In a State of Transition

Banished and bullied, at least four transgender people have killed themselves in Wisconsin since 2013, two of them from the same high school. Yet emerging in unlikely places are pockets of support for transgender youth.

The last photograph that Cameron Langrell ever posted on Facebook. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
The last photograph that Cameron Langrell ever posted on Facebook. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

In April of 2015, 15-year-old Cameron Langrell told the world what he had known for some time: He was a girl, not a boy. By the end of the month, he was dead.

From an early age, Cameron was different from the other boys with whom he attended school in Racine. It was a difference his mother, Jamie Olender, first noticed when Cameron was 2.

Unlike his older brother, Corbin, who played with cars and dinosaurs, Cameron preferred dolls. Growing up, he gravitated toward traditionally feminine pastimes, such as cheerleading and gymnastics. With the exception of his father and brother, he formed friendships exclusively with girls.

Eventually, he began to look different, too.

“He dressed up in his room, and he had my hair extensions and wore makeup and took pictures. I knew that if I was missing nail polish or shoes or clothes, they would be in here,” Olender says, glancing at the uprooted bedroom that once sheltered Cameron’s explorations of his true self.

Olender only recently steeled herself enough to re-enter her dead son’s room. Weeks after Cameron died, his mercurial teenage tastes remained dominant – a keyboard laid out on his bed, tangles of console cords and game cartridges strewn beneath a television, plush animals lovingly displayed on closet shelves – all giving the impression he could return any moment, indignant at finding his mother messing with his things.

Olender was now cleaning out the room, dividing its contents into piles of keepsakes and donations. She had done this earlier with Cameron’s remains, authorizing the medical donation of most of his tissue. She retained his ashes and a lock of his hair, which she keeps alongside another lock saved from his first haircut.

“Now I have his birth hair and I have his death hair,” she says.

Cameron gradually became aware of the disconnect between his physical and actual nature, and confided in his mother around the age of 13.

“We were sitting out in the garage when he told me,” Olender says. “He said, ‘Mom, I don’t feel like Corbin does. I feel like you. I feel like I was born a boy, but I should have been a girl.’”

Jamie had been expecting a conversation like this for a while. But up until that moment, she thought Cameron was gay.

What he was telling her now required more than acceptance. It required a plan of action. If what Cameron was saying was true, decisions had to be made. Would he change his name and preferred pronouns? Would he begin the physical transitioning process? Would he present himself as female at school?

It’s the magnitude of these questions that set Cameron’s transgender struggles apart from typical coming-of-age turmoil, even by the standards of his gay and lesbian peers.

Jamie Olender spends a moment sitting in the favorite spot of deceased son Cameron at the family's home in Caledonia. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Jamie Olender spends a moment sitting in the favorite spot of deceased son Cameron at the family’s home in Caledonia. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Gender is present all around us, at all times and in ways sexuality isn’t. While the gay rights movement has increasingly allowed homosexuals to live openly on equal footing with their straight counterparts, many gay men and women can choose to conceal that aspect of themselves. At its heart, sexual orientation requires no one else’s consent. But gender expression seemingly requires everyone’s.

Even though transgender and gay people are grouped together under the umbrella of LGBT, trans individuals face many challenges that don’t affect gays, lesbians or bisexuals. One privilege afforded to gay youth, but not transgender youth, is that state education officials are looking for them.

Since 1993, the Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey has been the gold standard for statewide, self-reported student data. Because of it, we know the number of students that have seriously considered suicide has been declining over the past two decades, even though the Wisconsin youth student rate exceeds the national average. We also know that in the last survey, 49 percent of gay or bisexual students have considered suicide, and 41 percent planned how they’d kill themselves. We don’t know anything about transgender students.

According to Steve Fernan, assistant director of student services for the Department of Public Instruction, that’s partly because the survey is capped at 99 questions, about half of which are set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sponsors the survey. The remaining questions are selected by the DPI specific to the behavior of Wisconsin’s students.

But the resistance to answering questions about controversial topics like gender identity is also considered, says Fernan.

