Parents of Arizona's trans youth say bullying starts at top

This story was published in partnership with LOOKOUT, a nonprofit investigative news outlet focused on elevating LGBTQ+ issues across Arizona.

Hazel Ray just wanted to go on a school field trip to the Grand Canyon. As a junior at a small school with a graduating class of 19 students, nobody took issue that Hazel—who is a trans woman—planned to share a room with other female students. It also wasn’t the classmates who complained and inquired about what bathroom Hazel planned to use. Instead, it was a parent who had met Hazel before she was out but had a problem with her transition.

Right before the trip, that parent called the school and threatened to contact the media.

Hazel, who is now 19 years old and graduated, worried about public backlash and that the parent would sue the school. She acquiesced and arranged to get her own room, but she said it was an uncomfortable and scary experience for a teenager who had never stayed alone in a hotel before.

Although her mother, Nancy, said she didn’t feel her daughter was in direct danger, she was livid that her child had to make separate accommodations. She was also angry at other parents and lawmakers who put her child in that position in the first place.

Nancy also said people who show up at school board meetings and the Capitol to spread anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and harass trans kids and their guardians or parents—whom they often disparagingly and untruthfully call “groomers” or pedophiles—cause harm that isn’t easy to shrug off.

“It’s never just words when you’re throwing them at someone who’s marginalized,” she said. “There’s always an implicit threat of violence behind those words. It’s harder to get people to see that when they don’t have to live in that reality.”

Nancy’s story echoes similar ones from other parents of trans kids concerned about their child’s treatment in schools. Specifically, they’re worried about the adults. They said they are bothered by the increased anti-trans sentiment from other parents, lack of support at the school and district level, and state laws oppressing trans students. And after almost three years of continuous anti-trans legislation, parents are upset with the politicians who argued for more parental rights, yet refuse to listen to their own concerns.

Because of this, many guardians have turned to LGBTQ+ advocacy groups like Arizona Trans Youth and Parent Organization and GLSEN to learn from other parents about schools that offer a friendlier environment. But with no standardized policies on how to treat LGBTQ+ people or queer-focused curriculum across the state, it’s often confusing and leads to more work with no guaranteed positive outcome for their child. So, the focus for parents and their advocates is to get out and vote. 

How “parental rights” ignores parents of trans youth

Parents who have kept attuned to local politics have seen Republican state lawmakers push anti-trans bills cloaked as “parental rights.” The term is a catch-all for conservatives who argue that parents need more say in their children’s education. But that legislation has resulted in reduced access to equitable sexual education and an inability to teach LGBTQ+ history or discuss queer issues on school campuses.

Lawmakers in the last legislative session doubled down on parental rights and proposed a handful of bills that banned students from using their preferred names or pronouns unless parents signed off on it. Another bill would have “outed” students to their parents. This year, Republicans introduced similar bills that bypass the privacy of children in favor of biological parents or charge teachers with a felony if they don’t get parents to approve materials that could be used in sex education classes.

Last November, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Mesa School Board member against the district for its guidelines supporting LGBTQ+ students, claiming it violated the 2022 parents’ bill of rights law.

The debate and legislation around the subject left parents such as Tami Staas behind. As executive director of AZTYPO and the mother of a trans son and nonbinary child, she said the Mesa lawsuit sent a message to her kids that they “didn’t deserve to be.”

“Imagine how that feels to have your existence constantly debated in the public eye,” she said. “We have rights, too, and our kids deserve the same educational opportunities as other kids.”

Advocacy group leaders point to the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne as the one leading the charge against trans students and ignoring the concerns of trans students’ parents.

Early in his tenure, Horne removed a database from the department’s website that provided resources for parents, students, and educators looking to support LGBTQ+ students. In an email, Horne’s office stated the page was taken down because it ran afoul of the state’s parents’ bill of rights law.

The email also stated that the database “collected personal information of a sexual nature from minor children that could easily be hacked and used for malevolent purposes by child predators.”

