, because forcing someone into the wrong bathroom/locker room is emotional abuse. We walk in and feel uncomfortable, then are greeted with dirty looks, nasty comments and laughter,” he said. “I don't want to be in the girl’s bathroom just as much as you don't want men in the girl’s bathroom. The problem is that you are saying that you want boys in the girl’s locker rooms with your daughters by opposing this policy or any other policy protecting our rights.”
His mother said she and her husband hope their son’s video helps dispel misconceptions.
“We believe that more people need to be educated and stop being so afraid,” Nicole Barr said.
Rev. William Blake Spencer, pastor of Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church, also wrote to The Current to say that he, too, felt the need to speak out in support of the LGBTQ community after the December meeting, in which residents cited religious convictions in voicing strong dissent to the policy.
He said he believes the Christian faith is one of acceptance of all people.
“I serve a Christian congregation in Egg Harbor Township committed to the understanding that ministry is a calling to exhibit the love Jesus lived," he said.
"Again and again, Jesus crossed cultural, religious and political boundaries creating safe places for people to gather. The Samaritan woman at the well, the exiled lepers and even the reviled tax collector named Zacchaeus were all people defined by others as outcasts because they did not ‘fit’ the norm of the day, and yet Jesus spent time with each of these people that they might know love,” Spencer said in an emailed statement.
“I understand Christian faith as a radical welcome and Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church offers such a welcome, and we long and work for the day when LGBTQ children of God might live with a sense of safety and respect,” he said.
In general, the rights of transgender students are protected under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination as it was amended in 2006 to add gender identity and expression as a protected category. The state law prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation, but does not spell out specific guidance for how it should be implemented in public schools. To gain more insight into the matter, the board unanimously approved a resolution calling for the New Jersey Department of Education to provide "clear" guidance for the law as it pertains to application in schools.
The board’s new president, Louis Della Barca, said a certified copy was sent to the state, but he was unsure if or when the board might get a response.
The school district is being sued by a transgender student and his family under the law. The lawsuit asserts that the district permitted and failed to deter harassment of the student with regard to gender identity or expression. The suit cites the district’s lack of a transgender student policy.
Della Barca said he does not expect the policy to reappear on agendas in January because board committees for this year have not yet been assigned.
“Board committees will be established this month. After the committees are established the policy committee will be revisiting the transgender policy prior to its placement on the agenda for a second reading,” he said.