“If we were to add something about transgender, it would come with a lot of scrutiny and a lot of negotiation as to how that question will be worded,” he says, noting past efforts by conservative state legislators, or school districts themselves, to shut down data collection.

If the survey did add a question about gender identity, officials could approximate the total number of trans students in the state, a number that is not now known. It could also provide a snapshot of their well-being as a group.

In February, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Maurice Gattis and Sara McKinnon released a report detailing the experiences of transgender and gender-nonconforming high school students in Wisconsin. Working closely with the Madison-based nonprofit Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools (GSAFE), the pair surveyed focus groups comprised of trans youth living throughout the state.

The Gattis and McKinnon report reveals trans students in Wisconsin face exclusion, isolation and discrimination at school, and often endure daily occurrences of bullying. The study cites evidence demonstrating how those experiences can negatively impact their health and academic outcomes.

Their findings mirror a 2011 national report on transgender individuals called “Injustice at Every Turn.” That report found gender-variant individuals in grades K-12 were on the receiving end of harassment severe enough to cause nearly a sixth of respondents to leave school or, later, college.

Cameron Langrell.
Cameron Langrell.

Before the Gattis and McKinnon research, the only state data collection method that screened for trans students was the Dane County Youth Assessment, which added a transgender identification question in 2012. Since then, the Dane County assessment found that trans students are almost three times as likely as other students to consider committing suicide, and more than five times as likely to have actually attempted suicide.

While much of the Western world sees gender as an “either-or” proposition, researchers like Gattis and McKinnon think of gender as a spectrum. Their survey let respondents choose their gender identities from several categories, including non-binary (having a gender that is neither male nor female) gender fluid (fluctuating gender identity) and genderqueer (multiple or no gender identities).

All of this is to say that, while it seems likely Cameron Langrell was a transgender female, it’s possible he might also have come to identify as something else. For a time, he seemed conflicted.

“I had asked him several times about pronoun change,” says his mother, Jamie. “I had asked him, ‘Do you want to start living as a girl?’ And he’s like, ‘Until I figure out what I want to do, I’m still a boy. And when I get to that point that I’m comfortable coming out as a female, then I will.’”

Pronouns are a flashpoint in the fight over transgender acceptance. Because they are dependent on gender, transpersons use pronouns as a way to assert their gender expression, while others wield them as instruments of denial. Gattis and McKinnon’s research outlines examples of cisgender individuals – people whose gender identity aligns with their biological sex – referring to trans students with non-preferred pronouns against their stated wishes.

“A lot of the students talked about feeling their peers, adults in schools and those outside of schools as even doing deliberate misnaming,” says McKinnon. “That was a source of a lot of pain and challenge and struggle for the youth we spoke with.”

Olender herself has taken some flack in online LGBT forums for continuing to refer to Cameron as a boy, but she insists he never asked for anything different while he was alive.

After Cameron came out to her, Olender’s intuition told her to go slow. She worried about him beginning hormone therapy, only to change his mind later. She was also concerned about how transitioning would affect him at school. Besides his feminine nature, Cameron was one of the smallest boys in his grade – a combination that had already made him a bully magnet as he was about to begin his freshmen year at William Horlick High School.

“I read so many articles about the dangers of transitioning, and the suicide rates were so high for transgender teens,” Olender says. “It scared me to where I, as a parent, wanted to push him away from doing that.”

In the end, she counseled him to hold off on physical transition, as least until he finished high school. “You go into high school as a freshman boy, and then the following year, you come in as a sophomore girl – it’s dangerous,” she says. “There are so many people out there that just don’t understand.”

She did permit Cameron to explore his identity in other ways. At Halloween, Cameron wore a blue tutu and princess tiara, though Olender drew the line at fishnet stockings. “All I want is to be able to go out and no one will tease me for wearing this,” Cameron told her, “even though this is what I want to wear every day.”

Yet the moments of happiness weren’t enough to sustain him. He turned to drugs and self-harm, cutting himself and sending pictures to friends with a belt tightened around his neck. In the spring of 2014, Olender had him hospitalized twice after he swallowed a cocktail of over-the-counter medication and attempted to hang himself.

