In the 1990 movie Kindergarten Cop, a small child declares: "Boys have a penis, and girls have a vagina." That's something Atherton (Ky.) High School principal Thomas Aberli recalls hearing quite often when he started developing a bathroom policy for transgender students on his campus. "I got a lot of nasty emails going, 'How can you be so stupid that you don't understand that?'"
Setting a policy that is inclusive and fair has put Aberli in an unexpected spotlight. While it triggered angry lawsuits, such proactivity has also brought its just rewards. Last July, Aberli was named his state's 2016 Administrator of the Year by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. "It's been an interesting endeavor in understanding our local community, and how this topic is contextualized in the greater national picture," he said, adding that any adjustments have been "really not that big of a deal in the school."
With so-called "bathroom bills" swirling in several states (and now explicitly encouraged by our nation's president), discussions of the legal, linguistic, liberty, and philosophical implications of transgender have become common currency. Yet Aberli had never really considered them until the Friday before spring break in 2014, when the school's LGBTQ club sponsor told him about a student who was preparing to transition. Suddenly, Aberli had a very practical problem to tackle: a transgender student who was asking to use the facilities of their gender identity.
That might not seem like that big an issue; one kid in a high school of around 1,300 students. Yet Aberli knew his decision meant everything to that student, and would define whether the school was truly inclusive or not. So his first conundrum, along with his 12-member site-based decision council, which includes members of the faculty and school parents, was setting an appropriate policy. His second involved communicating that policy to parents, students, and staff. But before he could do any of that, he had to learn about the specific issues.
"At that point," he admitted, "I don't think I'd even heard the term 'gender identity.'" He sat down with the school's LGBTQ community to find out what it was he didn't know. He said he had to "gain an understanding myself, not only of terminology, but of the underlying concepts."
It seemed inevitable that this local process would garner national attention, but amidst the reactionary howls was a strong showing of support. Harper Jean Tobin, an Atherton alum, reached out in her official capacity as director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality. "She contacted me saying, 'Hey, I saw you on BuzzFeed,'" remembered Aberli. "Then an assistant superintendent in California reached out to me saying, 'I don't even know if you'll get this email, but we've been managing this for 10 years. If you want a little help, you don't have to reinvent the wheel.'"
His own learning curve might explain why Aberli has sympathy for some community members going through what he called "a paradigm shift in our understanding of what gender means." But after three uneventful years of a policy that he sees as just doing the right thing, he said, "It's very validating that the process we followed is respected and still being followed."
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