Stress of high school compounded for transgender students, panel tells SM East teachers

Currently a graduate student at UMKC, Luke Harness started transitioning from female to male in 2012.
Currently a graduate student at UMKC, Luke Harness started transitioning from female to male in 2012.

With the stresses of puberty, teen social drama and rigorous classwork, high school is plenty challenging on its own. But throw in the challenge of transitioning from one gender to another, and high school can be overwhelming.

That was the message a group of current and former transgender students gave to SM East teachers on Tuesday at a panel discussion presented during the school’s in-service day.

Heather McQueen, a social worker who specializes in transgender issues at Children’s Mercy Hospital’s Gender Pathway Services, said most transgender individuals recognize at an early age that they aren’t experiencing the world like their peers. They’ll often ask their parents things like “Why did God make me in the wrong body?”

“When we hear those words coming from their mouths, that’s what we call gender dysphoria,” she said.

After parents, McQueen said, educators play perhaps the most important role in helping transgender students feel comfortable with themselves — a key condition to their ability to perform well academically.

“When kids don’t feel safe, don’t feel honored as their authentic selves, they don’t learn,” she said.

Luke Harness, currently a graduate student at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, told the group that his experience as a young student had been painful at times as he struggled to understand his sexuality and gender identity. Harness remembered that classmates and adults would shrug off his more masculine tendencies as a phase.

“‘You’re just a tomboy and it’s fine and you’ll grow out of it,’ is what they’d tell me,” he said.

But Harness came to the realization that it was something more. He hated it when people called attention to the development of female secondary sex features. He found himself attracted to females, but did not identify as a lesbian. Ultimately, he understood that he was transgender. He graduated from Lee’s Summit High School in 2009 and began his transition to a man in 2012.

One current and one recently graduated trans SM East student participated in the panel at well. They said that, by and large, their experiences at the school had been positive. They had not been the subject of extreme bullying, and many teachers and students had made a concerted effort to make them feel included. However, they noted that even in a relatively welcoming environment, transitioning during high school is difficult. Issues that are simple to most students — like using the bathroom — can be major stress inducers to trans students.

SM East’s gender neutral bathrooms are in the library on the fourth floor. For trans students who need to use the restroom during a class on the first floor, that can mean missing a chunk of class.

“Try to be understanding of that,” said the current student. “I mean, don’t let them ditch class or anything. But try to be understanding.”

Principal John McKinney said the panel was the first in a series that will be offered to teachers as a way for them to familiarize themselves with less common diversity issues that they may face in the classroom.