We first made the acquaintance of Joe Maldonado, the 8-year-old Secaucus, NJ boy who was kicked out of his Boy Scouts troop for being transgender, in the summer of 2015. Joe has identified as male from a very early age, and his mother Kristie, a fierce advocate for her son, reached out to Garden State Equality’s Teach and Affirm program when Joe made it clear that he could no longer attend school as a girl. Kristie was concerned that Joe’s teachers and principal needed information and education on working with transgender youth, and asked us to attend a meeting with school administrators on Joe’s behalf.
From that first meeting it was clear to Aaron Potenza, our Director of Programs, that the teachers and staff at Huber Street Elementary school had Joe’s best interests at heart, and simply needed information on transgender youth, best practices in working with LGBT youth and creating gender-affirming classrooms, and knowledge about law and policy as they relate to transgender youth in New Jersey schools.
At first, some teachers and administrators were unsure of how to refer to Joe. Should they use his legal name, or the name he had chosen to reflect his gender identity? Was switching to male pronouns allowed, and if so, what to do if they forgot and slipped up, using the female pronouns they had grown accustomed to? What restroom should Joe use, and how would other children react? Behind these questions was a central concern about Joe’s well-being, one that Aaron, a transgender man himself, had heard time and again: in allowing a social transition, was the school helping or hurting Joe?
Garden State Equality was able to present clear research on this question, and guidance on how families, schools, and communities can support a social transition for a young child. It is the opinion of every expert medical and psychiatric body that transgender youth should be affirmed, and that, as the American Psychological Association has stated: "it is not helpful to force a child to act in a more gender-conforming way." Social science research is showing that transgender youth who are affirmed in their identity by family and community have similar rates of depression and anxiety as compared to cisgender youth, while those that are rejected by their families, schools, churches, and larger community face poor outcomes across a variety of measures (self-harm, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, school dropout, and suicide to name a few).
Understandably, Joe’s school was also concerned with the law as it applies to transgender youth. They had questions about the legality of name changes, and wanted to know what the law has to say about restrooms and other sex-segregated spaces. Current federal guidelines and decades of case law interpret the protections of Title IX to extend to transgender youth, while New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) makes clear that discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression are illegal in public accommodations throughout the state, including in public schools. NJ’s LAD goes further, noting that where sex-segregated facilities (such as a restroom) are permitted, individuals must be permitted access on the basis of gender identity. Aaron walked the school through the logistics and practicality of this, and helped them put in place a plan for Joe and his family.
After receiving Garden State Equality’s training on working with transgender youth, Joe’s mother reports that Huber Street school is doing a wonderful job. Where they were once separating children into male and female lines and groups - a common practice in elementary schools - they are now using other measures (like separating children into Panda and Koala bears) to create spaces in which all children feel welcome and comfortable. His mother tells us that the training the school received from Garden State Equality has been transformative, though we would certainly credit her advocacy as well! “They’re on board, and I don’t feel like I have to explain it anymore. I believe they truly understand that Joe is a boy and that’s probably the most important thing.”
Joe knows who he is, and he isn’t afraid of letting others know. He has shown tremendous courage just in being himself, and as his mom says, “he’s a much happier kid” after going through a social transition. Joe is an outgoing young person with a great spirit, and he’s done well with his peers post-transition. Younger children generally handle the idea of transgender children well, and Joe has told us that he is accepted without question as a boy by his classmates and friends. He tells us one of his favorite activities is playing basketball and his mom relates that he is just a regular boy to his coach and teammates who have treated him with the respect he deserves.
Unfortunately, the respect and acceptance that Joe has found at school and among his peers did not extend to the Boy Scouts, who forced him out of his troop after other parents complained that a transgender child was participating. The Boy Scouts of America has no public policy on transgender youth, and an abysmal history of barring gay scouts and gay scout leaders (decades old positions that were reversed in 2014 and 2016).
When Joe asked his mom if he could join, Kristie, aware of the history with gay youth, and hoping to shield her son from prejudice, contacted the local group, made sure they were aware of her son’s transgender status, and asked if he could participate as a boy. She was told yes, that it would be no problem, so she dropped off a check and told Joe the good news. It was only after he participated for three weeks, a time which he greatly enjoyed and during which no other children in the troop expressed having any issue with him, that his mother was told that due to the complaints of other parents, Joe would no longer be able to participate. Kristie is understandably outraged that the Boy Scouts would take her money, admit her son, and then reject him not for anything he did, but because adults in his community are unaccepting.
Garden State Equality believes that the Boy Scouts of America’s policy on accepting gay youth should extend to transgender youth. The Boy Scouts should follow the stellar example set by the Girl Scouts, who have made clear that transgender girls are girls, and that they serve all girls, including transgender girls.
Twenty six years ago a New Jersey Eagle Scout, James Dale, was kicked out of the Boy Scouts after they learned he was co-president of the Lesbian/Gay Alliance at his university. Dale brought suit in New Jersey courts, and in 1999 the Supreme Court narrowly affirmed the right of the Boy Scouts to deny membership to gay individuals. Another 15 years would pass before the Boy Scouts reversed their position on admitting gay youth, and another 2 years later, in the summer of 2015 when we were first meeting with Joe and his family, the Boy Scouts announced they would no longer bar gay individuals from serving as scout leaders.
We will not wait another 26 years.