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What happens when the first transgender kid comes out at school

Kylie Clifton (right) and her mom, Ginger, talk about Kylie's transition and life as a transgender girl.
Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
Kylie Clifton (right) and her mom, Ginger, talk about Kylie's transition and life as a transgender girl.

Kylie Clifton has long, thick waves of blonde hair, the same sandy shade as her mom's.

And the day Kylie's mom took her to the salon to get those hair extensions – that was a big day. And not just because, for the first time, Kylie felt really pretty.

"Today is the first day of the rest of my life," 11-year-old Kylie posted on Instragram that evening.  "So happy I don't know what to do with myself."

Just a few months before, Kylie was still living as Kyle – an earnest, thoughtful boy who struggled with anxiety.  

In the weeks leading up to those hair extensions, the Cliftons told a small but growing circle about Kyle’s gradual transition to Kylie.

But the hair marked a new phase. An end to keeping the wigs and girl’s clothes at home for after school or just the weekend.

Because the next day, everybody at school would know: Kyle was now Kylie.

“I couldn’t chicken out,” Kylie says, looking back. “I’m not very good with decisions, so I couldn’t just take them [the extensions] out that next morning and just put it off for another day. As if I thought I wasn’t ready.”

Getting ready

That past Christmas, before Kyle ever told a single person he was, in fact, a girl, his parents felt like Kyle’s anxiety was becoming increasingly unmanageable.

But they didn’t know why.

There was that weekend Kyle's mom and sister were out of town, and Kyle's dad took him and his twin brother to a movie. When they got home, Kyle shut himself in his bedroom closet, crying quietly. His dad would come up and knock gently on the door, but Kyle kept insisting he didn't want to talk about it until his mom got home.

But when Ginger Clifton did get back, Kyle still wouldn’t say much. He shrugged the incident off as just another bout of anxiety. 

So many times, Kyle had wanted to find a way to talk about the thoughts he was having.

That his whole life, every time he watched a movie, he pictured himself in the girl's role – the Marilyn Monroe or the Jennifer Lawrence.

That when he tried to picture his future, growing up and becoming a man, doing manly things like walking his imagined daughter down the aisle, it just seemed fuzzy. Impossible.

On the way home from that trip to the movies, Kyle sat in the back seat, googling “What do I do when I feel like I want to be a girl?” and pouring over websites about gender reassignment surgery.

But all of that felt equally impossible. The best plan Kyle could come up with, in his 11-year-old mind, was waiting until after college graduation – and then disappearing from Michigan, from friends, family, everybody he knew and loved.  

“Maybe I would just kind of disassociate myself from everyone, and just kind of move away and not be heard from,” Kylie says now. “I don’t know. Crazy thoughts like that.”  

Finally, one night, Kyle worked up the courage to tell his mom.

He knew he’d backed out of this before. So late one night, after he’d gone to bed, he sent his mom a text.

“It was a Wikipedia “Transgender” link, is literally the only thing that she sent,” Ginger remembers, laughing. “I was home, downstairs in the living room. So I brought my phone upstairs, and I said: ‘So, I guess we have some things to talk about!’”

This, it turns out, was the easy part.

For Ginger, hearing Kyle talk about what he was feeling – and who he wanted to be – made sense, on some deep maternal level.

She was worried, of course. About how the world would treat her kid. And mostly, about school.

Difficult conversations

Because the family had moved just a few months before this, Ginger had never even met the principal at Kyle’s school, Portage North Middle School, just south of Kalamazoo.

So, she set up her first-ever meeting with the principal and the school counselor.

“And they sat there in the room, and their eyes got really big!” Ginger laughs. “But they were very willing to work with us. Even though they didn’t really know quite exactly how to do it.”

“It was an – an interesting conversation,” remembers Principal Travis Thomsen. “It was a difficult conversation. Because, nobody had any experience with it.”

But what the school did next was really important, because it set the tone for how everything else was going to play out.   

And it’s what more and more schools are starting to do when they’re in this spot: They brought in a professional.

