When it comes to talking about gender identity in schools, Peter Tchoryk has seen how it can work firsthand. He and his wife, Sarah, visited his son’s second-grade classroom last year to help students understand that Jacq Kai, 8, is transgender.
At the Dexter, Michigan school, with the Tchoryks present, Jacq Kai’s principal, Craig McCalla, and teacher, Debra Eber, explained what transgender means. It is a difference, one of many differences people can have, they said.
Students had surprising reactions, Tchoryk said. Rather than asking questions, they had comments. They pointed out things about themselves that didn’t line up with “girl” or “boy” characteristics.
“It was spectacular from a number of different standpoints to see the response of the kids,” Tchoryk said in a recent interview with School News Network. “It was all about their differences.”
Many opinions, beliefs and confusion swirl around the topic of gender identity and how schools should address it. In the eye of that swirling cultural storm, educators are looking for guidance on how to better understand and support students across the gender spectrum. They now have direction from the Michigan State Board of Education through its recent approval of controversial, voluntary guidelines for schools…
That was the extent of the discussion, he said. Students moved on to the next subject.
“They had their fears, their insecurities because of their differences. This kind of helped them to validate it’s OK to be the way you are. That is a message I wish we could get out to parents who are so worried.”
Parents of Jacq Kai’s classmates reached out in support, he added. “The experience was overwhelmingly positive.”
But because of his ongoing advocacy for transgender youth, Tchoryk has faced negative backlash and harsh criticism, much of it directed through social media. Rather than shun the spotlight, the family decided to continue to speak out and help dispel misinformation.
“We knew that telling our story would help all the kids who couldn’t, who didn’t have a voice,” he said.
Now Tchoryk, who admits he didn’t think much about transgender people before Jacq Kai, has spoken out through various media outlets to bring a face to the issue of addressing the needs of LGBTQ students. They face higher incidents than other students of violence against them, bullying, anxiety and depression and attempted suicide.
Tchoryk attended Gender Spectrum’s training on gender-inclusive schools recently at Kent ISD. He said even in a supportive school district like Dexter, his family had to hunt for information and research science behind being transgender and best practices to address it in schools.
A Voice for Transgender Youth
Tchoryk served as a source during the State Board of Education process in working on the draft statement and voluntary guidance to make best practices commonplace. The process triggered a firestorm of response, which was considered in redrafts.
“There are so many groups that had input into this,” he said. “Our view is that we care about every kid and that’s the whole theme of public schools. They provide for every child. We want to make sure the guidance addresses not just the LGBTQ community and youth but how that will impact other kids.”
Tchoryk said he’s optimistic and overjoyed that the guidance passed.
“I know that it will save kids’ lives. We are aware of many, many kids who are suffering. A large part of it was due to the fact that there just wasn’t guidance to help schools.”
He said he’s confident school environments will improve for “the most vulnerable of the vulnerable” and every other student.
“I believe it will end up making the school experience better for all kids — not just LGBTQ, not just the marginalized kids, but every kid will benefit,” he said. “I think we can create this culture where kids care more about each other and those in need.”
Sharing His Experience
Tchoryk continues to share his story. His blog begins with: “Hello, world. I’m the dad of a transgender kid. I’m hoping our story will open some hearts and minds, much as ours were opened by our son.”
Jacq Kai, named Jacqueline at birth, first informed his parents he was not a girl at age 2, and continued to insist on it after that.
“We thought we had an extremely serious tomboy on our hands,” Tchoryk said.
But it wasn’t a passing or casual thing. “It never stopped. From that point on it was a refusal to wear anything that looked like girls’ clothes.”
Jacq Kai was miserable as a girl, Tchoryk said. “It was awful. He was in despair a lot of the time.”
They eventually let him wear boys’ clothes and get his hair cut. But by the time Jacq Kai was 4 1/2, the family was still struggling. “I was the one who would take him to daycare and preschool in the mornings and I would see these horrible tantrums.”
The problem was people in public were still referring to Jacq Kai as Jacqueline. Tchoryk talked to teachers about changing pronoun usages, and after his classmates began referring to him as a boy, Jacq Kai was happy. He began kindergarten as a boy.
“We were very fortunate. That’s one thing we keep emphasizing to people. We had a great principal … Top to bottom, in Dexter schools they were supportive. They said, ‘We create a safe and supportive environment for all kids, so this is not a problem.’ So that’s the way it was.”
Ultimately, that’s what Tchoryk wants for all students. Having a transgender son helped him realize that.
“It opens your eyes to all the marginalized communities out there and anybody with differences, because you see the world through your kid’s eyes,” he said. “That is maybe what we really need to say. Don’t be afraid of this.
“A lot of times we go through our whole lives and we just don’t stop to see what other people are going through. When you do, when you stop, when you realize it, your perspective on life changes.”