Rachel Pepe, left, with her mother and brother. Photo by Peter Ackerman/Asbury Park Press/Facebook.
When 13-year-old Rachel Pepe returns to her New Jersey middle school after summer break this year, it will be her first time attending school as a girl — something Rachel’s mom, Angela Peters, says is causing a dustup with school administrators.
"He was going to school last year as Brian," Peters, who could not be reached by Yahoo Health, told the Asbury Park Press. She added that her child had developed stress-related seizures, depression, and panic attacks, explaining, “She would get off the bus and just cry. Then she would go to sleep for 17 or 20 hours and refuse to go back there.”
Now, Peters claims, since informing Thorne Middle School in Port Monmouth, New Jersey, about Rachel’s transition, school officials told her that Rachel had to return in September as Brian or not return at all. And while Peters offered up the option of Rachel using the nurse’s bathroom instead of the girls’ bathroom, she claims that that request was denied and Rachel would be forced to use boys’ bathroom if she attended school. In the interview with the newspaper, Peters also said she was told that Rachel’s presence would upset the school’s boy-girl ratio and that standardized tests would require her to use her legal name and gender.
As a result, Peters is asking for monetary aid from the Middletown Township Public School District in order to send Rachel to an alternative private school more prepared to deal with transgender issues.
Middletown District superintendent William O. George released a statement about the situation on Monday, which said that he had reached out to Peters for a meeting. “Although the student is welcome to return to Thorne Middle School for the 2014-2015 school year, we are now in the process of investigating alternative placements at the parent’s request.… This student is welcome at Thorne, and if she chooses to attend Thorne, she would be treated with the respect and inclusive opportunities that all students deserve.”
Particulars of Pepe’s case aside, young people — and especially adolescents — in the process of a gender transition can face a grueling emotional journey, experts say.
“Between gender identity, body changes, social pressures, and the simple desire to want to fit in, there is an incredibly high risk of self-harm in this age group, and we have to absolutely pay attention to these kids,” Joel Baum, psychotherapist and director of education and training for the nonprofit Gender Spectrum, told Yahoo Health. “They are super, super vulnerable.”
According to the national nonprofit Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 80 percent of transgender students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression. “Often, with administrators, this idea [of transgender students] is new to them, and they’re not necessarily properly equipped to deal with it,” Emily Greytak, GLSEN director of research, told Yahoo Health. “But they can be working proactively to address the issue. Unfortunately, most schools do not. So they’re often put in the situation of having to be reactive.”
Being prepared — such as with information and policy suggestions from GLSEN and its Model District Policy on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students — will serve not only transgender youth, Greytak said, but “a lot of students who may not fit the gender norms of traditional masculine-feminine stereotypes.” The organization’s policy suggestions include schools not requiring proof of medical treatment as a prerequisite to being considered transgender; adopting non gender-based dress codes; and allowing students to have access to bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identities.
When transgender kids are not given the freedom of expression they need, the fallout can been serious, Moonhawk River Stone, a New York–based psychotherapist with expertise in transgender issues, told Yahoo Health. Secondary symptoms, he said, can include anxiety, depression, cutting, or substance abuse “as accommodation to the trauma” of feeling trapped within the wrong body.
“‘Transgenderism’ is a congenital condition present at birth that we don’t know about until the child can articulate it,” said Stone, who serves on the advisory board of the nonprofit TransYouth Family Allies. Once an individual articulates that his or her gender identity doesn’t match outward appearances, “social transition is the first step of intervention,” he said, adding that clothing, names, and pronouns that feel appropriate, can be “very affirming and validating,” and often ameliorate any secondary symptoms.
Stories of transgender youth have increasingly been in the national spotlight lately, due to families sharing personal tales — such as those of 6-year-old Ryland Whittington and 7-year-old Coy Mathis — and also because the national Department of Education decided in April that transgender students are protected under Title IX.
The stories are helpful in educating the public, particularly when transgender issues at any age come fraught with their own set of misunderstandings, Baum said. With the younger kids, he noted, “There is a lot of misunderstanding about the legitimacy, like, ‘How can he really be transgender?’” Adolescents, meanwhile, are often able to articulate their gender struggle in ways that are powerful. “But people can also assume that it’s all about sex, when it’s not,” explained Baum, stressing that sexual identity and gender identity are separate and distinct — something that’s still misunderstood by many.
In Pepe’s case, public opinion has been largely supportive — at least according to what’s been expressed on the Facebook page of the Asbury Park Press. “All students deserve an education regardless of sexual orientation. So proud of Rachel for being who she is and her family for supporting her,” wrote one woman. Another noted, “This is a person, no matter what label/name we assign. Let her be happy, successful, accept and for God’s sake — let her be educated. She is courageous.”