When people are afraid

Jay Maddock’s official job title is executive director of the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center.

But really, his job is managing fear.

Credit http://www.kglrc.org/about-us/staff/#prettyPhoto/0/
Jay Maddock

“You know, whenever you’re pushing for change, in an area of something that people don’t understand – sometimes the worst comes out in people when they’re afraid,” he says, leaning over a boxed lunch of salad and chicken breast at the White House LGBT Summit, held in Dearborn this spring.

He’s just ducked out to return a call to an elementary school in west Michigan, where their first transgender student had come out – and the school wanted Maddock to tell them what the heck to do now.

This is what he does. He goes from school to school, talking to parents and teachers and staff about what it means to be transgender, and to have a transgender kid in their community.

And at all of these training sessions, there’s one fear he hears over and over again:  

What if students start to pretend?

As in, what if a guy pretends to be a transgender girl, in order to get into the women’s restroom and hurt someone?

So Maddock tells them: Here's what you're going to do. When a transgender student comes out, sit down with them. Get to know them.

Then, make a transition plan. When would the student like to start using different pronouns? A different name?

And, yes, ask them what bathroom they want to use.

Then, make it school policy that without this kind of transition plan, kids can't just switch restrooms whenever they feel like it.  

"Let's imagine that an adolescent pulls a prank, and goes into a restroom that doesn't match with their gender identity,” Maddock says. “We're not asking you to uphold that. So when a student violates your school rules, they're still violating the rules."

Legal guidance

The real purpose of these “what if” policies, Maddock says, is to give schools what they’re craving right now: clarity.

Something that tells them what to do, so that if parents get angry, they can point to it and say: Look, we’ve thought this through, and it puts us on the right side of the law.

Specifically, Title IX.

That’s the law that makes gender discrimination illegal at public schools.

And under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education is cracking down on it.

The Office of Civil Rights is telling schools: You have to let transgender kids use the bathrooms that fit their gender identity.

One Michigan district, Bedford Public Schools, is currently under investigation for alleged transgender discrimination.

“A very good day”

At Kylie’s school, this Title IX stuff really stuck with Principal Thomsen.

"That helped to guide some of our decision-making, and processes that we were considering internally,” he says.

So Thomsen brought in Jay Maddock, and had him do staff trainings for all the teachers.

They covered all the basics: What is transgender? Why do transgender kids face more bullying, have a higher risk for suicide? What kind of logistics are involved in helping a kid transition at school?

So after all this, what happened when Kyle transition to Kylie – and, eventually, started using the girl’s bathroom?

Was there an uproar, or angry parents?

Principal Thomsen thinks about that one for moment.

"To be perfectly honest, there wasn't a reaction,” he says. “It was a non-issue for students and our staff. It just wasn't an issue."

And for Kylie?

"I was nervous at first, as there's usually always a lot of people in the girl's bathroom,” she says. “But it didn't matter. Nobody acted like they cared. It was just like any other bathroom."

And that first day, with the hair extensions? A few people gave her some weird looks. One guy asked if she was “punking them.”

But overall, she says, “it was a very a good day.”

The backlash in Michigan  

As more transgender students come out, more schools are going to have to figure out their responses. 

The State Board of Education’s optional guidelinesfor schools were supposed to help them do that.

But the backlash – from Republican lawmakers, from worried, upset parents – it’s been fierce.

And it’s the kind of backlash that makes you wonder if it’s going to be harder for trans kids to come out.

Which is actually why Kylie Clifton says she wanted to talk about all this so publicly.

She says she wants other trans kids to know that, sometimes, if you come out – it’s OK.

"I think I could just, um, potentially help someone else,” she says at her kitchen table, looking down at her hands. “I don't have a problem talking about it. I mean, some people don't like talking about it. But, it's the truth."

Meanwhile, the state school board is still taking public comment on those LGBT school guidelines through May 11.

More than 10,500 people have already weighed in on these guidelines online. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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