Needing to make sense of the warring fragments of his reality, he found an outlet in music and writing, and filled notebooks with song lyrics, prayers and letters.

“When I was little I felt different. I felt the opposite from my gender,” one began. “It’s not fair I get judged, but you hurt me. Just leave me alone because I’m still human.”

Cameron changed the gender setting on his Facebook profile to female shortly before his death. On Tuesday, April 28, his final day at Horlick, he kissed a boy in public for the first time. That night, he texted his friends complaining about two students bullying him. For the next, and last, two days of his life, he stayed home, telling his mother he was sick and begging her to not make him go to school. Although Olender didn’t know it then, he was actually suspended. (She only found out after reading the medical examiner’s report.)

On Thursday, April 30, Jamie Olender came home from work to a house permeated with an unnerving stillness. Walking into the basement, she was unable to switch on the lights. Unbeknownst to her, Cameron had smashed all the bulbs.

Before his mother had returned home, he had ingested a large amount of cold medication. Then he fashioned a noose out of a braided pillowcase and hanged himself from an overhead pipe. After he died, the weight of his body ripped the fabric, and he fell on top of a laundry pile.

Dressed in dark clothing, his body wasn’t immediately visible to Olender as she descended into the unlit basement. Instead, she reached out to place her hand on top of the clothes pile.

“I touched his back and felt his spine, and I knew,” she says.

A note was found near his body. It read: “I’m sorry I left the family so early, but I just couldn’t take any more pain … Everyone hated me … so I gave up.”

An unfinished plaque that Cameron's family will incorporate into a backyard memorial. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
An unfinished plaque that Cameron’s family will incorporate into a backyard memorial. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Soon after Cameron’s death, his mother asked school officials if she could address a student assembly at Horlick High. One of the things Olender wanted to speak about was bullying, which she believes led to his death. Her son, she says, had been bullied since middle school.

Olender’s request to speak, however, was denied by the school’s principal, Angela Apmann. In fact, the school district claims it has no records of Cameron being bullied.

“It’s funny,” says Olender, “because a month before he died, my husband and I met with all his teachers, the principal, the social worker, the counselor, everybody about bullying. All of sudden, they have no reports of it.”

Stacy Tapp, chief of communication and community engagement for the Racine Unified School District (RUSD), says she believes Apmann would be willing to reconsider letting Olender speak now that Horlick is out of crisis mode. But, still looking for answers, Olender is seeking legal help to secure Cameron’s records from Horlick and Jerstad-Agerholm Middle School.

Racine's Horlick High School saw two of its trans students commit suicide, including 14-year-old Lexi Lopez-Brandies.
Racine’s Horlick High School saw two of its trans students commit suicide, including 14-year-old Lexi Lopez-Brandies (bottom left).

Sixteen months before Cameron’s suicide, another student at Racine’s Horlick High School was dead by her own hand. Like Cameron, 14-year-old Alexis “Lexi” Lopez-Brandies was conflicted about her gender identity. She was born biologically female, and the medical examiner’s report indicates she contemplated coming out as transgender and considered a sex change. Friends told the media she sometimes asked to be called Landon.

A victim of sexual assault, Lexi was deeply depressed, self-medicating with marijuana and LSD, and cutting herself. The medical examiner’s report notes that both of her arms and legs displayed “remarkable” signs of self-mutilation, with fresh cuts made right before she hanged herself from her bedroom ceiling with an electrical cord.

For Lexi, there was likely no single reason that led to her suicide – a glimpse at her short life reveals a person dealing with an incredible amount of trauma and illness. And like Cameron, according to some who knew her well, Lexi also was a longtime victim of bullying while in Racine schools.

“Lexi had been bullied for a number of years,” says Halli Stewart, an instructional coordinator at RUSD and former Gay Straight Alliance Faculty advisor at Horlick. “Many of her teachers commented on the fact that she had been bullied starting in grade school.”

After Lexi’s death, Stewart was asked to reach out to Horlick students who felt unsafe or frustrated with the school environment.

