Owen is prepping for the start of his junior year, stocking up on fresh supplies, and setting a goal to get better grades to prepare for college apps.
In advance of classes resuming next week, he’s also started journaling again — a practice he’s picked up to help manage the complex feelings that come with being trans in a public school.
“I make sure that I write stuff down, like how I’m feeling and stuff, so I can cope in a healthy way,” said Owen, a 16-year-old in the Philadelphia School District, who didn’t want to use his last name. “If I’m ever overthinking, or just like, ‘Man, I’m overwhelmed, I have anxiety,’ I make sure I write about it, sit down and breathe.”
Back-to-school season can be overwhelming for anyone. There’s a more relaxed COVID policy on the books and the district is dealing with a persistent teacher shortage. It’s been a record-breaking year for anti-trans legislation across the U.S., with some transphobic policies affecting students in the Philly suburbs. Add on the gendered practices common in all schools, and education can quickly feel treacherous for trans and nonbinary students.
In Philadelphia public schools, LGBTQ students are protected by a set of guidelines called Policy 252, which guarantees their rights to use the names, pronouns, bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. It also protects them from bullying, and enshrines their right to participate in the gym class that matches their gender.
Private schools and youth programming in the city now follow those same rules, after a bill passed in 2019 officially went into effect this summer.
Trans and gender-nonconforming students in Philadelphia say those policies don’t always make a difference in their day-to-day lives.
Jordyn Brooks, a 17-year-old nonbinary senior and athlete at Sayre High School in West Philly, experiences barriers on the field and in the classroom. On the track and field team, they have to compete against the gender they were assigned at birth. Jordyn also said the school’s only gender-neutral bathroom is far away from the men’s and women’s rooms — so far they can’t make it there between classes.
“That wears you down,” Jordyn said. “It’s always a clash. It’s enjoyable, and then at some moments it’s not. Me personally, because of my identity, I never really give too much thought to people who don’t agree with it.”
Owen, meanwhile, said he’d been denied access to the gender-neutral restroom in the nurse’s office because he didn’t have a note. He also was turned away from the locker room and gym class that aligns with his gender identity.
“The staff would be like, ‘You can’t go in here,'” Owen said. “Like, ‘You look too feminine. Your voice is too high. The guys are going to feel uncomfortable.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, for me. It’s uncomfortable to go into the girl’s room, especially considering that I’m trans.'”
Sometimes school is easier than his home life, he said, as his parents have been unaccepting of his trans identity. Owen’s teachers at Hill Freedman World Academy do use his correct name and pronouns, and his friends offer a front of love and acceptance.
Still, he’s bullied regularly at the Northwest Philly school. He’s been called transphobic slurs or made fun of for the way he looks.
Owen said he’s tried to report these issues to school faculty, but the reports never made any meaningful change for him. Policy 252 instructs Philadelphia public school students and their families to report violations to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Youth program and private school students in Philly should report incidents to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.
The School District of Philadelphia didn’t respond to a request for comment on these incidents.
At least Owen has his school’s GSA, aka gender and sexuality alliance. The club provides a forum where students can talk about their feelings and seek support from each other — and Owen depends on it.
Same with Jordyn, who said in-school support helps them stay sane. “Queer teachers are very openly there for queer kids,” they said. “I feel personally supported, looking up to people older than me.”
Jordyn hopes more Philly teachers become educated on LGBTQ issues and learn how to help them. But in the meantime, they’re just working on time management skills to get better at doing homework.
Owen wants to get better grades, too. He’s excited to get back to school because he’s taking a psychology class this year, and is thinking about becoming a therapist when he grows up.
“I would never let somebody feel how I feel, because they could cope much worse and they’ll think, ‘If I’m not accepted here, I’ll never be accepted anywhere,'” Owen said about his future aspirations. “But if one person or a group of people don’t support you, it doesn’t mean nobody else will.”