“When I enrolled my son in first grade, I was scared.”
Early on, Alisa Bowman knew her child was different. Born biologically female, her son Ari “was noticeably masculine.” After Ari finished second grade, his mother took him to visit a therapist. At the end of the appointment, the therapist told Bowman: “your son would like you to know that he’s a boy.”
On Sept. 12, Bowman revealed private details about the life of her son during the East Penn School Board to advocate for the rights of transgender students after another student made an appeal to.
Although Bowman has feared for her son’s acceptance as he’s grown older, she now feels that East Penn “is doing a great job” and has “honored [their] privacy and safety and everything [they’ve] needed.”
Ari flourished in school despite his mother’s worries. His fondest memories include winning the Lower Macungie Middle School geography bee and seeing he made Cadence, a selective singing group at the middle school. Most importantly, Ari, who is now a seventh grader at LMMS, has made strong and lasting relationships with people who fully support him.
“I remember all the friends I’ve had along the way, all the hugs I’ve had and all the friends I’ll make in the future because my life doesn’t revolve around me being transgender,” Ari told a room full of supporters at last week’s school board meeting. “It revolves around my family, my friends, everything I love, and all the conversations I have about algebra 1 honors questions.”
Ari, his mother and 15 other supporters of transgender rights spoke at the Sept. 12 school board meeting, following a previous board meeting where freshman Sigourney Coyle voiced her concerns in regard to changing in a locker room with transgender students.
Coyle made her statement in response to the May 15 directive issued by the White House arguing that public schools must allow transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify under Title IX, a law prohibiting gender discrimination in federally-funded schools. Schools that do not follow Title IX regulations risk litigation and loss of government funding.
EHS administrators allowed Coyle to attend summer gym classes, so she can change in the privacy of her home. However, according to Superintendent of Schools Michael Schilder, the district has been “working cooperatively with transgender students before the White House and Department of Justice issued their statement.”
At the board meeting, he addressed the crowd, reading from a written statement that the “East Penn School District abides by all Title IX Regulations regarding the non-discrimination of students.”
Schilder also promised his unwavering commitment to making East Penn a safe and equal learning environment for all transgender students.
“Furthermore, I pledge as superintendent to uphold the rights of transgender students,” Schilder said. “And to support them in whatever way possible with their often difficult personal journey.”
Stories of Coyle’s statement garnered national attention and prompted hateful comments on social media, aimed at both Coyle and the transgender community.
Coyle, who did not attend the September board meeting because “things are already tense,” says her family has received threatening messages following her speech to the board.
When Alisa Bowman saw responses on Facebook “calling kids like mine perverts and freaks and misfits,” she “felt stabbed in the heart,” especially after finding offensive comments from people “I trusted with my son’s care.” Alisa contacted other parents in the transgender community and gathered a group of supporters from across the state to rally behind Ari and share their opinions at the board meeting.
Among those at the meeting were a Philadelphia police officer, a pastor and a family doctor.
Maureen Rush, vice president of public safety and superintendent of police at the University of Pennsylvania, realized her fellow officers needed a training day to understand transgender students’ struggles. In her speech to the school board, she urged the district to set an example of acceptance and empathy for other schools.
“You’re leaders here,” Rush said. “You have the opportunity to be a top leader in this
community and to make sure that everyone is welcomed, and everyone is protected because there is also violence against transgender people across the country. So I hope that you’ll choose the side of love and compassion … and be thought leaders, not only for your school district, but for this entire region in Pennsylvania.”
Rev. Tim Dooner of Faith Presbyterian Church in Emmaus encouraged community members to be more accepting of their differences.
“Jesus told his followers that you will love one another as I loved you first, and it’s an unconditional and all inclusive love,” Dooner said. “… fear shuts down our ability to love, fear causes prejudice and segregation and marginalization and violence and any time we’ve done this in human history, we’ve been on the wrong side of history.
“So I advise us all to listen to these stories and to learn that there is nothing to fear and to choose to live and to act with love instead.”
Local family physician Krissy Bresnan teaches her medical and resident students the importance of “nondiscrimination, nonjudgment and inclusion and acceptance”
“When we try to force people to walk down a path that’s not theirs we do them harm,” Bresnan said. “And so when we don’t practice kindness and inclusion and welcome within our communities, we really hurt people.”
Although spurred by negativity, Bresnan views the discussion of transgender rights as a positive step for the community.
“I really welcome and celebrate the opportunity to have this conversation because I really see this as a developmental stage, as a growth curve for our community,” Bresnan said. “And these conversations directly [lament] our willingness to embrace growth and change.”
Those who attended last Monday’s meeting were pleasantly surprised by the positivity and supportive atmosphere present in the boardroom.
Attendee Mary Creedon, mother of three Emmaus graduates, was amazed at how well the meeting went.
“I’m overwhelmed with emotion of how positive this meeting has been. I came here expecting to be offended or distraught,” Creedon said. “And it’s been so beautiful and so many people have poured their hearts out, and I’m actually just very impressed.”
Alisa, who was admittedly nervous to speak at the meeting, knew that she “needed to stand up,” and is overjoyed with the results.
“There are times in your life where you find out that you need to stand up,” Bowman said. “And this was mine. It wasn’t easy, I was scared the whole time, but I wanted to show that there’s more love in this community than hate. I think we made a powerful showing of love.”
Ari, who credits his mother for the overwhelmingly positive result, “wasn’t actually expecting this many people to come and support me,” but was appreciative of the outcome.
At the end of his speech, Ari gave a message of hope that attendees learned something about “what being transgender means,” which brought some of the crowd to their feet.
“As my mom likes to say, people are afraid of the things that they don’t understand,” Ari said. “[Being transgender] doesn’t make me any less or any more, it makes me me and no one can change that.”
Feature image by Rachel Reed.