Post submitted by Charles Girard, HRC Welcoming Schools Project Coordinator

Across the country, transgender children and adults often struggle to find acceptance in their communities. But one school community in California is changing that story.

Inspired by the story of Jazz Jennings, an HRC Youth Ambassador, Jessica Arroyo’s fifth grade class at Malcolm X Elementary in Berkeley recently created and performed a play based on the text from I Am Jazz, Jenning’s autobiographical picture book.

In order to prepare for the play, Arroyo brought Jazz’s story to drama teacher Mariah Castle.  The two worked with the class by discussing gender using lesson plans from HRC’s Welcoming Schools Program -- calling the resources “essential to building an inclusive school environment.”

“It might be uncomfortable at first to ask why boys often don't wear dresses or why we assume that girls aren't as capable at sports. But ultimately, our school climate is a safer space when we acknowledge that these are not fixed rules, that we have room for different kinds of gender expression at our school,” Castle said.

Arroyo and Castle worked with the school’s dance teacher, Aisha Gorson, for help choreographing the play. Like Jazz’s book, the students’ play is filled with songs, mermaids, and lots of dancing -- illustrating Jazz’s life and story as a transgender youth.  Telling Jazz’s story as accurately as possible, while holding the hearts and minds of the fifth grade students, was key.

“My parents would let me wear my sister’s dresses around the house, but whenever we went out I had to put on my boy clothes. Pretending I was a boy felt like a lie,” explains Jazz’s character.

The young actors celebrate triumphs in Jazz’s childhood, like when the United States Soccer Federation allowed her to play on the girls’ team and when her parents allowed her to wear the clothes she wanted to wear to school. 

Amid these triumphs, the play illuminates some of the difficult realities Jazz has faced.

“Even to this day there are some people who don’t understand,” says Jazz’s character.  “Some kids tease me, or call me by a boy name, or ignore me altogether.”

Jazz’s experience echoes those of other transgender children and youth. According to HRC’s groundbreaking 2012 youth survey, only 5 percent of gender-expansive youth surveyed reported “definitely fitting in” among their peers, and 30 percent reported “definitely not fitting in.” Gender-expansive youth were also less likely than non-transgender youth to have an adult that they felt that they could turn to if they felt worried or sad.

Castle and Arroyo note that there was some initial resistance from families but that their principal, Alexander Hunt, was supportive and spoke with concerned members of the school community. Arroyo also met with several families, and ultimately all of the students in the class were allowed to be involved.

“What really helped me understand the value of sharing this play was seeing the mom of one of our transgender students watching our first performance of the play at the back of the auditorium with tears streaming down her face,” said Castle. “I knew we were doing the right thing when I saw that, no matter what the complaints.”

“The involvement of administration, teachers, families and students working together prove Malcolm X Elementary to be an excellent example of the importance of a comprehensive approach to creating a safe and inclusive school,” said Johanna Eager, the acting director of HRC’s Welcoming Schools.

Right before the play ends and the class dances with a little help from Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Jazz’s character addresses the audience: “I don’t mind being different. Different is special. I think what matters most is what a person is like inside. And, inside, I’m proud of who I am.”

These inspiring words go beyond Jazz’s gender identity – they show the real changes that today’s youth are seeing as they grow up in a culture that is increasingly embracing – and celebrating – diversity.

Watch the play below in its entirety, read more about how to create gender-inclusive schools, find resources about supporting trans and gender-expansive youth, and watch Jazz’s video message to the students!

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