Stewart, who is openly gay, has her own complicated history with the district. In 2010, she filed a discrimination complaint against RUSD on the basis of sexual orientation. The district settled with Stewart in 2012, paying her $18,500 in damages and agreeing to update school board policy to include nondiscrimination language related to sexual orientation. Yet, even as the environment has improved for her personally, she’s encountered a lot of resistance trying to implement LGBT pieces into the bullying curriculum. She says that any attempts at LGBT inclusion are undercut by tolerance of anti-gay posturing.

“I don’t think that there are teachers telling people to bully people,” says Stewart. “The teachers and the administrators set a tone in a building. If there’s this idea that this was OK and acceptable, then it’s going to continue.”

Stewart believes gender-nonconforming kids are facing the greatest difficulties. But she also sees the problem of acceptance as much larger than just the school district. “There are some bigger societal issues that come down to the community itself,” she says.

Brian Juchems, director of the district’s Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, views RUSD in a better light than Stewart, saying he knows RUSD employees working behind the scenes to make the schools safer for LGBT youth. But he does think more needs to be done. “Ultimately, what’s really needed in Racine is district leadership,” he says.

“What it comes back to also is that transgender students on a day-to-day basis receive messages about how they’re not right, often times in the form of micro-aggression or small swipes that really build up and cut away at people’s sense of esteem and identity,” says Juchems.

With some teen suicides, there’s a clear line between cause and effect; with many others, reasons are murkier. Some children choose to keep their struggles private, especially if they come from a broken or unsupportive home. Some experience pain in several areas of their lives, which, when added up, is overwhelming enough to convince them to kill themselves.

UW researcher Gattis points to an academic concept called “Minority Stress Theory,” developed by Eli Meyer, which posits that sexual and transgender minorities have unique stressors in their lives that may contribute to disproportionately negative mental health outcomes.

He gives the example of concealing sexual orientation. “That’s a unique stressor that a gay person would have, controlling for everyone else. Even if we’re going to make the argument that they have mental health issues,” he says, “it could be that unique stressor related to being gay.”

Racine's Horlick High School saw two of its trans students commit suicide. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Racine’s Horlick High School saw two of its trans students commit suicide. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Cameron and Lexi bookended three suicides that occurred at Horlick since December 2013, and are among eight total involving Racine Unified School District students over the past five years. Their deaths have weighed heavily on the community.

Kristin Latus, RUSD’s director of school support, says each student’s suicide prompts soul-searching among administrators and faculty. But the deaths of two trans students at the same school within a year and a half hit Horlick staff particularly hard.

“I’m not a staff member at Horlick, and I can tell you that I’ve lost sleep,” Latus says. “We are all in shock, and it has taken an emotional toll on the entire district. The staff at Horlick is still struggling.”

RUSD is the fifth-largest school district in the state, serving roughly 20,000 children from the city and nearby villages. Founded in 1928, Horlick is sandwiched between crosstown high schools Jerome Case and Washington Park in terms of enrollment, graduation rates and ACT scores. Student suicides are the only area where it breaks away from the pack.

Racine itself is notable for having one of the largest prom celebrations in the country. It’s an annual tradition, started by the local chapter of Rotary Club in 1953 out of concern that bored teens would engage in reckless joyriding, and has since blossomed into a one-of-a-kind, televised, red-carpeted, citywide celebration.

How can a community that so obviously cares about its children end up with so many teen suicides? And what specifically was happening at Horlick?

“I don’t know that anybody can answer that question,” says RUSD spokeswoman Stacy Tapp. Adds Latus: “If we had an answer to that, we wouldn’t be sitting here. You walk into Horlick and it’s a very welcoming environment.”

Tapp and Latus say RUSD schools have strong, coordinated anti-bullying efforts in place. High schools have “Link Crews,” in which upperclassmen mentor incoming freshmen. All middle schools have bully coordinators, and students can fill out a harassment form to report bullying to school officials. That form is being introduced in high schools this year. Anti-bullying efforts are overseen by a student assistance coordinator, and plans are in place to launch a website promoting bullying prevention campaigns.

Racine is one of three districts in the state awarded a Safe Schools-Healthy Schools grant to address school safety, which includes specific components for protecting sexual-minority youth.

