A student of mine, Lona Tehrani, wrote a superb college essay that deals with the transgender restroom issue that recently has gotten so much press. This essay won a regional Silver Key award from the Scholastic Artists and Writers contest, the oldest and most prestigious art and writing contest for youth in grades 7 – 12 in the United States. The western region is comprised of 8 states.
Here is the essay. I believe this speaks volumes about this issue in the most human of ways. I am posting this with the permission of Lona, who will be attending Barnard in New York City in fall, 2016.
I wanted to hide that I was Persian when I found myself drawn to Jordan, a transgender male. Even though we were both attending the Gay-Straight Alliance Network’s Advocacy and Youth Leadership Academy, I was afraid he would regard me skeptically rather than see me for myself. After all, my culture is known to be LGBTQ phobic, and Jordan, born female, was now in the transitioning process to become a male. However, I soon learned that we shared a love for bagels and chemistry, and over the two days of the conference we became friends.
As a teen I knew that being judged in high school was hard, but Jordan’s experience was exceptionally difficult. What shocked me was his humble reply when I asked what I could do to be helpful. “Just be there to hold a hand. Support makes you feel like you’re living in your own body. That you’re not a fraud.” The word fraud brought me up short. In traditional Persian culture it was, in fact, more acceptable to be a fraud regarding sexual preference and identity than to buck the status quo.
My grandparents are prime examples of the rigid mentality among Persians regarding sexual orientation. If I mention that a family friend’s son is gay, they shake their heads, rejecting that idea completely. The idea of someone they know being transgender is beyond the realm of possibility. Even with my more Americanized parents, this belief persists to the point that if one of my family members came out as gay or transgender, there is a high probability that person would be forever erased from the family. It is as if sexual preference or identity is the determining factor of a human being’s legitimacy. As much as I love my family, I am appalled by this archaic attitude. While I feel grateful that I do not have to resort to secrecy since I was born with a sexually “acceptable” identity, I cannot help but feel ashamed about all the shame.
I felt compelled after meeting Jordan to do something to increase awareness of gender identity issues. As one person, I realized I was not capable of tackling this weighty issue on a macro level. These are deep-seated biases not just in the Persian community, but also in most parts of the world. However, after a conversation with Jordan, I came upon an area that could affect a small, but meaningful change. He confided that “for safety reasons” at school he used the girl’s bathroom because when he used the boy’s, the guys “could be very aggressive.” As a result, I decided to target a problem within the problem: gender neutral restrooms.
After talking to other transgender students, various bullying organizations, and the Transgender Law Center, I decided to organize a noon-day presentation for faculty and staff at my school to address this issue. Our Head of School and the Head of Upper School attended along with many teachers and students. I could see that I was not alone in recognizing that one small change might produce greater changes over time. With the help of my school’s administration, my tiny “cause” soon became a reality. I am proud to say that Brentwood now has a gender neutral restroom in the library of our school for anyone who prefers more privacy.
Through knowing Jordan I have stopped worrying if people are automatically categorizing me simply because of my cultural background. I, like him, cannot change who I am, nor do I want to. While Jordan continues to challenge cultural pressures to be a certain way; I am learning to challenge cultural pressures to think a certain way. Though our paths are vastly different, our journey is to the same destination: our true identities.
I am now aware of the benefit of “holding a hand.” Connection. Caring. Community.
I am amazed at just how profound such a simple gesture can be.