The year 2020 was one of intense change for Josephine*, now a high school student in Charlotte. First, there was the sudden switch to virtual learning with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, with the first lockdown still underway, Josephine graduated from eighth grade and moved on to high school. Finally, as she settled down for an isolated summer break, she had an epiphany about herself.
“I just fell out of contact with a lot of people … and that much thinking, being in your own brain, you realize stuff about yourself,” she told Queen City Nerve.
After months of internal reflection, Josephine realized she is a transgender girl. Coming out was scary, but ultimately went well compared to many others her age. She began using she/they pronouns in online conversation with her friends from middle school. Six months later, she came out to her mom on Mother’s Day weekend. With support from her friends and family, Josephine made a full social transition by using her new name and pronouns at school.
Though she said her school has been “extremely accepting,” Josephine was still nervous to publicly transition. When her therapist told her about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ (CMS) gender support plan policy, Josephine breathed a bit easier.
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s probably a good idea!’” she laughed.
The CMS gender support plan is an official document outlining the needs of individual transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students. When a student comes out, their school’s administration works with them to draw up a personal plan to support them during transition.
The plan stipulates what name and pronoun to use, which bathroom a student needs to use, what safety and privacy concerns they have and more. CMS established the policy in 2015 in order to help transgender students feel more comfortable at school.
When Josephine arrived at their new high school, she and her mother worked together with the school’s guidance counselor to come up with a plan that best fit Josephine’s needs. Through the gender support plan, Josephine was given control over what bathrooms were appropriate for them, which teacher they could go to should they need help, and which name and pronouns all staff members ought to use for them.
The document, which Josephine can alter at any time, made her and her mother feel more confident as Josephine embarked on her social transition.
“I was reassured that my child was safe,” Josephine’s mother told Queen City Nerve. “Through most of the last six months, that’s been my biggest fear; just, is my kid safe where they are right now? And [creating the gender support plan] made me feel very reassured.”
The man who pushed for gender support plans
John Concelman is a bullying prevention and LGBTQ support manager at CMS. He has been working in that position for 23 years. For him, it’s been a lengthy but rewarding time.
“I certainly have seen a huge difference from where I started back in 1998 to where I am now,” he said. “It was quite the journey to get here.”
The CMS gender support plan policy was initially used by only a few, mostly families of elementary schoolers who were transitioning young. It wasn’t until the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) updated its name-changing policy that the plans became more widely used.
Powerschool, which is North Carolina’s education software, stores the transcripts, grades and personal information of all public-school students across the state. For Concelman, Powerschool became a crucial front to fight for the rights of transgender students.
NCDPI did not allow administrators to list a new name in Powerschool, alleging that it would be inappropriately altering school records. So every year beginning in 2017, Concelman would change the names in the database for some 150 students at the beginning of the school year, then flip it back to their birth names at year’s end when transcripts were produced.
When this practice was inevitably met with complaints, he demanded a preferred name field. The state finally relented in 2019, but it came with a major stipulation.
“Now we can legally, through NCDPI, have a student or a family member submit a name change,” he said. “However, they changed the gender to ‘sex assigned at birth’ so that we couldn’t also change the gender marker.”
This meant the official records of trans students would not show the gender they identified with, which could be seen as another case of one step forward, two steps back. Concelman took it as an opportunity to keep pushing.
Once CMS students began to submit requests for name changes, he was able to connect with their school counselors. From there, those students would have the option of creating their own gender support plans.
Not all of the students requesting name changes are trans, and not all of them need a gender support plan. But Concelman said he saw gender support plan usage increase dramatically once he began contacting students who had requested name changes.
Over 500 students have submitted a name change since 2019, and Concelman has offered support plans to each one.
“I’m still getting about five to 10 name changes a week,” he said.
The outreach didn’t stop there. Concelman sent memos to CMS principals informing them of the gender support plan policy. He worked with guidance counselors and administrators to inform students and parents about the program, and worked with local LGBTQ youth center Time Out Youth to reach out to queer and trans students and get them access to these services.
It is a staggering amount of advocacy — he admitted himself that he’s been doing the work of two people for years now — but Concelman wants to keep going.
“I want transgender students to know that we are working so hard to be an ally and an advocate for their support,” he said. “We are working so hard to create inclusive environments.
“We know we’re not perfect, we know there’s a lot of work to do,” Concelman continued. “Politically, religiously and legally, there is a lot of pushback that we get … But we want them to know that we need to work together in order to make these changes.”
An unfinished conversation
CMS is far from the only school district that has a policy like this in place. In fact, it’s just one of 14 school districts in the area that Haeley Rimmer, community engagement coordinator at Time Out Youth, works with.
Charlotte-based Time Out Youth is one of the largest LGBTQ centers in the South. The nonprofit works with local school districts like CMS to support LGBTQ students through inclusivity training, advocacy and policy work.
Gender support plans are fairly common in Rimmer’s line of work, and in her experience, they’re an invaluable resource for transgender students and their loved ones.
“It’s a shared understanding of what a specific trans young person needs,” she told Queen City Nerve. “It gives the young person agency and advocacy over their own lives. It really means that how to support an individual student is up to that individual student.”
Josephine and their mother agree, but they also see some opportunities for improvement.
“I don’t think we should be the ones who have to initiate it,” Josephine’s mother said. “As soon as a student is asking teachers to use a different name or different pronouns, [a gender support plan] should be something that the counselors start talking to a student about.”
That has been what Concelman has worked to accomplish over the last three years, though he acknowledged that there are young people whom CMS is missing. He thinks the outreach is working, though, for the most part.
“Based on national and our own in-house statistics like the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, there are more kids out there that we need to reach, but the numbers from when we started are totally different from now,” he said.
While the most recently available Youth Risk Behavior Survey results show an uptick in the percentage of Mecklenburg County high school students who say they’ve been teased or bullied by someone who thought they were gay, lesbian or bisexual — from 10% in 2013 to 14% in 2019 — it does not make any mention of gender identity.
To Josephine and their mother, the CMS gender support plan remains a great resource for her social transition, yet Josephine thinks it’s just a start for what CMS can do to support transgender kids.
“I think the biggest thing they need to do is install gender-neutral bathrooms in every single school across the board,” she said.
Though CMS has policies supporting bathroom and locker room usage based on gender and not assigned sex, Josephine said she would feel safer in the single-use, gender-neutral restrooms her teachers use.
Rimmer cited similar worries from other transgender young people she works with. Those concerns most regularly involve feeling secure in the bathroom, dealing with transphobic educators and, above all, navigating public school safely. Most trans students agree gender support plans are just one piece of the puzzle.
“A gender support plan is simply a conversation to have in order to support one specific trans kid,” Rimmer said. “Beyond that, I think there is a lot more that school systems, educators, admin teams, other folks can do in order to mitigate the concerns I’m seeing with trans kids.”
Despite the work to be done, Rimmer still encourages trans kids to use what support is currently being offered.
“There are people out there that will genuinely support you,” she said. “Even if it’s not your school system, if it’s not your family system, if it’s not the health-care system, you will still find those spaces. Finding that support will lead you to get even more support. So keep digging.”
*Josephine’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.
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