No Parent Protest Because They Agree or Because They're Afraid?

When I was in high school my mother took my brother and I to Providence, RI. The beautiful town was, unbeknownst to my mom, a hot spot for the homosexual community. We saw bright rainbow flags adorning the stores and drag queen shows were offered nightly. As a teenager, I was taken aback by the unfamiliarity of the culture contained in the town. One afternoon while standing on the sidewalk with my mother and brother, I recognized a familiar face. I saw a teacher from my school walking the streets. He was wearing tiny shorts, blowing bubbles and moving with a swish in his steps and sway in his hips. Without him saying a word, I instantly had a look into his private life. As an adult looking back on that moment, I appreciate the discretion my teachers practiced at school. I graduated from a Connecticut high school in 1999. At that time I was aware my teachers had lives and relationships outside of school. However the boundary line between personal and private was strongly present.

I thought about that when I read in the Hartford Courant that Avon English teacher Dusty Rader announced to her students she is transgender. The Hartford Courant reports she shared this in the context of a school-wide discussion on bullying, tolerance and HB2, North Carolina’s ‘bathroom bill’, requiring individuals to use the bathroom that correlates with their given gender.

Rader, who is 25, felt this was the time for her to go public. She told the Hartford Courant, “It’s important for young people to know that it’s OK to be transgender because it’s “nothing to be ashamed of or to hide.”

In reference to the ‘bathroom bill’ in NC, Rader said, “This is something that actually affects me. I can’t go to North Carolina anymore if I want to feel safe.”

Along with sharing her safety fears, Rader opened up about her time attending public high school in CT. Rader tells the Hartford Courant she made the intentional decision to stop using the bathrooms at school. She said, “I didn’t want to put myself in the position where I might be attacked for going into the wrong bathroom.” Rader said she ‘held it’ for as many as 12 hours unless she was desperate enough to use a single-stall bathroom in what the Court refers to as an “obscure wing of the school.”

In spite of that, Rader flourished as President of the Drama Club and Vice president of the Gay Straight Alliance at the school. She said she was never bullied and had plenty of friends.

Rader had a lot of support then and now. Her father, Robert Rader is executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. Robert Rader shares with the Hartford Courant his experience discovering his daughter was transgender and his acceptance of it. Along with Robert Rader, Avon High school principal Christopher Tranberg supports Dusty’s decision because he wants to provide the school with a big picture message of tolerance. State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell, Rader’s former mentor stated, “I think he’ll do a lot of good for educators and for kids by telling his story openly and publicly.”

Dusty Rader says representation matters and she wants to be a voice on behalf of transgender students. Since her declaration, Rader may indeed become someone students struggling with their gender identity look to for help. However it’s important to realize that her admission may help some and hurt others. Rader isn’t just sharing her own story. As an authority figure over impressionable students, she’s shared her established world views on gender and sexuality. It was only in 2012 Gender Identity Disorder was changed from a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association and relabeled Gender Dysphoria, in a move to destigmatize it. Rader shared her beliefs on sexuality and gender as established facts when there is still great debate over those ideas in society. These topics should be approached with great sensitivity as what is taught in schools may not align with what is taught in the homes of students.

In addition, Rader’s story about her personal experiences using the bathroom in high school is being woven into the debate on whether or not transgender individuals should use the bathrooms of their choice.

Dusty Rader described feeling unsafe traveling to North Carolina, but there are likely students in Avon High School who feel unsafe with the possibility of their private spaces being opened to opposite sex students. I work with young adults of high school and college age. A college student came to me distressed over men being allowed to shower in the women’s bathroom at her university. Another girl shared her fears with me about boys coming into the girl’s bathroom at her high school. These girls talk to me privately but haven’t told their teachers or administrators. Is there any wonder, why?

There may be students who respect Dusty Rader’s decision, but because of her admission and the overwhelmingly positive public reaction and support, might feel uncomfortable expressing their discomfort at the idea of bathrooms changing. How ‘safe’ will these students feel to share an opposite opinion when school authorities and officials are sharing their strong voices of support? Dusty Rader has gone public, but how many others will feel the social pressure to keep their views private?

Avon High’s principal Tranberg says he wants an environment of tolerance where different opinions are cherished, yet what is being done to make sure all voices are accounted for? He states in the Hartford Courant that he didn’t hear anything from parents after Rader’s announcement was made. Tranberg may see that as a sign all parents are unbothered by the dialogue but silence can also signal fear. In a nation that labels those who don’t celebrate the transgender community as ‘transphobic’, how many parents will give a differing opinion on these topics?

The pressure to stay silent is also influencing teachers. Robert Rader, president of the CT Board of Education is a parent supporting his child, but he’s also an influential leader. If teachers object to bathroom changes, how confident will they feel to approach the Board of Ed in light of the President’s daughter’s admission? In fact, how confident will they feel to talk about it at all?

Principal Tranberg says he doesn’t want anyone who is different to feel isolated but as he seeks to increase tolerance, will those who disagree with the currently prevailing view be labeled as intolerant? Everyone deserves to feel safe in their bathrooms. Rader is coming public with her fears, and her fears should be respected, but it is important for people in positions of authority to understand and take into consideration, that Rader isn’t the only one who has them.