'The problem is with them, not you,' says mother of Red Lion trans student

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

Red Lion Area Senior High School initially seemed like a welcoming place when Stephanie Smith's son, who came out as transgender about a year ago, registered for classes earlier this year.

The boy, whose name is being withheld to protect him from possible reprisal, faced discrimination and hostility in many other places — including from his father. But school staff didn't slip up once on his pronouns, Smith said.

"[They've] been completely supportive from the registration on," she said.

But then came the Dec. 1 school board meeting where Red Lion Area school officials issued an emergency directive requiring transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificates or, alternatively, to use a gender neutral bathroom, such as in the nurse's office.

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For Smith and her son, it felt like the rug was pulled out from under their feet.

The boy did not know about the directive until a week later, when a vice principal pulled him aside. The vice principal called Smith later that day to inform her, as well. 

“The whole thing is dirty and underhanded,” Smith said, adding that it was like the board knew what it was doing was wrong.

Red Lion high school's homecoming in Red Lion on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022.

The new policy comes in the middle of an already fraught time for the boy, as his father — with whom he was living until January — was not as accepting. Smith said, "He’s not supportive.”

The student has had little contact with his father since. 

When he came out, Smith warned him about the challenges. 

"This is not an easy path," she recalled saying, advising him of possible outcomes, such as his dad disowning him or other people hating him just for trying to be who he is. 

“The problem is with them, not with you,” she told him. 

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When her son came out to her about a year ago, Smith was not shocked.

“Because him coming out wasn’t that big of a shock,” she said. “I’ve kind of known since he was two.”

At that age, Smith said, her son would throw a fit if someone put him in a dress. Hot Wheels were his favorite toy. 

On the day she and her son were informed of Red Lion's new policies concerning transgender students, Smith said, she immediately looked on the district's website. She couldn't find anything about the policy.

An all gender restroom sign at Archetype Pizza in York City, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Smith's son said another transgender student he knows was unaware of the change. That student didn't know because the school is unaware she transitioned, he said.

He added that most students, regardless of their gender identity, are unaware of the directive.

For months, his gender wasn't an issue. No one cared that he used the boys' bathroom.

“Now, it seems like they are trying to make it an issue,” he said.

Few people seemed to care much, he said, because few people knew he was transgender. There were whispers, he said, but no one said anything to him or bullied him. 

But he never felt uncomfortable in the bathroom, even with the fights and vaping he saw — normal high school behavior. "That's freshmen being freshmen," he said.

"There are other times I had to dodge a swing walking out of the bathroom,” he added, but that wasn't related to his gender identity.

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Smith now worries that if her son has to use the girls' bathroom, he could frighten the other students.

It would also out him as transgender, she said, and leave him vulnerable to bullying.

“You’re outing my kid,” she said of school officials. “What are you doing?”

She also wondered how many people watch what bathroom another person uses.

The gender neutral option could also draw attention, she said, because students must walk across the school building to use the bathroom in the guidance office.

Smith's son said the plus side is that the gender neutral bathroom is nice, clean, smells good and has good soap.  But he also has to waste at least 10 minutes to get there and back, causing him to miss class time. Now, he tries to avoid going to the bathroom at all while he's in school.

Red Lion Area Senior High School after the lockdown was lifted due to a potential gunman was found in the area in Red Lion on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.

“Why do I have to be the one that has to go out of my way to adjust to other people’s unreasonable fears?” he asked. 

The student said transgender students aren’t doing anything in the bathroom other than going to the bathroom and getting back out.

Smith said her son was visibly depressed on the day the vice principal pulled him aside to inform him of the policy. He came home, talked very little and went right to his room. 

She went in and told him she was going to fight for his rights.

"I don’t know if you want me to fight this hard for you, but at this point, I’m not only fighting for you," she recalled, in a Zoom interview with her son beside her.

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Smith's son said the ruling angered him because it targeted transgender students for being themselves. 

“We didn’t choose to be gay; we didn’t choose to be trans,” he said. “It’s who we are. So why are people coming after us?”

The teachers and administration are trying to be helpful to the student while this happens, he said. They are offering counseling and anything else he needs to ensure he still feels safe and comfortable in the school. 

FILE - Philadelphia's altered gay pride flag is seen outside City Hall on  June 19, 2017, in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania government regulations would be revised with extensive definitions of sex, religious creed and race under a proposal set for a vote on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022 — a change some Republican lawmakers see as an overreach on a subject they think should not be addressed without legislation. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

But it still hurts.

He had to suppress who he was for so long, he said, and he's finally comfortable in his skin.

His mom said there was a difference between now, where he dances when he comes home, and before, when he tried his best to be invisible. 

“It’s because he’s comfortable in his own skin,” she said. 

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Since the directive came out, Smith has done some research. She learned about 2013 Red Lion graduate Issak Wolfe. The administration at the time ran Wolfe's birth name on a prom queen — not king — ballot. They also threatened to use his birth name at his graduation ceremony.

The American Civil Liberties Union intervened, and the administration backed down from the graduation ceremony threat.

Now, the ACLU is stepping up again.

On Friday, the group called on the Red Lion Area School District to reverse its policy restricting which bathrooms and locker rooms its transgender students can use. Its lawyers said the policy discriminates against students on the basis of sex and is a violation of both the U.S. Constitution and Title IX. Continuing to enforce such a policy, the group said, is "putting the school district at serious risk of liability."

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Smith said she wants to view the situation optimistically and hopes the district will back down and do the right thing. Had she known about the policy sooner, she said, she would have spoken out and perhaps petitioned the school. 

Now, Smith said she's considering the possibility of legal action — if it does come to that.

She's also aware she might be in this fight for the long haul. She will be at every school board meeting until the issue is settled.

Meanwhile, the policy continues to cause distress to the district's LGBTQ students.

“Why are we seen as evil?” Smith's son said. “We’re living how we are.”

He added that sex isn’t gender. What matters is not what is between someone’s legs, but rather what’s in their heads. 

The student only uses the gender neutral bathroom but hasn’t seen any teachers or anyone guarding the bathrooms. 

Smith said lawsuits are not off the table, but she hopes it doesn’t come to that. 

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.