On March 5, 2017, Utah made the historic move of eliminating the “No Promo Homo” laws for public schools and implemented protections for LGBT students against bullying and harassment. This may sound surprising, given what most people assume about the Mormon Church and its attitude regarding same-sex marriage, but Utah is one of just a handful of states who have rejected laws outlawing “promotion of homosexuality” and replaced them with laws to protect LGBT students from bullying and harassment and to allow teachers and administrators to discuss these problems openly with students and to become safe spaces for them.
Recently, at the Equality Utah Allies dinner on September 30, at the Salt Palace Convention Center, the three students behind the lawsuit that led to the change in law, revealed their names. Josh Greer, 18, Katy Smith-Gish, 17, spoke about how it felt to go to school and be told in health education classes that their sexuality could not even be spoken about. For two years, these two teens continued to appear in court and talk about how it made them feel that they had no representation, and how difficult it was to get protection from bullying when they weren’t allowed to name what they were being bullied for.
The youngest of the plaintiffs was eight year-old Kaiden, son of Anna Turkel, and his story is perhaps the most heat-breaking (). He went to Kindergarten for only two months before Anna had to quit her job and home school him, because even at that age, other children bullied and even assaulted him on multiple occasions. He was asked if he was a girl, shoved out of the line in the girl’s bathroom and even harassed when he tried to use the gender neutral bathroom in the school office. He began to throw up on school mornings and shake and sob and beg not to go. The final straw was when children followed Kaiden into the bathroom and pulled down his pants to see what his underwear and genitals looked like. Kaiden was so shaken that he would not even tell his mother what the full extent of what had happened.
When asked when Kaiden started expressing gender non-conformity, Anna Turkel says it was when “he was 18 months or 2 years old. As soon as he could talk and walk. He used to wrap himself in blankets and ask us if he looked fabulous in his skirt. He preferred princesses and Ponies to sports and race cars. He wanted everything glitter, lip gloss, nail polish.” She was confused because she doesn’t wear makeup much herself and isn’t very she didn’t understand why he was so insistent on his interest in these things. She also admits that she is now ashamed that her reaction was to push him toward more boyish things. She told him that “boys wear superhero’s and play with GI Joes.” She had him watch Thomas the Tank Engine or “Cars” on the television. But her son reacted by closing up. Every morning, it was a struggle to get him dressed. He was retreating more and more.
Turkel says “I realized that by telling him what he wanted and how he was expressing himself was wrong and needed to be hidden, I was telling him HE was wrong and needed to be hidden. It didn’t change who he was or what he wanted, it just hurt him.” She eventually decided that she needed to show her son unconditional love and let him be himself. After appearing on TV with Senator Debakis and Troy Williams, Turkel connected with current Mama Dragon President Neca Allgood, and joined the group of mothers who unquestioningly support their LGBT children regardless of religious upbringing.
Now that the law in Utah has changed, Turkel has seen a real difference in the way that Kaiden is treated. He’s gone back to school in second grade now and the school district now is actively working to make sure Kaiden is safe and can get the education he deserves. Instead of not being allowed to talk about kids like Kaiden, Turkel says “teachers, administrators, etc can now tell kids it’s ok to be like Kaiden, it’s ok to be gender non-conforming, fluid, gay, etc. . . They can let Kaiden wear what he wants to wear and they can stand up for him in ways they weren’t able to before.” Now Kaiden has grown his hair out so he can style it and wears shimmery skirts without fear. He talks about his heros, who are Tyler Glenn, President Obama, and Tim Gunn. He quote Tim Gunn whenever he and his mother sew together and says, “Make it work.” It’s something maybe all of us can think about more, when we consider how to help our LGBT friends and family members. Let’s make it work!