It would be a year before Marissa legally became a boy named Benjamin, who wears boxers and likes his hair cut short. “I didn’t want to be called by my girl’s name, Marissa, because I didn’t feel like a girl,” recalled Ben, now 10 and in fourth grade.
One month after voters in Houston rejected an equal rights ordinance that proponents say would have protected transgender people from discrimination, Ben and his parents, Ann and Jim Elder of Friendswood, are among families nationwide challenging their communities to respect the identities of kids who feel their true gender doesn’t match their bodies. Their experience, and Houston’s, illustrate the gap in understanding gender identity issues and the divide over how best to deal with them in places such as public restrooms, courthouses, day care centers and schools. As much as the country has changed in accepting gay marriage, transgender rights remains a new frontier, rife with uncertainty.
Mara Keisling, director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she expects to see a tipping point as more transgender children like Ben express themselves, just as gay rights gained momentum after families began supporting openly gay children.
Until then, misunderstanding reigns.
Take the case of two former Katy child care workers. A week after the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was defeated following the airing of TV ads alleging the law would permit transgender men to assault girls in women’s bathrooms, the workers said they were fired by the Katy center for refusing to treat one of their students as a transgender boy.
Accepting the child’s assertion at such a young age “just didn’t make sense to me,” said one of the workers, Madeline Kirksey, who argues that she had the child’s best interests at heart. Kirksey has filed a federal discrimination complaint challenging her dismissal and is represented by an attorney who fought to bring HERO before voters, leading to its ultimate defeat.
“I still believe that, at that age, they’re exploring,” Kirksey maintained. “It’s innocence. … Let her explore for herself until she gets older and then decide.”
Meanwhile, the Texas Association of School Boards describes transgender issues as “relatively new in public discourse, understanding and the law.”
While state law does not explicitly protect students who are transgender, it says students are safe from discrimination “based on their gender identity and their free speech expressions of that gender identity,” including choice of clothing, name and gender, according to a written explanation from the association’s legal division.
The association provides sample policy documents to protect against discrimination based on gender. Districts like Houston ISD have taken the language further, to explicitly cover “gender identity and/or gender expression.”
Conflict in the state regarding bathrooms and locker rooms, however, “is not legally settled,” the explanation reads, concluding that schools should “assess each situation as it comes … to reach a resolution that protects the learning environment for all.”