Back to School: A Place of Dread or a Place of Discovery?

As I think about all the families whose kids are getting ready to return to high school soon, I experience a flashback to the years when my own children prepared to begin the new school year. My sons were excited to buy new clothes or new shoes to proudly wear onto campus on their first day. Then there were school supplies, perhaps a new backpack, to be purchased and packed up. Finally, reconnecting with friends whom they'd missed seeing during the summer rounded out their list of things to look forward to.

I also think about what my female-to-male transgender son must have prepared for as the new school year lay ahead. Was he thinking, "Will I have to endure another year of daily taunts and torments in the hallways at school? Will teachers step in when they hear someone calling me a name or harassing me? Will I make friends who will accept me and don't look at me as if I am strange or different?" Did my transgender son truly look forward to his first day of high school?

I know there were some parts of high school that he did look forward to, but not the walks through the halls between class periods and having to withstand the stares, the taunts, and the deep-cutting remarks that served to chip away at his self-esteem; and not the lonely lunch periods when he would go off alone to find a place to feel safe and wonder what was wrong with him; and certainly not the quiet nights when he thought, "Is life worth all this daily harassment? Will I ever feel less like an outcast and more like just any other person?"

Sometimes, remembering those days makes me want to cry. Why couldn't I protect my son? Why didn't those at school look out for him and stop the cruelty that he endured almost daily, a cruelty that ultimately made him feel so unsafe in the world that he was diagnosed with agoraphobia and barely graduated from high school? I feel the guilt and sadness stick in my throat. I feel the anger start to boil up from within. Why wasn't I more aware? Why didn't he come to me and ask for help? Why didn't the school do more to look out for him?

But dwelling on the past changes nothing. I must look to the present and the future to make a change. And so, as the beginning of school approaches, members of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) from seven Southern California chapters are working to go into schools and share their stories so that school culture will begin to change. We want to help school districts understand the hurt and humiliation that our children and other LGBT children have had to face just to get through a day at school. We want them to know that bullying and harassment are not simply teenage teasing but painful words that sear the hearts of our children and shatter their sense of worthiness. And we want to help school districts change the consciousness of their schools through anti-bullying policies, gay-straight alliances (GSAs), LGBT-inclusive curricula, and, most importantly, training for their staff. There are so many resources available to school districts, such as PFLAG national's initiative, "Cultivating Respect: Safe Schools for All," and GLSEN's "Safe Space Kit."

My hope is that one day, LGBT students will not have to be concerned about returning to school. They will not have to dread the five days they attend classes each week. They will just be able to focus on learning and growing into responsible and contributing members of society. They can walk onto their campuses looking forward to every day and discovering more about the gifts and talents they possess. And they will find how these gifts and talents will make a difference in the lives they lead. This is a place of learning that I envision and hope for.