Horlick also has a Gay Straight Alliance – an extracurricular group that provides support to LGBT teens and allies. A different student group brought in a speaker to discuss suicide, says Tapp, and the PTA is fundraising to invite another speaker on the same topic.

Was Horlick really a place with such strong safeguards for queer students like Cameron and Lexi? It’s hard to doubt the sincerity of professionals who’ve spent their careers working to help children, but neither Tapp nor Latus work at Horlick, nor do they interact directly with the student body.

One person who has spent a lot of time there is 19-year-old Kaleb Mitchell. Mitchell, who is gay, graduated from Horlick in 2014 and paints a different picture of LGBT outreach.

“People go throughout the hallways and just say completely obscene shit,” he says. “It’s literally disgusting. Screaming, ‘faggots!’ On the walls, there’s like, ‘c—sucker.’ … You don’t feel welcomed if you’re gay in Racine in general.”

Despite the presence of the Gay Straight Alliance, and all of the district’s anti-bullying efforts, Mitchell says he remained closeted while attending Horlick because the suspicion of homosexuality alone was enough to stigmatize him, particularly when teachers failed to discourage gay slurs.

“People talk badly about gays all the time,” says Mitchell, who is also black. “I’ve been in classrooms where teachers are allowing students to call people fags.”

Although he’s comfortable being out now, he doesn’t think he could have been openly gay while attending Horlick. “I honestly think I probably would have died. That’s just how I feel. Especially being black and gay, around here, that’s really frowned upon.”

Gender identity or expression is not protected under the Wisconsin Pupil Non-discrimination Law – the state statute that prohibits prejudice against students based on sex, race, religion, disability and sexual orientation.

The only statewide agreement covering all transgender students is set by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs all school sporting competitions. The lack of a statewide protection for regular school activities means that local control prevails when it comes to accommodating trans youth.

Currently, 67 of the 426 school districts in Wisconsin have adopted policies protecting transgender students, according to GSAFE (Racine is not among them). Of those 67, Juchems says, only three have clear guidelines on how to implement their policies.

The first state school district to enumerate transgender protections was Madison, but Juchems says there was about a decade-long gap between adoption and formalizing guidelines for staff and educators.

The second school district, Shorewood, made a more vocal and concerted push when it updated its policy to include transpersons in March 2014.

“Shorewood was really the first to say, not only are we doing it, we’re doing it at the same time as we’re passing policy, and we’re going to be really public and celebrate it, so that was nice,” Juchems says.

Shorewood, in fact, bears a lot of responsibility for creating the standard policy template. Before changing its policy, Shorewood requested that the Wisconsin Association of School Boards draft a sample policy, which now serves as a model for other districts in the state.

Yet many times, districts would rather make unofficial accommodations for a single student instead of trying to push through policy changes. That schools would go that far is a testament of the legacy of one student’s experience. In many ways, the story of LGBT accommodation in Wisconsin’s public schools begins with Jamie Nabozny.

Growing up gay in the late 1980s along the banks of Lake Superior in Ashland, Nabozny was an anathema in his school district, and began to experience bullying soon after he entered middle school. When he reported the harassment, first by himself and then with his parents, Nabozny was told by his principal that if he was going to present himself as openly gay, he should expect to be bullied.

“I was shocked that the principal would say that I should expect these things,” Nabozny says. “Here she was saying it was OK, and telling them, right in front of the kids who were doing it, that it was OK for them to continue.”

Essentially given the green light, Nabozny’s tormentors showed no mercy. When he entered high school in 1991, the harassment turned physical. It was so bad that he told a friend – who was also gay, but not out – not to talk to him during the school day, lest he be bullied as well. Their entire friendship existed outside of the school.

After briefly running away to Minneapolis, Nabozny was forced to return to the Ashland school system, where he was again victimized. In 1993, he experienced an assault violent enough to require hospitalization.

Nabozny, who’ll turn 40 this month, moved back to Minneapolis, this time for good. His story came to the attention of LGBT legal organization Lambda Legal, which sued the Ashland School District and three school officials on his behalf, on the grounds they violated his rights by not providing a safe learning environment.

