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For 15-year old Reid Ellefson-Frank, who was dreading a junior year at Williamston High School, the choices were stark: change schools or commit suicide.
He was trying, with little support, to fit in at school as a transgender teen. It was a hostile place for people like him, born female but identifying as a male. Aside from the external struggle, he was fighting within himself — between his mind and body that seemed alien and incompatible.
“When you’re feeling like you’re wearing the wrong skin and can’t tell anyone … . I felt like every time I talked to someone I was being forced to lie to them ... that I couldn’t walk up to them and extend my hand and say ‘Hi I am Reid,’” the now 18-year-old said.
His identity struggle and those of others in its system are what the Williamston Community Schools Board of Education sought to address earlier this month when it passed a new and controversial policy to protect transgender youths.
The board approved the policy, 6-1, which, among other things, allows transgender students to use the restrooms that correspond to their gender identity. The public debate about the policy was contentious and has led to the filing of four recall petitions against board members who voted for the policy.
“I am so incredibly thankful they were brave enough to do this,” said Ellefson-Frank of the board action, who transferred to a school in Massachusetts after his sophomore year.
“I don’t think they expected quite this reaction, but I appreciate they didn’t back down. They did it now. That’s the difference. Acting today versus tomorrow, it could save someone’s life.”
But the new policy does not erase his struggle. Ellefson-Frank fought against his transgender identity throughout his freshman year at Williamston. He overcompensated, keeping his hair long and wearing makeup in an attempt to meet the social expectations of the gender he was assigned at birth.
“I was trying to convince myself I wasn’t trans,” he said. During the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, he explained to his parents and his sister that he was transgender. A family decision was made to protect his safety.
“Together we made the decision not to publicly come out because I was worried about the response from the community and specifically at the school,” he said.
He did work to create a Gay Straight Alliance during his sophomore year and found that Williamston indeed was a hostile place. GSA posters were torn down and defaced. But without a policy expressly prohibiting discrimination and lacking training and education on transgender identity issues, Ellefson-Frank said he felt the administration’s hands were tied.
“I don’t think it was neglect on the part of the administration, I think they just didn’t know what to do.”
“I was shut out. People didn’t want to talk to me, they didn’t want to hang out with me no matter how nice I was,” he said. “Some of the bullying, the most powerful bullying, was the nonverbal bullying.”
Williamston is a small school district of about 2000 students serving a small city located east of Lansing.
“It’s an agricultural town. It’s much more conservative. As a result of that the education about trans people has not filtered through the layers to get to small towns yet. Ignorance breeds fear,” Ellefson- Frank said.
He acknowledged the ignorance about transgender people was not and is not deliberate, that it’s a complicated issue, personally and socially.
The new policy was a response to federal guidance requiring that transgender students have equal access to educational opportunities. While the original guidance from the Obama administration has since been rescinded, the essential directive to protect transgender students remains.
Board of Education President Greg Talberg and the board were in a tight situation in considering the new policy, he said in an interview in October.
He believed that without a policy, the district would be open to a lawsuit from transgender students under federal law. Meanwhile, those who opposed the policy were threatening their own lawsuit.
“We’re really trying to be proactive and pragmatic so that we don’t get stuck in a situation where a kid is stuck in the middle of this,” Talberg said That proactive response, however, has resulted in Talberg along with fellow board members Nancy Deal, Sarah Relanger and Christopher Lewis facing potential recalls for their votes. Williamston resident Jonathan Brandt filed petition language with the Ingham County Clerk’s Office on Nov. 14 to initiate the recalls. Clerk Barb Byrum said the petitions will be reviewed for factual content and clarity at a meeting of the Ingham County Election Commission on Friday.
If the language for the recall petitions is approved, supporters will have to collect 1,145 valid signatures of registered voters in the district for each petition. If opponents of the policy obtain enough signatures for a recall, an election for the recall could be held in May, August or November 2018.
Byrum said if the election is held in May, it will cost the district approximately $9,000 to cover the costs of printing ballots and staffing the polls and tallying ballots. If the recalls appear on the August or November ballots the county would cover the costs of about $7,100, she said. That’s because there are already scheduled elections in those months.
A successful recall could dramatically shift the political makeup of the board.
“Without a doubt, their success in achieving a majority could clear a path, for years to come, for bigotry to be prioritized over the safety and education of Williamston’s students,” said Emily Dievendorf, president of the Lansing Association for Human Rights a local LGBT advocacy organization. “That isn’t a threat that responsible parents and community members can afford to ignore.”
The recall threat has engaged Ellefson- Frank’s mother, Nicole Ellefson.
“I am worried that there is a group of people trying to legislate their specific religious beliefs,” she said. “That really worries me.” As a result she has become a de facto leader of citizens working not only to protect the board policy, but those elected officials that voted in favor of it.”
Reid escaped Williamston to Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an early college residential program in Massachusetts. He said had a similar policy been in place nearly three years ago as he was struggling to live authentically, it might have shifted his entire experience.
“When I think about the things I went through, the biggest thing was the administration didn’t have a plan,” he said. With the new policy, they do he noted. “I would know the administration will have to back me up on this, I would have someone in my corner. I think that, morale wise, is incredibly important.”