This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch.
As a Durham middle school student in the late 1990s, Maximillian Matthews struggled to find his sexual identity. Matthews, who identifies as queer, was bullied and taunted. He felt unseen and unsupported by teachers, counselors and school administrators.
At age 12 or 13, while grieving the death of his father, Matthews considered taking his own life. He decided against it because he is an only child and didn’t want to leave his mother to grieve the loss of his dad alone.
His father’s death, the struggle with his identity and sexuality, along with not understanding what was happening to him emotionally and mentally, sent Matthews spiraling to a dark place.
“It [the accumulation of suicidal thoughts] was a combination of all of that and not having someone to talk to who could understand me,” Matthews told Policy Watch. “It just made me not want to be here.”
Matthews shared his story with Policy Watch less than a week after the Durham County Board of Education unanimously approved a new “Gender Supports” policy to strengthen existing rules against discrimination. Modeled after a policy adopted in Orange County in 2020, the DPS policy emphasizes ways school leaders can support transgender students and non-binary students, who are most likely to be harmed by bullying, taunting, and discriminatory policies and practices.
“What Durham Public Schools just passed would have made a world of difference in my childhood,” Matthews said. “I wouldn’t have been as vulnerable. I would have felt a sense of protection. I would have felt supported by my teachers, my staff and administrators whereas I actually felt invisible and alone and in need of help navigating all of those internal battles happening inside of me.”
As North Carolina goes, Durham is one of the state’s more progressive cities. It has a reputation for being an affirming and welcoming place where members of its LGBTQ community feel freer to live and love as they choose.
But despite the city’s longstanding reputation, some LGBTQ students, like Matthews many years ago, and their parents don’t always feel supported by DPS. Students complain that administrators, teachers, and other school personnel often ignore their pronoun preferences, while some schools fail to provide gender-neutral bathrooms and other resources to help students feel safe.
As was the case with Matthews when he attended DPS schools, LGBTQ students are bullied by classmates and are victims of verbal attacks. A big problem today, the parents and students contend, is that DPS has lacked a uniform policy about how such matters should be handled. The district’s recommended guidelines for addressing LGBTQ students and staff concerns aren’t always followed, and some school leaders don’t know they exist, parents say.
“It’s as simple as kids wanting to use their pronouns in schools and being told they couldn’t share their pronouns in the classroom,” explained Anne Sutkowi-Hemstreet, the founder and director of Rainbow Collective for Change, a grassroots initiative in Durham created to build safe and equitable spaces for LGBTQ+ and gender diverse children and families.
Sutkowi-Hemstreet’s organization helped to steer DPS toward the policy the board unanimously approved last week. She said parents are often told by principals that they can’t implement policies or practices to support LGBTQ students because they haven’t been approved by DPS.
“That’s what school principals fall back on all of the time,” Sutkowi-Hemstreet said. “They [principals] needed to hear that we [the school board] are affirming of you making your spaces gender and LGBTQ-inclusive.”
Parents and students give some schools high marks for creating environments in which LGBTQ students feel respected and supported. Other schools need work, they say.
School board Chairwoman Bettina Umstead acknowledged that schools have different approaches to supporting LGBTQ students.
“The policy creates opportunities for us to standardize a little bit across [the district],” Umstead said.
The new policy is a starting point, Umstead said, and the district will continue to provide and strengthen administrator and teacher training so that they can provide students with the support they need.
“As language changes and how students identify change, we need to make sure that we are in line with the most recent and appropriate language and conversations,” Umstead said.
She said it’s important that students feel respected and supported.
“The policy really outlines what we expect to see from staff when it comes to making sure that we’re respecting students and their names and their identity and what they bring to school,” Umstead said.
Dylan Evans, president of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at the School of Creative Studies (SCS) in Durham, discussed the inconsistencies during a recent school board meeting.
“I fought for gender-neutral bathrooms and respect from teachers, but the problem with these efforts is that there needs to be policy in place,” Evans said before the board’s vote. “These changes are not going to be effective or worthwhile without you guys passing a policy. One or two teachers in my entire school are not enough to create a safe space for the dozens of kids that go to my school and there are hundreds [of LGBTQ students] that exist within the entire Durham Public School System.”
It’s unclear how many LGBTQ students attend DPS schools. Data from the 2020 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System published by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimate there are 63,000 students ages 13-17 in North Carolina who identify as LGBT or about 10% of the children in that age group. Nationally, more than 1.9 million youth ages 13-17 identify as LGBT.
A Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) sponsored study found that four of five LGBT students reported experiencing frequent harassment in school based on their appearance or perceived sexual orientation. Inclusive anti-bullying and harassment policies, supportive school faculty, and the presence of school clubs like Gay-Straight Alliances lead to safer schools and better school performance, the study found.
Kristen Street, an SCS media coordinator and faculty advisor for GSA, told Policy Watch that SCS continues to work out the kinks in the school’s gender-neutral bathroom policy.
The policy adopted by the school board will be life-changing for many students, Street said. Before its adoption, students, parents and school leaders had to create and enforce policies around LGBTQ issues, she said.
District administrators required proof that a school needed gender-neutral bathrooms, for example, Street said.
“Now with this policy having passed, there’s more support at a district level, so it’s not on students to have to reinvent the wheel every time they want to be recognized for who they are at school,” Street said.
The new DPS policy comes during troubling times for the nation’s LGBTQ citizens, who are increasingly facing attacks from politicians and even physical violence. Last month, five people were killed at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs. The alleged shooter, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, faces five murder charges and five charges of committing a bias-motivated crime causing bodily injury.
Despite its unanimous approval, there was criticism of the new DPS policy at the board’s recent meeting, some of it rooted in religion.
“You’re asking Christian teachers that are a part of your system … to wink when you have homosexual boys who want to go into the girl’s room because they want to change their gender,” former Republican school board candidate Victoria Peterson told the school board.
At the same time, however, a growing number of Republicans have joined with Democrats to support LGBTQ equality. The Respect for Marriage Act signed into law by President Biden last week, for example, won bipartisan support in Congress—including ‘aye’ votes from both of North Carolina’s Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis. The law ensures that if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn the cases that legalized same-sex and interracial marriages, the federal government and states would continue recognizing those unions.
Meanwhile, Matthews, who has written a book, Another World, that explores how institutions have failed Black queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people, believes the DPS policy will be transformative for students.
“I look forward to seeing how it’s implemented and the actual actions and training and how the training will impact the curriculum,” Matthews said.
He welcomes the progress made but wishes that it had come sooner.
“This is why I share my story,” Matthews said. “I wish I had heard a similar story when I was a child.”
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