In the wake of a prolonged legal battle that involved Nabozny’s legal team winning an appeal overturning a summary judgment, his case went before a federal jury in November 1996. The trial featured testimony from one of Nabozny’s bullies – who told the truth about what he inflicted on Jamie, Nabozny says. After a short deliberation, a federal jury found the school officials intentionally discriminated against Nabozny in ignoring his pleas to stop the harassment.

Although the jury found that Ashland school district itself was not liable, it negotiated a $900,000 settlement with Nabozny before the jury started considering damages. It was a landmark ruling.

“With the Nabozny case, I think more and more school districts recognize, not only that there’s a potential liability and suit, but also responsibility to keep kids safe,” says DPI official Steve Fernan.

Rowan Saecker, who fought Menasha schools for bathroom rights, and won, feels like "the straw that broke the camel's back." Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Rowan Saecker, who fought Menasha schools for bathroom rights, and won, feels like “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Gender dysphoria is the clinical term for transpersons distressed by the sex and gender assigned to them at birth, first classified by psychiatrists in 1980. In recent years, treatment options have expanded due to medical advancements. Transgender youth can receive puberty blockers that delay the development of mature sexual characteristics, buying a child more time to decide on further medical intervention.

Transpersons can choose to undergo forms of physical gender reassignment procedures, such as estrogen or testosterone therapy and sex reassignment surgery, which consists of top surgeries (mastectomies for trans men, facial feminization and breast augmentations for trans women) and bottom surgeries (genital reconstruction). However, the cost of many of these procedures often prohibits transpersons from utilizing them. Even among those who can afford the full gamut of medical treatment, not all opt to have every procedure.

Despite the medical breakthroughs in recognizing and treating transpersons, the front lines today in the battle over transgender accommodations in schools are located squarely in public restrooms. The responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for all students has been clear since the Nabozny case. What’s less clear is whether a person who is biologically male or female should be permitted to use bathrooms designated for the other gender.

Gattis and McKinnon found repeated examples of students who were made to use a special bathroom, including one school that told a trans student to use the bathroom in a restaurant across the street.

These makeshift solutions can remove students from hostile environments, but can also cause as many problems as they solve.

School districts attempting to adjust their policies to allow bathroom usage based on gender identity can spark uproars in their communities. When the Sparta School District looked at updating its policy in 2014, it gave rise to a backlash so pronounced and prolonged, it drove the school board to table the proposal indefinitely. Sparta Superintendent of Schools John Hendricks, who recommended the revised policy, says there are no plans to reconsider the proposal at this time, but adds that the day might come when they will be forced to change because of a government mandate. For him, it’s not an ideal scenario.

“What I would hope we would do, and what I hope all districts would do, is to take proactive measures because it’s the right thing to do rather than wait for someone to tell us we have to make changes.” Hendricks says. “Students commit suicide over this. If it was any other issue, people would be up in arms.”

Organized campaigns against transgender policies failed in Beloit and Janesville, where school districts voted in 2014 to allow trans students to use the bathroom of their choice, provided their parents inform the school of their status.

One school board, however, was pressured from the opposite direction when one of its students felt its efforts at accommodation fell flat.

Like several other transgender people, 18-year-old Menasha native Rowan Saecker gradually became aware of the mismatch between gender identity and biological sex by noticing other people around her.

“I think the first time I realized I was trans was way back in middle school,” says Saecker, who was born biologically male. “That was when I started to realize something has gone horribly wrong here.”

Saecker first publicly identified as transgender in her senior year. It was a nerve-wracking moment, but she never experienced any real instances of bullying or harassment from the students, and school administrators were generally supportive. The one area in which she encountered problems was using bathrooms and locker rooms.

“It’s weird when you perceive yourself as female, to be in a room of men all doing the same activity,” she says. “There’s this sense of, ‘I am not supposed to be in here.’ It was a very othering experience. You’re not in the right spot here but they won’t let you into where you think you should be.”

For months, Rowan and her family lobbied the principal to allow her to use the women’s restroom. Finally, he told them it was out of his hands. They followed up with the superintendent. His reply was an outright denial.

