By Craig McCalla
Elementary School Principal, Dexter, MI,
Recently, people across Michigan have been engaged in conversations about diversity in our community that makes us stronger. Some of these conversations have centered on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) Michiganders, including the unique needs and challenges they face. This is a new topic for many of us, and it’s not unusual to have questions. I know I did.
I serve as the Principal of Anchor Elementary School in Dexter, and it is through these exciting and challenging conversations that I’ve gotten to know families of children who identify as part of the LGBTQ community.
I’ll never forget when Peter and Sarah Tchoryk came to me six years ago, when their kindergartener was entering school. Their son Kai is a transgender boy; He was raised as a girl but expressed persistently, insistently, and consistently from a young age that he is a boy. With his parents’ support, Kai transitioned and now lives every day as the boy he has long known himself to be. Pete and Sarah shared much with me about what it means to be transgender and talked me through how I can best support their child.
The truth is I had little experience with transgender children. But I assured Pete and Sarah that I would learn and do everything I could to create a safe and supportive environment for Kai. It wasn’t about our school doing something special for Kai – it was about doing as much as possible to ensure that every child, including a child who is transgender, has a positive, quality education.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about transgender young people, making me a better ally and advocate for all students. Through a local group, The Transgender Task Force, I help other administrators deal with questions around name changes, student records, and issues that transgender students and their families are often confronted with. I like talking to other administrators about the best ways to support transgender students, because often, with just a few tweaks in school policy, everyone feels safer and more included.
A recent study found that fewer than one in ten LGBTQ students in Michigan attend a school with a comprehensive anti-harassment or anti-bullying policy. And there are no explicit statewide laws protecting our LGBTQ neighbors from discrimination in Michigan.
This lack of protections leaves LGBTQ students vulnerable to discrimination. We’ve taken measures to proactively ensure that LGBTQ students are supported at our school, but that’s not the case in every Michigan school. Research demonstrates that 3 in 5 transgender kids were restricted from using the restroom at school because of their gender identity. Around half of transgender students were unable to use their chosen name or pronouns at school.
It’s not just LGBTQ youth I’m concerned about – because, of course, LGBTQ young people grow up to be LGBTQ adults. The lack of protections in Michigan leaves adults vulnerable in many ways. State law doesn’t block employers from firing or refusing to hire simply because of sexual orientation or gender identity. It can’t stop landlords from refusing to rent homes to them. Nor does it bar businesses from refusing service to LGBTQ people.
Thankfully, we’re seeing changes in Michigan. Governor Gretchen Whitmer and outgoing Governor Rick Snyder – leaders from both political parties – agreed that no public employee or government contractor should face employment discrimination. They signed major executive orders prohibiting this treatment. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission last year took important steps forward in outlawing other anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination.
But these gradual, piecemeal changes don’t do justice to our LGBTQ neighbors. And they’re not doing justice for LGBTQ students – students like Kai, who have support at home and at school but aren’t adequately protected in the rest of Michigan. We need to keep pushing, educating, and speaking out about the urgent need for these protections.
Just as we’ve ensured that our staff are educated about LGBTQ students at Anchor Elementary because we want to create a respectful, welcoming environment, we want the state of Michigan to be respectful and inclusive, too. Let’s ensure that Michigan protects ALL people from discrimination, including LGBTQ people. It’s well past time.
Craig McCalla is the Principal of Anchor Elementary School in Dexter, MI. In 2018 he was named a National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principal and in 2017 he was named Michigan’s Outstanding Practicing Principal by the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association.