Berkeley High senior Maxx Bernard wears a necklace reminding people which pronouns to use when referring to them. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley High School sophomore Ellie began identifying as a girl last year. The 16-year-old’s birth certificate says male but, as she entered adolescence, it became clear to her that she was not a boy.

Ellie was homeschooled until high school. At BHS, she was thrown into a new environment where she found more opportunities to compare herself to her peers and consider how she fit in socially. 

“Once I started public school, I pretty quickly became certain that I didn’t — and didn’t want to — fit the mold,” said Ellie. (Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.)

Coming out to classmates and teachers was an agonizing but necessary experience, Ellie said. She told a handful of friends first, then told entire classes, one by one.

“Each time I come out, I feel like I’m a little less weighed down, and I open up a new area of my life where I can be myself,” she said.

Now Ellie is one of the dozens of Berkeley Unified School District students — and about 150,000 teenagers nationwide, according to a recent UCLA study — who identify as transgender (a different gender than they were assigned at birth) or as nonbinary (neither a boy nor a girl). Some of these students feel viscerally that their gender is different than the one most people would expect looking at them. Others reject the idea that gender is an either/or, instead seeing gender expression on a spectrum and themselves somewhere in the middle of, or all over, it. 

The rights of gender non-conforming students were thrust into the spotlight last year when North Carolina passed a law requiring people in government buildings to use bathrooms that matched the gender on their birth certificates. (The law was eventually repealed, following boycotts and a public outcry.) Shortly afterward, the Obama administration issued guidelines that said federal law allows students to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender identities. In February, President Trump issued an executive order reversing those guidelines, in what many viewed as an attack on transgender students. 

BUSD leaders have been vocal about their opposition to the new guidelines.

“We are committed to protecting all students, including transgender students, from discrimination, bullying and harassment,” Superintendent Donald Evans and Berkeley School Board President Ty Alper said in a statement put out in February. “We will protect and provide equal rights to our transgender students whether federal law requires us to or not.”

Every BUSD school has at least one single-stall, gender-neutral bathroom. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

As of this year, every BUSD school has at least one single-stall bathroom labeled as “all student.” It is very rare for a district to install gender-neutral bathrooms at all schools, and particularly at elementary schools — and for some students those bathrooms provide vital security.

Yet despite all the attention on bathrooms, many gender non-conforming students need more than the basic ability to relieve themselves without fear to feel comfortable on campus and succeed academically, students and parents told Berkeleyside. Nationwide, three-quarters of transgender students feel unsafe at school, according to GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey. Those students are more likely to struggle academically or to miss school.

As more gender non-conforming students have come out to their friends and teachers in recent years, districts like BUSD have begun to consider the role that schools and educators should play in supporting them.   

BUSD puts protection for transgender students into writing

Berkeley Unified first officially acknowledged transgender students and families when it adopted the Welcoming Schools curriculum at all elementary schools in 2010. The curriculum, developed by the Human Rights Campaign, includes lessons on LGBTQ families and gender expression and teaches students not to bully or stereotype classmates who do not conform to gender conventions. Last year, California began requiring all districts to touch on those topics in sex-education lessons. 

During the implementation of the Welcoming Schools program, Judy Appel, now a School Board member, was executive director of Our Family Coalition, which worked closely with the district and families.

“At that time, both for LGBT teachers and parents of kids who were coming out, it was not a welcoming environment. We started from ground zero,” said Appel, who has a non-binary child at BHS herself.

In 2013, a couple years after BUSD implemented the curriculum, California became the first state to recognize the rights of transgender students, mandating equal access to facilities and activities like sports. The law does not require gender-neutral bathrooms, but it requires schools to let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice.

Later that year, the Berkeley School Board passed its own policy “to really provide on-the-ground protections for what the state was requiring,” Appel said.

