It was a drama-free coming-out when the student’s request to have his school email address changed from Chelsea Williams to Callum Williams was granted.
“It was a great way to spread awareness that there are transgender people out there,” said Callum, a recent graduate of Kent ISD’s Innovation High School. “It was very cool to have that recognized. It was like, this is happening.”
Indeed. Innovation High Principal Kym Kimber said openness and respect for gender diversity has come a long way.
“I’ve been in education for 18 years and I really do see that acceptance increasing,” Kimber said. “Thirty years ago, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The comfort level among students and faculty is increasing, based on my observations here at my little piece of the world.”
|What it Means to be Transgender
The number of transgender people living in the United States is unclear. The most widely cited figure is 700,000, based on a 2011 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA Law School. Their experiences have recently come to the fore with the widely publicized coming-out of Caitlyn Jenner, the former Bruce Jenner of Olympics fame.
Callum remembers considering himself a boy at very young age, when the traditional after-school activities for girls were unsuited for him for reasons that went beyond simple preference.
“I didn’t fit in with the girls,” Callum said. “I was always happiest when I was out with the boys. I stopped going to ballet when I was 11. I didn’t fit in there and I didn’t fit in at 4-H.”
Recognition of his gender identity set in when Callum watched the 1978 movie, “Grease.”
“I knew I liked Olivia Newton-John better than John Travolta,” Callum said. “What makes me male is I know on the inside who I am. I consider myself a heterosexual male.”
Pockets of tolerance are expanding for transgender people, but attitudes of intolerance and misunderstanding make the road to acceptance bumpy, said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project.
‘What makes me male is I know on the inside who I am.’ — Callum Williams
In 2014, for example, California became the first state with a law spelling out transgender student rights in public schools, including the ability to use restrooms and to play on sports teams that match their expressed genders. Another 13 states prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in schools.
Michigan is not one of those states, but that doesn’t mean civil rights organizations here aren’t working on the issue. The ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project initiatives include: advocating for gender identity in nondiscrimination laws; raising awareness of the harm transgender people face; and filing lawsuits to change laws biased against transgender people in employment, schools and public accommodations.
The family of a 14-year-old transgender boy from Wyandotte filed suit against several school districts last year, claiming discrimination by staff and a failure to protect him from bullying by students. The ACLU is not involved.
With school districts, the ACLU of Michigan wants accommodations for transgender students to include adopting bathroom policies allowing students to use whichever one they want based on their gender identity.
‘This issue is not going away. Trans people are more visible and coming out every day.’ — Jay Kaplan, ALCU of Michigan
According to the ACLU, additional policies that foster respect for all students include:
- Teachers and administrators addressing students by the name and pronoun that corresponds to their self-identified gender;
- Participating in physical education and sports in accordance with students’ proclaimed gender identity;
- Wearing clothing at school and at events such as prom that is in harmony with their gender identity.
Schools Are Adapting
“Michigan doesn’t have any official policy or law regarding transgender issues,” Kaplan said. “Most public schools have adapted quite well with this and are doing the right thing. We’re talking with school districts to be a little more progressive with these issues.
“This issue is not going away,” he added. “Trans people are more visible and coming out every day.”
They are people such as Callum, who said he’s fortunate. He’s faced only a handful of challenges, including some name-calling when he was younger and not being allowed to use the school restroom of his choice.
“Legally I cannot use a men’s bathroom, so in school I have to use the staff bathroom, which is a walk down the hall at KCTC (Kent Career Technical Center),” Callum said. “It’s kind of strange, but it is what it is.
“In California, you can use whatever bathroom you want,” he added. “I haven’t used a women’s restroom in over three years. I refuse to use the women’s restroom because I know I’m not a woman. I know I’m a man. That is just asking for basic rights, and I don’t think that’s much to ask for.”
Callum’s hometown is Freeport in Barry County. He intends to move to Grand Rapids now that he’s graduated from high school, and says he is glad he did not wait until he was older to acknowledge his gender identity.
“I knew I had to be true to myself,” Callum said.
Mom Biggest Supporter
It was a poignant moment when he requested, and his mother agreed, to select his new name when he was a sophomore. She also supported publication of this story.
“My parents are very accepting of the LGBT community,” Callum said. “When I wanted to be transgender, it was tough for them for a couple of months. But, honestly, my mom is my biggest supporter. She asks me questions all the time. Through it all she understands it.”
Callum said he plans undergo gender reassignment surgery later in his life. According to Kaplan, Michigan allows such operations when a person reaches 18, when minors cease legally to be considered children and can assume control over their bodies, actions and decisions.
Callum’s post-high school plans include traveling the world and enrolling at Grand Rapids Community College to study graphic design. He said he would like to be a public speaker for transgender youth.
“I’m an everyday person,” he said. “This wasn’t my fault. I’m just like everybody else. I’m going to live my life and hopefully teach people to be accepting of who I am and of others.”