Meet the transgender 11-year-old at the center of a debate in the Jordan School District
“I wanted to just wake up,” she said.
Two Utah State Board of Education members and six parents spoke against letting transgender girls, like Alison, use school bathrooms that match their gender identity. Many of the adults called transgender girls “boys” and alleged that by allowing them in the girls bathroom, the district would open cisgender girls up to psychological and physical harm.
None of the adults mentioned Alison by name, but some of the speakers specifically mentioned her school, Fox Hollow Elementary. Some also talked about “a boy,” singular, being allowed in the girls bathroom there.
Fight over the girls bathroom
Alison came out to her family as transgender when she was in fourth grade, and both of her parents accepted her as who she said she was.
She later started wearing skirts and dresses to school. In fifth grade, she started using the single-stall, gender-neutral faculty bathroom instead of the boys bathroom.
But using the faculty restroom had some problems. Jessica Jeffs, Alison’s mom, said sometimes Alison faced questions from other students and since it was only meant for one person she would sometimes have to wait to use it.
“And then she didn’t know what to do. She almost had an accident,” said Jeffs.
To Alison, the main problem with using the faculty bathroom was it signaled to other kids that she wasn’t “normal.” It made her feel like an “alien.”
“When the school forces her to go into the special bathroom, then that just validates that Alison isn’t who she says she is,” said Jesse Sirivanchai, Alison’s dad. “She already spends all of her time trying to prove herself to her peers, that she is who she is. And so she spends all this effort just to have it broken down by one simple little thing.”
Sirivanchai sees the high rates of trans youth seriously considering suicide. That’s why it’s so important to him that his daughter is validated in who she is. As her parents, Jeffs, said they are “just trying to protect our child and give her the same opportunities that every other child has.”
Jeffs said she went to Fox Hollow’s principal and argued that according to Title IX, Alison should be allowed to use the girls bathroom. The school district agreed, and when Alison went into sixth grade this school year, she started using the girls restroom.
A Jordan School District spokesperson said it doesn’t have its own policy, but instead follows federal law on this issue.
“The District works with individual families to provide a safe and welcoming environment for every student. Anyone with concerns on any issue at a school is encouraged to reach out to the school principal,” the district said in a statement.
Alison’s parents knew some families were uncomfortable with her using the girls bathroom and that she had been bullied for being transgender, but said there are also kids and families at the school who are perfectly comfortable with Alison being treated like any other girl.
“She has her little group of friends and they go see movies. They have sleepovers. They welcome her in their home like any other girl,” Jeffs said.
Aftermath of the school board meeting
Jeffs heard from a family member that some parents were posting negative things online about a transgender girl at Fox Hollow Elementary. That’s how the family learned that people would be showing up at the school board meeting.
With a prepared speech in hand, Alison and her family went to the meeting.
“It is my request to you, on behalf of my constituents, to secure the rights of these young girls while accommodating and honoring this young man,” Boggess said.
Sirivanchai walked up to the podium with Alison and wrapped his arm around her. She had been thrown off by the school board members’ remarks, and so he began instead. Sirivanchai told the board “we came here to respond to the chorus of disapproval” and said his daughter does not want to hurt anyone. After he finished, Sirivanchai asked Alison if she wanted to say something and she started reading her speech.
“I was really proud,” he said.
Alison told the board that she “came here not to fight, but to make peace.” She described how she knew she was a girl and that when she imagined herself as an adult, “I see a woman dancing in a white dress through meadows of flowers.”
Her goal in giving the speech was to “give them some sense of comfort” and show people that she’s not scary.
Alison said she felt exposed because everyone was watching her. Her family didn’t realize news outlets would be covering the board meeting.
While they listened to the rest of the public comment period, Sirivanchai said Alison was shaking. When parents talked about their fears about letting trans girls in the girls bathroom, they mentioned things like rape and sexual predators.
“I had to constantly lean over and remind her, ‘they’re talking about their fears. They’re not talking about you,’” he said.
It worries Jeffs that her daughter is having to learn about these things at 11 years old.
“How is that going to impact her later on in life?” Jeffs said. “It's really frustrating, as a parent who just loves their kid and wants them to be okay, knowing that there's people out there that are willing to say all these things, knowing that she's in the same room with them. That's really scary to me.”
In the following days, Alison said she felt scared while walking home that someone was watching her or judging her, so she’s been scared to listen to music and “just be wild and just having a great time walking home.” It’s been hard for her to socialize with her friends. She said she wishes she could “stand still forever, like a statue,” because she’s scared that anything she does could draw unwanted attention or cause others to start rumors.
One silver lining, Sirivanchai said, is that after the meeting, families with trans kids and others have reached out to him to give their support. And during the board meeting, two parents in the community with trans kids spoke in support of Alison.
Feeling that support, Alison said, feels like being in a cold place, but getting a blanket put over you.
“Like warm protection,” she said.
Jeffs has thought about whether she should move Alison to a new school, but she doesn’t want to take her away from her friends. Plus, a new school could mean a similar cycle would start all over again.
“We're not going to be living in fear. And they can't, you know, use that fear base on us to get us to leave or to not be part of this community,” Jeffs said. “We're going to be strong and we're going to stay here and we're going to support her.”