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Conference raises awareness of student LGBTQ issues

The 15-year-old transgender male felt uncomfortable using the boys’ bathroom at his Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school.

So one day this year, he said, he opted for the girls’ restroom, prompting screams from some of the girls inside. Within minutes, police handcuffed him and put him in the back of a patrol car.

The youth, who wasn’t charged with any crime, recounted the episode to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison at Friday’s inaugural Carolina Conference on Queer Youth at UNC Charlotte. The youth hopes that CMS can someday better accommodate him and students like him by providing gender-neutral bathrooms.

The one-day conference drew at least 210 students, teachers and school administrators, primarily from the Charlotte and Piedmont Triad areas. They came from CMS schools and colleges including UNCC, Johnson C. Smith University, Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory and Winthrop University in Rock Hill.

They discussed and raised awareness of a range of issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students.

And they heard from such leaders as Morrison and Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founding pastor of Unity Fellowship Church Charlotte. Rawls also is founder and executive director of The Freedom Center for Social Justice, which launched the region’s first LGBTQ Law Center and Transgender Employment Program this year.

Conference workshops included “The School to Prison Pipeline,” which delved into how a disproportionate number of LGBTQ students and students of color are suspended, arrested and pushed out of school.

Other workshops included “Bias, Bullying and Bystanders,” “Dating and Respect,” “Finding Your LGBTQ-friendly College,” “Youth SpeakOUT: Realities of Queer Southern Youth” and the one that Morrison and the 15-year-old transgender youth spoke at: “Progressive Policies?: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the 21st Century.”

“Differences are not deficiencies, they are our greatest strength,” Morrison told the conference in UNCC’s Student Union. “We can celebrate differences because that has always been the greatest strength of the country.”

“The more unique you are, the more marketable you are” in today’s business world, Morrison said.

Students were an integral part of Friday’s conference, with some serving as presenters of the various topics, including the 15-year-old and another 15-year-old transgender CMS high school sophomore. The students requested that their names not be published, because they haven’t disclosed that they are transgender to all of their teachers.

Having teachers and administrators learn from students was a key aim of the conference, said Micah Johnson of Time Out Youth, a Charlotte-based center for LGBTQ youth that helped arrange the gathering.

So was raising awareness of the need to make “safer space” available for LGBTQ students in schools.

One part of the solution: Developing a transgender policy that addresses preferred names, appropriate dress code, locker room and bathroom access and other issues, Johnson said. CMS lacks such a policy. Some school systems across the country have gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms, he added.

Friday’s conference – and Morrison’s words – were a good start to getting more done, said Michael Sharpton, a 49-year-old UNCC student and member of the steering committee of the Charlotte Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBT equality.

“It’s a start of a journey,” he told Morrison. “I appreciate you being here.”

Marusak: 704-358-5067; Twitter: @jmarusak
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