Across the divide

CVU_BathroomsCVU students lead the way to common understanding in transgender debate

By Geeda Searfoorce | The Charlotte News

When the Obama administration issued a directive on May 13 concerning transgender rights, Champlain Valley Union High School was ready. “We’ve been engaged in thinking about this a long time,” said Adam Bunting, principal at CVU. “So when we got the letter, we thought, ‘Well, of course. It just makes sense.’”

The letter details instructions for all public schools and most colleges and universities to provide transgender students with access to suitable facilities, including bathrooms and locker rooms, which match their gender identity or risk lawsuits or losing federal funding. In its wake, the nation’s ongoing debate about transgender rights was reignited with equal parts passion and vitriol, drawing praise from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and condemnation from GOP officials and some religious leaders.

Bunting is grateful for the quality of the debate at CVU, primarily because it has been student-guided and has generated opportunities for compassion and understanding. “Our dialogue around cultural gender roles started less because of conflict nationally and more because of our students’ desires to explore assumptions and to question them,” he said. “So it’s been really wonderful to have these discussions in a less polarized, more thoughtful way—all because it comes from a place of inquiry.”

One CVU student, Eva Rocheleau, made a short film, titled Breaking Binary (see the full video at youtube.com/watch?v=cpo_MDj4uzE), that examines the issue from a social justice standpoint and includes startling statistics about how gender discrimination affects young people. Rocheleau’s film, which she made during a CVU course, asks a revelatory question: “At what point did your gender start affecting how you saw yourself?” It’s this spirit of inquiry that lays the groundwork for the kind of respectful and productive debate Bunting has noted at the school.

Full compliance with the federal directive is already underway at CVU. “We intend to have gender-neutral bathrooms on every floor [in addition to the gender-identified bathrooms],” Bunting said, “and locker room solutions are on the horizon.”

If there’s local dissent on the shift toward equitable facilities, Bunting hasn’t yet heard much of it. “I did have a discussion with a student who is deeply religious and is thinking about his religious views in context with the changes at the school,” Bunting said. “And he really was thinking about it in context—not in conflict, which was wonderful to witness. He was asking himself, in a meta-cognitive way, ‘If what’s right for me is not right for some, how do I reconcile the two?’” Generally, Bunting says, parents and caregivers are quietly supportive of the students’ roles in leading the discussions.

What these discussions have sparked, however, goes beyond the logistics of how to shift facilities. A school-wide conversation about how gender assumptions affect all of us in previously unexamined ways has begun in earnest.

“Think about driving habits, for instance,” Bunting said. “Our community has experienced several tragic deaths of young males in the past six to seven years, which possibly could have been preventable, perhaps, if the conversations around hyper-masculinized gender roles were more fully taken up. As young men, we are given messages about how pushing boundaries is ‘manly,’ even past the point of safety.”

At a mock crash held at CVU, Bunting addressed the juniors and seniors about that very topic.  He began by asking the students to consider the effects of gender stereotypes on everyday activities, like driving. If there’s an unspoken collective assumption that can cast prudence as an aberration in male interactions, decisions about behavior could have life-threatening consequences. “A lot of times, young men unintentionally egg each other on,” Bunting said, “They could turn to a peer obeying speed limits and there’s an unspoken judgment of, ‘Man, why weren’t you speeding?’” Bunting’s hope is that by putting attention on deeply ingrained cultural ideas, students can evaluate all the forces at work in the choices they make.

Ongoing at CVU, the evolution of the Grad Challenge program will integrate with Personalized Learning Plans to offer students the ability to work on projects, like Rocheleau’s film, that are self-directed and can assimilate real world application of learning during each year of their education—not just during their senior year. Bunting sees the evolution of the program as “a connective tissue” for student development that can deepen their understanding of the world and allow for them to engage with their course work in meaningful ways. “We, in the administration and in the community, always want to be supportive of our students’ learning,” Bunting said, “and shift our definition of education to allow for inclusiveness and thoughtful inquiry. Student-directed learning opportunities open that door.”

Contact: geeda@thecharlottenews.org

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