When he was in middle school, Ren figured out how to avoid the bullies. He knew he could take the long way around in hallways or avoid certain areas so he didn’t have to hear slurs or the name he doesn’t use anymore.
It didn’t always work, of course, so Ren also faked being sick so he didn’t have to go to school and deal with the harassment.
“There was one point where I only went one day a week for a week,” said Ren, now a freshman at Linn-Mar High School in Marion.
Everything changed when Ren got to Linn-Mar High School and found more of the administration and teachers supportive. He also had more space from the bullies.
“It feels like a weight’s been lifted off my shoulder almost,” he said. “I love school now.”
Attending a school targeted for controversy
For months, the Linn-Mar School District has made national and state headlines over policies designed to protect LGBTQ students such as Ren, but some parents and Republican politicians have pushed back hard over the changes.
Some of Linn-Mar’s prominent critics include Gov. Kim Reynolds and Congresswoman Ashley Hinson, both Republicans. Hinson represents Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers the Linn-Mar School District, where her children also attend.
The controversy erupted in April when the Linn-Mar School District approved an official policy to codify existing practices that respect transgender and nonbinary students’ identities at school. It allows students to create Gender Support Plans and go by their preferred name and pronouns and potentially to use the school facilities that match their identity.
For students in seventh grade and up, their privacy is prioritized, so a teen’s decision on their gender identity is their own and does not have to be forcibly shared with their family, who in some cases may not approve. Republicans like Hinson have pushed back on this issue in particular, preferring a situation that could result in students being forcibly outed by their school to non-supportive parents.
The school board meeting where the policy was passed included about three hours of public comment from the more than 70 people who signed up to speak, most vehemently opposed to the policy.
Reynolds and Hinson also held a private meeting with Linn-Mar parents open only to those who were invited, including one of the school board members who voted against the policy. The purpose was to discuss Reynolds’ private school voucher program, but the school board member said most of the comments were about the policy for trans and nonbinary students.
‘Felt pretty accepted’
According to multiple students at Linn-Mar High School, the teachers have no problem adjusting to using the names and pronouns that make students comfortable or offering their classrooms as refuges if students need to talk to someone or to get away.
“I just feel like another student at the school,” said Dale Nuss, a sophomore at Linn-Mar who uses he/him. “I’ve overall felt pretty accepted. No one has attacked me directly for being gay because they don’t really care.”
“In general, it’s a very supportive school, but there’s that loud minority that tries to ruin it for everyone,” said Dani Kallas, a Linn-Mar High School junior who uses they/them pronouns.
Because there have been some problems. Last fall, during Transgender Awareness Week, that loud minority tore down and destroyed posters. Dani said the students even threatened to bring guns to school.
The administration got involved and that’s the worst it’s been at the high school, Dani said.
Clair Ammons (she/her) graduated from Linn-Mar High School in May and is a freshman at Iowa State University in Ames. Speaking of her high school experience, she said it was comforting to have the school stand up for them.
“As long as they’re willing to protect you, there’s only so much that people can do,” Clair said. “Whereas if they were indifferent and especially actively hostile, then it becomes much more of an environment where probably anyone can do anything to you and there’s nothing stopping them.”
Despite occasional problems, all of the students said they felt safe and secure at Linn-Mar High School.
How do LGBTQ Linn-Mar students feel about all the extra negative attention on their district?
“I was upset about it but I wasn’t surprised,” Ren said. He said he’d also gotten used to his identity being a controversy.
“It hurts,” Clair said. “It sucks seeing so many people so angry at you for existing with very little care for if anything they said was even accurate or truthful.”
Clair said she became desensitized over time.
“And that’s something you shouldn’t have to get used to,” she said. “I just don’t think people should have to get used to people hating them for something they had no choice in.”
They’re all glad the efforts have failed and the school has continued to stand up for them, mostly because all the policy is doing is protecting students from being hurt. Even if that means it’s up to the student—not the school—to inform or not inform the parents about their choices.
