When a 5-year-old – we’ll call her H in this story – changed schools before the end of her kindergarten year, she knew it was because “no one believed me, that I am a girl.”
H was born with male genitals, and everyone thus assumed she was a boy. She knew she was a girl from an early age. At age four her parents let her get a princess dress for Halloween, which she wore whenever she was home. “We took the step a supportive parent would take and let her shop in the clothing section she wanted to shortly after her fifth birthday,” says her mother, Hannah Edwards. “She was elated to have clothes she felt good in.”
Jill Gaulding is co-founder of Minnesota-based Gender Justice, where she works as a public interest lawyer who specializes in gender bias, and currently represents H’s parents, Hannah and Dave Edwards. Gaulding also has a graduate degree in cognitive science from MIT.
Besides the ways gender identities physically manifest in clothing and behavior, Gaulding explains that “research now shows that [biology] is even more complicated than what genitals you are born with. It’s a public misconception and oversimplification that identity is done and decided at birth. People know what their gender is. The best proxy for biological sex is simply to ask people what their gender is.”
H was and is adamant and consistent about her gender identity. So after the family secured a spot at the Nova Classical Academy in St. Paul, her parents helped prepare the school for a student who was gender non-conforming, letting her teacher know she was “not quiet about who she was,” says Hannah. Her teacher said she hadn’t worked with a gender non-conforming student before and would try to prevent bullying.
Classmates teased H for not being enough of a “boy” with her choices of shoes and backpack. Her parents offered to read the students a picture book, based on the true story of a gender non-conforming child, “My Princess Boy,” to help them understand more about diversity – to keep their child safe and educate students so future classmates would be accepted. Hannah and Dave were told they could not read the book to H’s classmates.
The conservative Minnesota Family Council was brought in by “a well-organized group of parents at the school,” says Dave, and a speaker was brought in to the school gym to coach parents on their rights to resist. One group publicly named H; another published photos of her. Some parents claimed that Hannah and Dave were bad parents and H did not deserve anti-bullying measures.
“Standing in a room filled with hateful people saying horrible things about your family and your child should not be something anyone has to face,” says Hannah. “The large-scale events held at Nova were some of the hardest things Dave and I have gone through. No parent should have to publicly out their child in order to make sure their basic human rights are met.”
In time, H transitioned from gender non-conforming to using the pronoun “she” and asked to be called by a girl’s name. Her parents tried to get a forum to re-introduce her to classmates. A date was set, then pulled, with communication coming to them only from a board member who said the family needed to stop being a “nuisance.” One classmate taunted H by saying, “My parents told me it’s a lie that a boy can ever be a girl.”
The parents made the difficult decision to leave the school in the middle of H’s kindergarten year. She transferred to a different school, where she “feels safe and comfortable” as a girl. “We were careful not to discuss the issues at Nova in front of her,” says Dave. “But what she experienced in the school day, … having to switch schools because of who she is shouldn’t be part of her experience.”
Hannah and Dave filed a legal complaint against the City of St. Paul, alleging Nova was in violation of the St. Paul Human Rights Ordinance that protects against discrimination in education on the basis of gender identity and expression. Hannah explains that legally Minnesota has the resources to “support all students without pushing and prodding.” The court case is designed to prevent that kind of discrimination and lack of support from happening again.
They now feel a responsibility, Hannah says, to take a bad experience and “change things for the better. “If there are no consequences for a school to allow a hostile environment,” Dave adds, other students will suffer. The parents and administrators who believe it is acceptable to “play games with real kids’ lives need to know that they will be held accountable.”
“It is clear to us who she is,” Dave says. “And never for a second did she hesitate or question who she is.” There was no conflict with their family and friends in offering support and protection. The only conflict was how the school and many of its parents chose to withhold acceptance. “We wanted to be able to simply talk about how she’s progressing in reading and math. Is she being nice to others?”
Gender Justice’s Jill Gaulding says, “There are three levels of laws that are supposed to protect [families like Hannah and Dave Edwards’] against discrimination by gender in schools, including Title IX, which isn’t just for sports. Minnesota state law has been in place since 1993 offering a full spectrum of protections against stereotyping around gender and gender identity. And the City of St. Paul is clear in its law. All three sets of laws apply in this case.”
Hannah Edwards says a positive from their experience is connecting with the supportive Twin Cities community focused on gender identity. “Our allies during the past year have become some of our closest friends.”