That BUSD policy prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. It requires schools to accept a student’s gender identity, regardless of legal name or gender change, and prohibits them from disclosing the student’s gender to anyone without permission. Schools are required by the state to keep a record of students’ legal names and genders, but the district policy instructs schools to use students’ chosen names and preferred pronouns in all other cases, like on school IDs, report cards and attendance lists. Students under age 18 need a parent’s permission to make the change in the school database.

The Berkeley School Board in 2017. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Allowing students to formally change their names and genders “has really made a huge difference,” said Susan Craig, BUSD’s director of student services. “It affirms that your identity is important and we’ll make it official.”

During the first couple of years after the policy was passed, only a few students changed their gender with the district each year.

But “last summer, a whole bunch of families and students came out of the woodwork,” Craig said, including some non-binary students who said the option to change one’s gender from male to female or vice-versa did not meet their needs. So this year the district began providing a “non-binary” gender option as well.

Now, about 30 students have changed their genders in the BUSD database, Craig said. For the students, the ability to make the change is meaningful, both emotionally and practically. Selecting a gender on bureaucratic forms, in and out of school, can be a major source of anxiety for many students.

Ellie recalled the challenge of filling out her gender on her PSAT, the practice SAT most sophomores take. What for many of her classmates was a rote task, was for her one of the most difficult questions on the exam.

“I was afraid that if the gender I filled out on the form didn’t match school information, I wouldn’t be allowed to get a score for the test. I ended up marking male in that section,” Ellie said.

Maxx Bernard, a 19-year-old transgender senior at BHS who uses the pronoun “they,” said they had to use their “dead name” — the old name that no longer matches their gender identity — on financial aid forms when applying for college. “When it comes to legal stuff, I’m used to that, but honestly it was aggravating,” they said.

What kids can teach the adults

BUSD’s recent programs and policies supporting gender non-conforming students put the district ahead of curve, say transgender advocates. One need not travel to North Carolina to encounter efforts to restrict the rights of transgender students. There have been similar proposals in California. Reactions to gender non-conforming students can range from violence —there are reported cases of transgender students being physically attacked in bathrooms — to discomfort with the idea that someone might not be either a “he” or a “she,” to a plain lack of awareness among the many people and school leaders for whom these are brand new concepts. 

“For most people, it’s a journey” to understanding and supporting gender non-conforming kids, Appel said. “If people aren’t admitting that, they’re not being honest with themselves.”

In Berkeley, a group of teachers and parents, called the Gender Inclusive Schools Alliance, helped get the district to where it is now. 

“What’s written in the policy is one thing,” said Brook Pessin-Whedbee, a Rosa Parks literacy teacher and parent, who started the group. “The actual daily experience of kids is another. We want them to feel welcome.”

The alliance, which also functions as a support group for families, pushed the district to create the process for changing students’ genders and names, implement the all-student bathrooms, and provide stronger professional development. Pessin-Whedbee is the author of “Who Are You: The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity,” which she helped turn into a curriculum being piloted in some Berkeley elementary school classrooms this year.

Though her own child is non-binary, Pessin-Whedbee said her experience as a teacher is what prompted her advocacy.

In the classroom, she often fielded questions about gender — “Are they a boy or a girl? How do you know somebody is a boy or a girl?” — and knew she had to figure out how to respond.

“At the elementary level, a lot of it is curiosity. It is the responsibility of adults to do the education,” Pessin-Whedbee said.

However, she and other teachers have found that adults are often the ones who need the education the most.

“You don’t get to tell someone else who they are. With kids, once they’re introduced to that idea they’re OK — that basic idea of respect,” Pessin-Whedbee said.

Ellie has found that teachers are more likely to “misgender” her than her classmates are.

“I’ve just been amazed by how open and welcoming other students have been,” she said. “My friends have been treating me the way I had dreamed I would be treated: like another ordinary girl.”

