Scarborough High School students break gender identity barriers

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SCARBOROUGH — Ev Norsworthy felt out of place as an underclassman at Scarborough High School.

Norsworthy, now a senior who prefers to be called by the gender-neutral plural pronouns “they” and “theirs” rather than “she” and “hers,” identifies as queer.

When that became known among some classmates, Norsworthy was bullied, first verbally, and then physically.

The threat of harassment loomed both in the hallways and near Norsworthy’s locker. More than two years later, rather than storing stuff in a locker, Norsworthy carries books and binders in an overstuffed backpack.

During that time, Norsworthy recalled, it wasn’t uncommon to end the school day with bruises. The abuse culminated one afternoon in a locker room, when Norsworthy was punched in the face and left with a black eye.

“I didn’t have anyone to turn to,” Norsworthy said. A safe space became a dire need.

Classmate Caitlyn McNulty agreed with Norsworthy. Together they founded the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance.

The club, which was sanctioned last year and has about 15 members, tries to raise awareness about issues affecting the LGBTQ student population. But it’s also a safe space that fills a need for some students seeking refuge, acceptance, or simply a place to express themselves without fear of judgment.

McNulty, who is also president of the school’s Civil Rights club, said last week that there’s a “general atmosphere of people not being accepting.”

It took more than a year to get the club sanctioned.

The general understanding, even among some administrators, Norsworthy said, was that “a lot of people were, like, ‘(gender bias) doesn’t happen in Scarborough.'”

Principal David Creech, however, supports the club’s mission and believes it benefits everyone to cultivate an inclusive environment.

Creech said Monday that he is “very proud” of the students in GSA and their “courage and willingness to step in front, and to lead and raise awareness.”

However, GSA is one of only two clubs that doesn’t receive a stipend from the school – although Superintendent Julie Kukenberger said that will soon change.

Integration is key

The need for a group to specifically serve the LGBTQ community was extremely important, McNulty and Norsworthy agreed, not only for the ostracized, but as a way to disseminate information that makes school, as a whole, more of a comfortable place.

“They’re not just trying to provide support for themselves, but for all students,” Creech said.

In order for the club to really make headway, however, and for cultural acceptance to enter all aspects of the educational setting, a complete integration of ideas and experiences has to occur, Kukenberger said Tuesday.

In other words, while GSA provides a controlled setting that comforts LGBTQ students, if there is to be collective progress, everyone must participate in the conversation.

“In order for GSA to be successful, you have to have cisgender students (participating) too. It really has to be a mix,” Kukenberger said.

(A cisgender individual is someone who self-identifies with the gender that corresponds to their biological gender.)

Phraseology like this, as well as learning how to approach conversations with students who prefer to be called a name that corresponds with their self-identified gender rather their biological gender, is not something that teachers in Scarborough have formally been trained in, Kukenberger said.

It’s the reality that “not everybody is trained to have some of these discussions,” Creech said. Since that has yet to take place, it’s a balancing act between supporting students and teachers.

“We don’t want to put staff in the position where they don’t feel comfortable leading certain conversations,” the principal said.

At the same time, to encourage “appropriate, healthy conversations,” training is the only way to ensure all staff are more comfortable discussing these issues, he said.

In June, the Board of Education approved a transgender student rights policy, which includes unprecedented language to protect trans students from acts of discrimination, including guaranteeing a student’s right to choose the  bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

And while the ordinance language includes definitions of key terms like gender identity and gender expression, there remains a gap between the policy and the staff’s ability to comprehend and apply the policy.

Formal district-wide training is tentatively slated to take place in the spring, Kukenberger said.

In the meantime, because “we’re at the very beginning of this work,” administrators are asking students in GSA to “please be our teachers and help us know how to better educate ourselves,” she said.

Gradually, GSA members are starting that conversation.

Making a difference

Following the November elections, GSA officers led a presentation for faculty at the high school that included their personal stories, as well as recommendations for how teachers can make minor adjustments in their classrooms to accommodate all students.

Referred to as acts of “minor aggression” that “occur on a regular basis because of implicit bias or because of normalized behaviors in our society,” Kukenberger said, the goal is for teachers to take reasonable steps that don’t make trans students feel at odds with classmates.

For example, instead of dividing students into groups of boys and girls for a class activity, find a way to divide students that doesn’t correspond to gender, Kukenberger said.

That presentation, which Kukenberger and Creech felt was very successful, will be presented by GSA officers to every advisory class.

And while McNulty, Norsworthy and the other GSA officers – sophomores Dyllan Hinton and Gwen Barry – said they appreciate the opportunity to spread this information, they recognize that even talking about it in the open is a freedom not afforded to everyone that proves there is still progress to be made.

Some students who have joined GSA choose to remain anonymous for fear they will be outed, while others have been forced by their parents to stop attending meetings.

“For us,” McNulty said, “it’s a point of privilege just to sit here and talk about it.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Dyllan Hinton, left, Caitlyn McNulty, Ev Norsworthy and Gwen Barry are officers of the Scarborough High School Gender and Sexuality Alliance. McNulty and Norsworthy started GSA, which was sanctioned a year ago by school administrators.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.