After their meeting’s discussion winds down, students in the Gender Committee gather around member Havien Edmonds, center, to watch a funny video on his phone.
ighty students crowd inside history teacher Kurt Dearie’s classroom at lunchtime with an abundance of pizza, vibrantly unusual hair color and lively discussion.
It’s just another Wednesday at Carlsbad High School’s Gender Sexuality Alliance.
The alliance and an offshoot support group are making fundamental changes in how their school sees, treats and understands students of transgender experience whose gender does not align with the one they were assigned at birth or whose identities are not encompassed within the gender binary of “male” and “female.”
The student committee reflects growing momentum of transgender activism in San Diego. Due to recent legislation, student activists can now demand change, such as the designation of an all-genders bathroom at their high schools. Still, the movement is not without its hardships. The committee, which started meeting this school year, has already experienced despair with the suicides of two transgender students at neighboring high schools.
Fighting that loss includes writing those identities into the history books. The forward momentum of transgender activism motivated a historian from Julian to come out and get involved in her community so young transgender people growing up can see themselves in a history that has too often forgotten their predecessors.
From Gay/Straight to
Dearie began advising the Gay/Straight Alliance in 2002 after a handful of students asked him to. The school administration feared backlash from the community and initially declined the request to start the club.
With Dearie’s committed advisorship, and despite vandalism and harassment that plagued the club in its first few years, the meetings steadily grew.
In 2008, Krista King, a graphic design and photography teacher, joined as co-advisor.
“When I started, there was still a lot of bullying,” King said. “It was still scary for students to cross that line to come into the club meetings and the majority of members were allies, but now more students are willing to be out and visible with their identities.”
Since King’s involvement, she’s witnessed the club grow exponentially.
“GSA has really changed the culture of our school,” King said. “It’s right up there as one of the cool clubs to join.”
The rise in the club’s popularity highlighted the limited focus on gay and straight sexual orientation reflected in the club’s name. Dearie, King and the students wanted something more inclusive.
“We changed the name to Gender Sexuality Alliance last year because that encompassed everybody,” Dearie said.
MULTIMEDIA Kurt Dearie, Krista King and students in The Gender Committee talk about their club’s major goals and accomplishments.
The Gender Committee started as an offshoot support group last fall and has become a hub for transgender activism that influences the school’s policies.
“I lacked a lot of knowledge so I asked the students if we could have a second group on Thursday so they could educate us about gender and also have a place to vent and talk where they can be themselves,” Dearie said. “It’s really a student-led grassroots movement.”
Dearie welcomes the students’ activism.
student-led grassroots movement.”
“It feels more beneficial to have a small group of people, specifically people who don’t identify as cisgender for the most part,” said Fiona Cisternas, 16, an officer of the GSA and the Gender Committee. “To get together to talk about those specific issues and challenges facing them.”
The advisors and students say faculty has been surprisingly responsive, especially under the leadership of new principal Josh Porter. This year alone, students in the committee have gotten official name changes, admittance to the appropriate locker rooms and a new all-genders single-stall restroom.
“We had to get all of the faculty to approve giving up this staff bathroom on this side of the school,” King said. “Some were hesitant because staff bathrooms are limited as is, but we can’t complain about having less when these students have none.”
The all-genders restroom was the student committee’s first major accomplishment as a group.
“Now we have a gender neutral bathroom so non-binary kids can feel comfortable,” said Trinity Serafin, 15, a member of the Gender Committee. “I’m non-binary and when I go into the girl’s bathroom and see a row of girls I’m like ‘Nope, this is wrong for me!’”
Kurt Dearie, left, in his classroom during a meeting of the Gender Committee. Co-Advisor Krista King looks on.
In addition, the student committee frequently has training sessions with staff about the concerns and needs of transgender students.
“We want to do more teacher training, not only with newer teachers, but the older ones with tenure too, who maybe haven’t been trained in five years and don’t know anything about the new demographics at our school.” Cisternas said.
Trainings open a dialogue between students and teachers about the correct ways of handling a transgender student’s concerns, such as bullying, a student’s chosen name and preferred gender pronouns, facilities that student is allowed to use and the elimination of class activities that rely on the gender binary like boys vs. girls games, among others.
“I’m cisgender and I’m privileged.” King said. “Sometimes I catch myself saying things to them that I’ve had straight men say to me all my life like ‘Are you sure you’re a lesbian? Why?’ but about gender, and I realized that’s exactly the wrong response.”
In addition to training their own faculty, the GSA works with California State University San Marcos to train teachers in their graduate program and assists neighboring schools in creating their own clubs.
“We went to Sage Creek [a high school down the road] and helped them start their GSA, which was really cool,” Serafin said. “It was really exciting because we’re spreading!”