Recently, Horne forbade employees from using gender-identifying pronouns in staff emails. He also has been silent on denouncing far-right and evangelical Christians who frequently show up to antagonize LGBTQ+ staff and teachers. And he was the main speaker at an event in Mesa hosted by Moms for Liberty, which is designated as an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“It comes all the way from Supervisor Horne to … school board members who see this as a way to rev up a political base and further their own political goals,” said Emily Kirkland, communications director for the Arizona Education Association. “It’s not because they’re trying to be responsive to what’s happening in schools day-to-day. It’s because they’re trying to feed into a national narrative.”

Horne’s communications team responded to questions about how the department ensures safety for LGBTQ+ students by saying the Department of Education has funded counselors and police officers in schools. It didn’t specifically address LGBTQ+ safety.

Patchwork of policies

When Staas, the executive director of AZTYPO, has challenged school districts about how they handle transgender or queer issues, she said administrators claim they’re “following district policy…but when I ask for a copy of that policy to review, there is no policy,” she said. “They lied. Flat-out lie.”

Across multiple school districts, policies on dealing with transgender issues are not in place, or they exist as blanket statements on embracing diversity. The result is a patchwork of varying policies (or lack of policies) across the state, leaving parents and students in the lurch.

Sometimes, parents get lucky, such as Kelly Stewart, who is a parent of a trans son, Augie.

Augie attended Herberger Young Scholars Academy, and Kelly said she found the school to be “exceptionally inclusive and supportive.” Augie was a founding member of the campus’s Gay Straight Alliance (also known as a Gender and Sexuality Alliance) group before he came out as transgender. She said the school also had a rainbow flag in the lobby alongside the other flags: “When you walk in the building, it says to families and kids, ‘You belong here,’” she said.

For other parents, the experience is different.

Andi Young, GLSEN Arizona board chair and mother of a nonbinary trans teenager, said the Gilbert Schools administration was supportive of her child in certain ways, such as using their correct pronouns, but like most districts, it doesn’t teach an inclusive curriculum: “They don’t have books that have representative transgender identities,” she said.

Paradise Valley teacher Melissa Carroll-Jackson of Phoenix said her experience with her trans daughter (who also attends Paradise Valley Unified School District) is not as clear. She said while the school handbook says it operates without bias toward gender and sexuality, “I feel like this is not always respected, and I don’t know that all our teachers and administrators execute that as equally as they should, necessarily, from what I’ve seen.”

Carroll-Jackson said her child feels safe—she’s allowed to use the girls’ bathroom, for example—but she’s only 10 and already female-presenting. She worries about what might happen as her daughter grows up.

“From teaching high school, I see things very differently,” Carroll-Jackson said. “I see a lot of negativity.”

Carroll-Jackson said that teachers are also tired of navigating the culture war politics and just want to focus on a holistic education inside their classrooms.

“Your gender expression is the last thing on my mind when I walk in the door in the morning,” Carroll-Jackson said. “It’s about your education and making you a better person.”

What can parents do? Vote.

In Arizona, 62 percent of LGBTQ+ students reported being verbally harassed based on their sexual orientation, according to GLSEN’s 2021 National School Climate Survey.

Parents say a more inclusive curriculum—such as LGBTQ+ history or having books in the library that represent the community—and clubs would be a good start in making schools safer for trans and nonbinary kids. They said those kinds of student-focused initiatives can lead to safer spaces for transgender kids and could reduce slurs.

Also, advocacy groups urge parents and guardians to maintain open communication lines with schools, specifically the people in charge such as principals, assistant superintendents, and counselors.

But these actions could be moot if politicians are successful in chilling the discussion on trans kids. The main action item, advocates say, is to get involved and vote.

“I believe our politicians are using transgender youth as pawns in their political game to get elected or re-elected,” said Young. “They know that they can rally their conservative base by talking about how they’re going to protect parents’ rights and protect kids from this dangerous gender ideology, and they know it’s going to get people to the polls.”