The national debate over transgender rights could affect the future of a local 7-year-old who just finished first grade at Rolling Hills Elementary School in Clark County, but the current frenzy goes largely unnoticed by her.
A federal directive this month about bathroom use by transgender students in public schools has sparked outrage from some Republicans and prompted 11 states to sue the Obama administration.
Elizabeth was born Landon and transitioned to a girl at the beginning of the school year. Most of the community has been supportive, her mother Katie Flesch said, but they’ve also gotten some push back from people they were the closest with.
The family shared their story during dinner at the Springfield Panera after their last day of school. Elizabeth and her twin brother Logan alternate between bites of food and drawing with paper and pencils supplied by their stepsister, Xandria, 14. They run around and have to be cajoled to finish at least half their dinner.
“We’re a normal family,” Flesch said.
The Springfield News-Sun has agreed not to identify the children’s last names because Flesch is concerned about online harassment. The mother fears the kind of rhetoric she’s seen on social media as transgender rights have been thrown into the spotlight.
On May 13, the Obama administration told U.S. public schools that transgender students must be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice.
Local school districts who have transgender students, including Northeastern Local Schools where Elizabeth attends, said bathroom use hasn’t really been an issue.
“We’ve worked with those students on a case-by-case basis,” Superintendent John Kronour said.
Elizabeth used a faculty bathroom this school year and is happy with that solution for now, her mom said. If and when she decides she wants to use the girls restroom or locker room, Flesch hopes the school will be accommodating.
“They’ve just been really amazing,” she said of working with Rolling Hills staff. “We’ve kind of been figuring it out together.”
Kronour said he didn’t want to speculate on how the school would handle a request for a transgender student to use a bathroom that differs from their biological gender, especially because current legal battles could lead to changes in the law in coming years.
“We’re going to follow law,” he said, unless the Department of Education or the school board instructs differently.
On Wednesday, 11 states led by Texas filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the school bathroom directive.
The other plaintiffs are Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah and Georgia, plus the Arizona Department of Education and the governor of Maine.
As a mom looking out for her daughter’s future, Flesch finds these legal battles scary.
“Everyone just kind of needs to think about how they would feel if their child was born different,” she said.
Flesch knew for years that there was something different about Elizabeth.
“She didn’t like things that boys like … Her favorite color was pink. Everything was what you would expect of a girl,” she said.
When her children were entering kindergarten she met with the school principal and counselors to explain that one of her son’s would be bringing a Hello Kitty backpack to school and liked to wear pink tennis shoes. She worried about bullying.
By the time the twins started first grade, Elizabeth had declared that she was a girl. Two doctors confirmed that she was transgender.
“And then I went to the principal and I said, ‘Now I know what’s going on,’” Flesch said. “They’ve nipped any bullying in the bud right away.”
The school has focused on teaching kids to celebrate everyone’s differences, she said.
Acceptance at school is crucial for transgender students, according to Tey Meadows, an assistant professor of sociology and gender studies at Harvard University who has an upcoming book on raising transgender children.
Forcing a child to use a restroom that doesn’t match their gender identity can be humiliating for them and potentially dangerous, she said.
“It’s also a very strong statement to these children about whether or not who they are is respected by the adults in their lives,” Meadows said. “And it’s a strong message to their peers about how they should be treated.”
Elizabeth’s classmates have been welcoming, Flesch said.
“We imagine that kids are going to be much more freaked out about this than they are,” Meadows said. “It tends to be the adults that have the most questions.”
Flesch frequently gets questioned about her daughter’s age, and how a child so young can know their gender identity.
She had the same thoughts, wondering if her child was just going through a phase.
“I didn’t understand it either until I had to,” she said.
After extensive research, she now explains to people that she believes it’s a difference in her daughter at a chromosomal level.
She also puts the question back to them, “How did you know that you were a girl when you were 6?”
There is a large population of children who do know at very young ages that their biological gender doesn’t match who they are, Meadows said.
No one thinks to ask most children about their identity, she said.
“It’s only the kids whose gender doesn’t meet our expectation that we wonder if they can have that sort of self knowledge.”
Elizabeth’s identity can be seen when she’s asked her how she got her name.
“I thought it would be a pretty name,” she said. It’s the name of the little girl who owns Clifford in the children’s books.
Flesch tried to get her daughter to pick a name that started with L so it would still match her twin brother.
“She said ‘Nope. That’s not me.’”