On February 2, the Manhattan Country School Parents’ Association hosted its second Parent-Led Forum entitled “Childhood Gender Exploration and Community Support of Gender-Expansive Peoples.” After light refreshments we sat for a panel discussion featuring MCS community members Alaina Daniels (Upper School science teacher), Laleña Garcia (5-6s teacher), Daniel Morales (MCS parent) and Kahli Mootoo (MCS PA co-president).
The panel also included Kristen Burzynski (NYCLU legal fellow), Mica Henderson (parent advocate), Asher Sullivan (youth advocate) and Nicole Avallone (clinical social worker).
MCS Director Michèle Solá began the program with historical context, sharing the story of an early survey of gender equity and consciousness at MCS. After Alaina helped us screen a short film about a Brooklyn family with a transgendered son and a filmed interview with a gender-fluid teen, Nicole led us through a Terminology 101 session that explained the concepts of gender identity and gender expression, and how those concepts were not to be confused with sexual orientation. Leslie Cain (MCS PA co-president) led our panel through a discussion of gender in our society, followed by an audience Q&A. Panelists spoke of what it’s like for transgendered and non-binary people in New York City right now, and what it’s like for parents, teachers and allies trying to create space for us all to simply be.
There were many powerful moments of testimony. Parents Daniel and Mica spoke of how they helped their transgendered children safely express themselves and move through the world. Mica made it clear that she can’t concern herself with those who disapprove—her child’s survival hangs in the balance. Teacher Laleña spoke of the empathy work she does in her MCS classroom to create space for recognition, support and mutual respect. Parent Kahli spoke candidly of his own shifts in acceptance as he grappled with entrenched theological teachings and cultural attitudes. Many of us were touched by Asher’s description of his life now that he fully presents as a man and his belief that men’s lives do not enjoy the same tenderness that women’s lives do. I’m sure many of us left the room wondering what we could do to help rectify this.
Nicole made a powerful point, one that was echoed by other panelists and audience members: we all go through the gender exploration process. Some children may have firm ideas of their gender at an early age, be they cis-gender or transgender. Other children don’t begin questioning their assigned gender until later. So the question becomes, how can we create space for our children to become their full selves? How can we, as Mica implored of us, do more than accept, but affirm? As Daniel suggested, we can follow our children’s lead. As parents, “we have to be brave.” Instead of assuming, or enforcing, we listen, we ask, we support. In the meantime, we can follow attorney Kristen's example by speaking up for our community members and resisting those laws that attack their dignity and undermine their rights.