Aidan Key, executive director of Gender Diversity, leads a talk on "Transgender Children in Today's Society: A Conversation" at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library on Thursday.

Aidan Key, executive director of Gender Diversity, leads a talk on "Transgender Children in Today's Society: A Conversation" at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library on Thursday.

Gender specialist: ‘Ground zero is bathrooms, locker rooms’

Aidan Key, a gender specialist and transgender man, has given talks and trainings at more than a hundred schools around the country on gender identity. When a teacher asks “What bathroom should a kid use?” Key said he replies, “They use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. That’s how you support a transgender kid.”

Key spoke to crowd of close to 100 people at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library Thursday night on the topic, “Transgender Children in Today’s Society.” The following morning, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to schools in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter that mirrored Key’s advice.

On restrooms and locker rooms, the letter said all public schools “must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity.”

The letter is meant to provide information on how schools across the country receiving federal funding can stay compliant with federal law Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities.

“This prohibition encompasses discrimination based on a student’s gender identity, including discrimination based on a student’s transgender status,” the letter read.

“Gender identity is the new kid on the block,” Key said. “It’s your innate sense of your own gender. When you’re looking inside, who do you feel yourself to be? What gender do you feel? This is not a term that I grew up with.”

Key is the founder and director of a Seattle-based organization called Gender Diversity: Education and Support Services, and started the conference Gender Odyssey. He grew up in Juneau and attended Glacier Valley Elementary School, Floyd Dryden Middle School and graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1982. He said he didn’t hear the term “gender identity” until he was into his adulthood.

“There is a significant chasm between older generations and younger generations. … Somebody of my generation does not want to hear the words ‘transgender’ and ‘child’ in the same sentence,” Key said. “What’s going on now is a shift in understanding.”

Juneau School District Superintendent Mark Miller echoed a similar sentiment, saying what bathroom or locker room transgender kids use is “more of an adult issue than a kid issue.”

“Kids today have grown up in a society that is generally very tolerant of lifestyles and behaviors that my generation was not. That’s just a fact. They’ve grown up in a media era where they have seen depictions and lifestyles that back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, early ‘70s nobody talked about,” Miller said on the phone Friday.

“As this generation has grown up in a more understanding society, if someone they know is transgender and they know the person and they like the person, they really don’t care what bathroom or locker room they go in. They don’t,” he said. “I think parents though, who have grown up with a different view of the world, have a tougher time wrapping their heads around it and understanding it. And they have fears that, while they’re fears, are not rooted in fact.”

Currently, Miller said the Juneau School District handles transgender access to bathroom on a case-by-case basis.

“Quite honestly, it’s been our experience up to this point that most of our transgender students aren’t real interested in sharing locker rooms of either gender, so often will take PE online or alternatively,” Miller said.

He said if a transgender student were to decide they wanted to use the bathroom or locker room of their gender identity, “we would abide by that absolutely.”

But he doesn’t know of a case where this has come up.

“Up until this point, it hasn’t been a big issue for us in Juneau,” Miller said. “We don’t ask someone before they use a locker room, ‘Are you male or are you female?’ You’d have to ask everybody.”

He said he anticipates school administration to address transgender access to bathrooms in regulations set this fall or winter.

“It’s going to be part of student nondiscrimination regulations that deal with treating everybody with respect and dignity,” Miller said.

The district had Key speak to administrators and school staff about transgender issues.

“I can’t tell you what it means to be here to do this work and have this conversation in my hometown,” Key said.

During his talk at the library, Key shared anecdotes from childhood, growing up as one of two identical twin girls. Like the time he was 9 years old and his mom made him wear a dress to church.

“Auke Bay Bible Church. It’s the time between Sunday school and the church service,” Key said, setting the scene. “Wearing a dress is hard to describe, but ridiculously distressing. Stand me there naked instead, it feels about that awkward and that uncomfortable. Rather than run around and play with friends, I’m trying to fade into the wall.”

While leaning against the wall, he spotted a young couple with kids, and he thought, “I want to get married and I want to have a family, but I don’t want to be the mom and the wife; I want to be the dad and husband. I’m 9 years old, and this wave of despair comes over me because there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m wishing for the impossible,” Key said.

So he tried to make the best of being female, and then in his 20s he saw a transgender man on TV.

“There he is. His wife is sitting next to him. He’s talking about his child. He’s a husband and a father, so what I gave up on at age 9, he’s there living. I still didn’t have the courage to move forward for another eight years, but all of a sudden what was impossible became possible,” Key said.

He didn’t begin his own gender transition from female to male until the late 1990s when he was in his 30s.

His Seattle organization Gender Diversity offers support groups for parents of transgender kids. In his experience, he said there’s no set age for when gender identity is established.

“We’ve got families with kids really young who as soon as they’re verbal are communicating that. Kids when they’re 6 or 6, when they’re 9, when they hit puberty, when they’re teenagers, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. We come to this when we can. When we have that way opened up for us,” Key said.

Key said he hears questions consistently from parents of transgender kids: How can these kids know? Aren’t they too young to make this decision? What if they change their mind? Is this just a phase?

“I can say, ‘Yes, this could be a phase because I don’t have the crystal ball.’ I don’t know where their child is going on this gender exploration, but what I do know is that that child can really benefit from just being heard, from being supported in what can be a really scary time,” Key said.

He also said, “If I were to ask most of you, ‘When did you know your gender?’ You would look at me like I was nuts, like, ‘What are you talking about? I’ve always known.’ But do we afford that same courtesy to kids that are trying to articulate their gender? No.”

While traveling the country giving talks about transgender issues, Key said, “Ground zero is bathrooms, locker rooms.” He said a lot of his work is walking people through scenarios.

He was doing a training at a school where a teacher was worried about a transgender girl using the girls bathroom.

“She said, ‘Suppose this transgender girl goes in the girls bathroom. She goes into the stall, shuts the doors to do her business, and then three or four other girls come in and they look under or over the stall and they see her penis, and they are traumatized,’” Key described.

“I said, ‘I wonder if the student who might be the most traumatized in that situation is the girl with her pants down trying to relieve herself in private.’ What you have there is not an issue that’s related to somebody being transgender. You have a behavioral problem. Is there any time where it’s appropriate for the kids to look under or over the stall?”

He said creating a safe and respectful environment for transgender children impacts all other children in a positive way.

“Transgender people are experiencing such a significant amount of attention, significant backlash and hitting the national news on a daily basis these days,” Key said, “not because we’re so terrifying but because it really inspires this deeper examination of our society and what we consider to be normal and traditional.”

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

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