“If a student wants to express themselves at school, they have the right to,” Dale said. “If that’s going to put you in danger, then the school has the obligation to not tell your parents because the school can’t just put you in danger like that, and the school doesn’t know your home situation. So, like, why would they want to risk that?”
‘I can be me’
A lot of LGBTQ students, especially trans and nonbinary students, don’t feel comfortable or safe coming out to their parents. Whether they’re worried about physical danger, being kicked out, or having their parents ignore them or try to deny what the student said and change their mind.
“The school wants to avoid as much of that as they can. So they want to make their students comfortable at school while keeping them safe at home,” Dani said.
Dani said parents can be involved in the process, and it’s great when that happens. Dani’s parents were involved when they got their name changed in the system and they said it helped a lot. Especially because it meant Dani didn’t have to pretend to be someone they’re not.
“It’s great for me to feel comfortable telling them this stuff because then I don’t feel like I’m hiding who I am and I feel like I can be me in front of them and in front of people at school,” they said.
Dani compared being closeted to wearing a mask and described it as having to adjust your behavior and reactions for every person you meet to accommodate different attitudes.
“It can be really hard and exhausting to do that, which is why it’s so relieving to be around people who are so supportive,” Dani said.
Either way, everyone said it should be left up to the student because coming out is a big deal and it changes things.
“Even if it’s not necessarily unsafe, it can sometimes make things uncomfortable or make a relationship harder,” Clair said. “Even in a situation where the parent is actively accepting and willing to accept the child no matter what, not telling them can be valuable because sometimes they’re just not ready. And respecting someone’s privacy to wait until they’re ready is incredibly important to a lot of people.”
Clair said she knew people who were outed before they were ready. It led to a massive loss of trust between the parent and the child, which damaged the parent-child relationship and the trust the child had in the school.
‘Just leave us alone’
The Linn-Mar students said they didn’t understand why people were so upset about policies that made other people feel safe and happy.
“I honestly can’t help but laugh because they don’t understand. They don’t understand us,” Dale said. “And how I view it: They don’t have to like me. They don’t have to support me. They don’t. They can talk crap about me behind their backs, they can do whatever they want, but just shut up.”
He said he spoke at the school board meeting in April and was baffled by the adults going up to the podium to yell and say things that were blatantly false.
“It seems stupid on their part that they’re fighting so hard against this because like I said before, this is a change that is going to happen whether they like it or not,” Ren said. “It might just not be when they’re in office, but it’s still going to happen.”
Dani shared similar thoughts.
“It kind of makes me wonder what’s going on because, on one hand, there’s students standing up for themselves and others bringing in factual information. But then on the other side, there’s grown adults yelling at children,” Dani said.
“People being supported for who they are and who they identify as shouldn’t be a problem,” they continued. “It’s not hurting anyone. And there’s always people who are going to be uncomfortable with it, but that doesn’t mean they have to take it out on other people.”
Clair repeated that everyone deserves to have a place where they know they’re safe, which is not currently the case in Iowa.
“Living in a state like Iowa with Reynolds as our governor, you feel less welcome,” she said. “It’s just the fear of how many of my rights are they going to try and take away this year?”
She was referring to the legislative session, where Republicans this year passed a ban on trans girls participating in girls’ sports at all levels, including collegiate. For years, a number of bills have popped up to do things like remove gender identity and sexual orientation from Iowa’s Civil Rights code or mandating that schools out students to their parents. Few go far.
“I’m just tired of being used as a political stunt,” Clair said. “And just, trans people existing doesn’t hurt anyone else. So just leave us alone.”
She said it’s impossible to ignore these conversations because they have the potential to affect her daily life. And, she said she wants to pay attention for other people who can’t or don’t.
“If it was up to Republicans, I would have no rights. And that is not the kind of threat you can just ignore and pretend it’s fine,” she said. “Regardless of what you think, whether or not you like trans people or queer people in general, you know. That doesn’t mean you have to hurt people.”
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