In the past few months, two transgender students from nearby high schools, Sage-David and Taylor Alesana, died in separated accounts of suicide. Both were active at the North County LGBTQ Resource Center, which many students from the Gender Committee also frequented.
The club was hit hard with the news of Sage-David the day before a meeting in early March. Students walked into the room hugging each other, some with tears in their eyes.
Forty-one percent of adults identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming report attempting suicide, according to a study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and The Williams Institute.
That’s 10 times more than the overall national average. In comparison to lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide, the statistic for transgender people still sits 10 to 20 percent higher. Across demographics in the study, younger transgender respondents are attempting suicide more, at 45 percent for people 18 to 24.
“Those statistics do not surprise me,” Dearie said. “Statistics show that a first attempt is a strong indicator of successfully committing suicide, and that horrifies me.”
The GSA conducted an anonymous survey of the students involved and out of 50 participants, 14 reported attempting suicide.
Fiona Cisternas, left, discusses their ideas regarding another member’s proposal of starting a clothing drive for transgender people in San Diego, which could include the purchasing of chest binders and/or breast forms.
The shift toward a focus on transgender rights was something Dearie said he saw happen almost overnight, but it seemed inevitable.
“I’ve always had transgender people in the GSA but they seldom have identified themselves that way,” Dearie said. “It’s usually when they come back to visit years later that they tell me.”
It’s a change that comes with shifting the conversation from sexual orientation to gender identity.
“Past teacher trainings would mostly focus on sexuality and now we’ve seen a really big shift towards, not only people identifying as sexualities that aren’t heterosexual, but people identifying with gender identities that aren’t cisgender.” Cisternas said.
More inclusive legislation allows for greater transgender representation in the media and that is having a direct effect on students, Dearie said.
“Because of changes that are happening both in their knowledge and publicity, with high profile people coming out as transgender, they’re starting to come out and express their gender at school; and schools and communities are not prepared for it,” Dearie said. “At the same time, I’m also optimistic because it is that coming out and backlash that will allow it to go forward.”
Dearie says his observation of transgender student activism resembles what he witnessed when the GSA first started.
“Transgender students are where lesbian, gay and bisexual students were 10, 15, 20 years ago as far as the discrimination, the lack of knowledge and understanding,” Dearie said.
Meredith Vezina, a historian documenting San Diego’s trans history, also sees the parallels.
“The transgender movement is really where gay liberation was in the 1970s,” Vezina said.
Through her research, she noticed that the presence of transgender women of color at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots, like Marsha P. Johnsnon and Sylvia Rivera, are often debated because those events were not documented.
Building a History
The historian, 63, works to ensure her community is no longer erased within that history.
At Lambda Archives, San Diego’s archive for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender history located in University Heights, she builds what looks like a television set in their reading room.
“As you can see, I’m sort of a one woman show,” Vezina said.
Meredith Vezina prepares her camera, which she learned to operate while working on her military oral history project.
She met her wife, Ellen Holzman, while conducting research for her master’s thesis at San Diego State University around 25 years ago. They hit it off and wanted to start a women’s history journal. After seeing the lack of funds in women’s history at the time, they focused on military history and continue to do that work today.
Vezina kept her transgender identity private for most of her life after that, living in Julian with Holzman and working on the military history project.
It’s that work that has supplied her with the equipment and funds to produce the Trans* Oral History Project.
After seeing the rise of transgender personalities in the media like writer Janet Mock and actress Laverne Cox last year, Vezina realized she no longer wanted to live in hiding and decided to get involved with her community’s activism. With her background in history, she started at Lambda Archives but realized quickly the lack of resources there regarding transgender history.
Vezina, right, interviews Paul, a transgender man, for the Trans* Oral History Project. He appears on the monitor Vezina set up in the Lambda Archives’ reading room to conduct interviews.
“The traditional oral interview would be like ‘What was San Diego like in the 1970s?’” and there’s none of that for trans people, or very little of it,” Vezina said. “We’re focusing on the present.”
It’s an approach that focuses on building history for the future.
“The value I see here is that 10 years from now, we’ll have something to look back at,” Vezina said.
Having lived separated from her community for so long, Vezina is actively researching and learning about the current practices of transgender activism.
“There’s a whole new way of doing things and a whole new vernacular, and I’m still learning,” Vezina said. “The whole idea of there being a spectrum of people along the binary never occurred to me and wasn’t something I even considered until a year or 18 months ago.”
MULTIMEDIA Vezina talks her motivations, the Trans* Oral History Project and filming the narratives of transgender San Diegans.
The videos will be included in the Lambda Archives and Vezina has also been contacted by San Diego State to share the content. She plans on making these videos publicly available on a website she is developing called Trans* Narratives.
For Vezina, it isn’t just about letting these stories hide inside a resource center.
“I want to get these videos out there so the people I interviewed can say, ‘You followed through, we aren’t just sitting there on the shelf,’” Vezina said.