For a time, she felt like giving up. Only a few months from graduation, she could easily ride it out and move on with her life. But with the support of local and state advocates like Juchems pushing her on, she filed an appeal with the school board.

In April, Saecker came to the Menasha School Board meeting unsure of the outcome. “There were a lot of people that were against it in the audience. In particular, a certain radio show had picked up the story and was going against it,” she says.

However, the board voted unanimously to allow Saecker and future transgender students to use the bathroom congruent with their gender identity. For Saecker and students like her, it was a big win.

“I kind of feel I’m the straw that broke the camel’s back on this issue. I just showed up to meetings and told them I wanted a bathroom over and over and over,” she says.

For the last few weeks of high school, Saecker was able to use the girls’ bathroom without incident. Now she’s enrolled as a freshmen at UW-Madison, where she plans to study English or computer

It’s telling that trans students with the most positive high school experiences usually end up with the best outcomes, as Saecker’s story illustrates. General trends indicate many districts are, like Menasha, taking steps to become more embracing of students from all walks of life.

In Jamie Nabozny’s former school district in Ashland, progress has placed the community among the ranks of state leaders in terms of LGBT accommodation.

“Ashland, I think, has gotten significantly better from when I was there,” Nabozny says, reflecting on the sweeping changes that happened to Wisconsin schools after his case was settled. “I won’t say that things have been perfect, but the school has been much more responsive, and has really worked to make Ashland a much more inclusive place.”

A new test of the Ashland School District’s ability to accommodate LGBT students has been playing out for the last three years. At its center is Mia Villaverde, who has been attending school as the first openly trans student since she transitioned from her male identity, Logan, in fifth grade.

Now in eighth grade at Ashland Middle School, Mia’s experience has so far been mixed. She’s had several run-ins with a bully, which led to her being home-schooled briefly, and she was ridiculed and shamed for being transgender by an adult volunteer helping her elementary school put on a play. But she’s also had good moments, such as going on her first dates as an openly transgender girl. And, according to her mother, Misty Villaverde, the school district has been very supportive.

“They’re two different people. Logan was quiet and reserved and kind of standoffish, very ‘in the corner,’ just watching everybody. Mia is loud and sassy. She’s happy,” says Villaverde.

Misty says she accepted Mia’s gender identity from early on in her life, but wouldn’t allow her to transition at school out of fear over what could happen to her. It was only after reassurances from family members that their children would look out for Mia at school that Misty agreed to contact the school and request accommodation.

“I called and said, ‘My child is transgender. I want you be aware that she will be coming to school now as a female, and what do we need to do to make this OK?,” she says. “[The principal] was on the phone and he said, ‘OK. She was a boy and now she’s a girl. I understand. We’ll make sure it happens.’

“It was awesome.”

For some, it’s easy to picture trans people as existing solely on reality television, or as celebrities like Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, and leading exotic lifestyles that are alien within the confines of the heartland. But they’re here, too.

Transgender youth go to school in communities throughout the state. Like other kids, they use social media. Some play sports and some date. They all need to use restrooms. However, they are as separate from each other as they are similar – their commonality stems from the notions of gender that society imposes on them.

With another school year underway, it should be asked: Will trans students have safe, inclusive learning environments? And if not, how many will harm themselves because they are different?

 Zach Brooke is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at

Local LGBT Resources

GSAFE A statewide safe school organization working to foster inclusiveness within Wisconsin’s schools.

FORGE Milwaukee-based transgender support group that also offers programs promoting anti-violence, trans aging and diversity training.

Milwaukee LGBT Community Center Adult and youth resource center for LGBTQ people within the greater Milwaukee area.

Diverse & Resilient Milwaukee organization that works to erase health disparities between LGBT people and the general population.

Pathways Counseling Center Brookfield-based clinic specializing in support for people dealing with gender identity conflict.

LGBT Center of SE Wisconsin Resource source center for LGBT people and families located in Racine.

Pathfinders Homeless youth organization in Milwaukee, includes an initiative to provide transitional homes for LGBT youth.

‘In a State of Transition’ appears in the October 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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