That is not to say bullying does not happen or, more often, unintentional missteps by students and adults alike. Bernard wears a necklace with dog tags labeled with gender pronouns, to help people remember what to say. Right now “they” is the tag that is visible, but Bernard can flip to “he” if they prefer. The necklace spares them the discomfort of being misgendered and gently guides other people who feel lost.

James (right), a student at Malcolm X Elementary, and his sibling carry the transgender pride flag at San Francisco City Hall. Photo: Sara Kaplan

For Sara Kaplan, the mother of James, a transgender boy at Malcolm X Elementary, it took some time to understand what her son was going through.

While picking up her child one afternoon last year, another student scurried up to her with an announcement. “Your daughter’s secret is that her inner-person is a boy, and she thinks you’re going to be mad,” the student said.

Not entirely processing what the student said, Kaplan went to get James, 9. She found him with his teacher, who told Kaplan they had had a long day. They recounted to her how James had told his friends he was a boy. One girl refused to keep playing with him and James had run to his teachers, distraught, saying he wanted a boy’s name and boys’ clothing.

Listening to the story, “I was playing it cool, even though I felt like my head was spinning around Exorcist-style,” Kaplan said. She realized everything was about to change for her child and for their family, though she didn’t know exactly how. As they left the school, she told her son she loved and accepted him, but her mind continued to race. She felt worried and ignorant.

In retrospect there were obvious signs, Kaplan said. A few months earlier James had told her he was “half boy, half girl, half gorilla,” and had made other similar comments. 

“He was saying these things to test our answers,” Kaplan said.

On that afternoon at Malcolm X, it hit home for her. James’ second-grade teachers soon sprang into action too, using Welcoming Schools lessons to facilitate his coming-out to the class and teach all the students about gender diversity. The family also requested a “gender support plan” from the school. Using a form from the Bay Area-based nonprofit Gender Spectrum, the school helped James decide who on campus would know his gender, what information he wanted teachers to receive at the start of the year, who he would bunk with on overnight field trips and the like. 

At home, James was like a new person — a happier, more confident person. Kaplan was overjoyed to watch this transition, but also felt she was grieving, in a way, for the person she had thought her child was.

At school, classmates were largely accepting, but there were tough moments too. James, who uses a different name in public than with his family and friends, was bullied by some classmates who told him, “You’re not a boy and you’re not a girl — you’re an it.”

Kaplan knows their journey has just begun. “We’re bracing for middle school, which is hell for everyone. When it comes to puberty and lockers, there’s a lot of anxiety there,” she said.

Unlike many parents, Kaplan has been deliberately public about having a transgender child and the joys and challenges that the situation has produced.

“There’s a lack of education and just fear,” she said. “I want to help parents understand the best thing is to just accept your child.” She noted that she was financially privileged enough to pay for private therapy for James. She is also aware that his experience in Berkeley is starkly different than those of his counterparts in less progressive areas, and she does not want to shelter him.

“As a parent wanting to love your child unconditionally and also prepare them to be in the world, it feels tricky in this area,” she said.

Students and families say work remains

When Bernard began exploring a more masculine identity earlier in high school, they started using the boys’ bathrooms on campus, though they never felt entirely comfortable doing so. Then, when a male student accidentally walked in on them in a stall, they abandoned the practice.

For Bernard, the two all-gender bathrooms at BHS have been a godsend. Others say implementation has been shaky, and that the bathrooms were labeled incorrectly for some time. At recent school board meetings, parents have told stories about kids holding it in all day, having accidents or getting to class late because they have had to trek across campus to find the bathroom they could use.

Some other facilities and resources on campus are still gendered. There are no gender-neutral locker rooms, and at BHS graduation, boys’ and girls’ gowns are different colors. Appel said she would like to see that custom changed. According to Pessin-Whedbee of the Gender Inclusive Schools Alliance, stronger professional development for all teachers and staff is another remaining hurdle.

“I think they’re moving as fast as they can,” she said of the district and School Board. But culture tends to move quicker than institutions. As the student body and society continue to change, the grown-ups will keep playing catch-up.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...