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Charlotte transgender youths share their stories – and their pain of being bullied – on film

A Transgender Focus

The Charlotte group that produced "Souls of Our Students," an anti-bullying video about diversity in schools, has come up with an 11-minute addendum that focuses on transgender students. The four students, two teachers and parent in the new video
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The Charlotte group that produced "Souls of Our Students," an anti-bullying video about diversity in schools, has come up with an 11-minute addendum that focuses on transgender students. The four students, two teachers and parent in the new video

Listen to what it’s like to go to school every day if you’re transgender.

“It” was how Alexander, 16, was referred to by a lot of his classmates.

Olive, 17, says many fellow students “treated me like a walking oddity.”

And for Scout, now 20, school was such a lonely place, where even teachers wouldn’t help or didn’t seem to care, that it felt like “this isn’t a place for me.”

All three of these young people are local, from either Charlotte or Concord. And in a short new film designed for students, teachers, parents, and others, they share their stories, their aspirations and their pain.

“Souls of Our Students: A Transgender Focus” complements a longer 2008 film – “Souls of Our Students: Appreciating Differences” – that featured reflections from Charlotte-Mecklenburg students who were often harassed or marginalized because of their race, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.

This new film focusing on students who are transgender – an umbrella term for those who don’t identify with the gender on their birth certificate – appears at a time when gender identity, long a taboo topic, is being debated, often emotionally. Bruce Jenner was reintroduced as Caitlyn Jenner on magazine covers and on TV talk shows.

In Charlotte, the side issue of who could use which bathrooms led the City Council to reject a measure that would have extended civil rights protections to gays, lesbians and transgender persons. And as bullying continues in schools and in wider society, more transgender children and teens commit suicide.

Rabbi Judy Schindler of Charlotte’s Temple Beth El, a leader in getting both “Souls” films made, said she and her partners in the latest project “believe in the power of personal narrative to create understanding and to build an inclusive ... community. Stories move us to create change. And we hope they inspire those who hear them.”

Besides the students, a pair of local teachers and Kim, the mother of Caleb, 16, a transgender boy, are heard from in “A Transgender Focus” as well as in two new supplementary minifilms that center on pronouns and a parent’s perspective.

Kelley, a high school teacher in the main film, reports that one transgender student, a junior, had never used a school bathroom in three years. “He didn’t feel comfortable using the men’s or the women’s bathroom,” his teacher said.

‘Not alone in their journey’

Schindler traced the idea for doing the film to a meeting in February between Ann Clark, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and the clergy on her interfaith advisory council.

Schindler said Clark told the group that there are transgender students in CMS schools and that she wanted to develop a response to support them. That’s when Schindler volunteered to get a film made – and raise the money ($20,500) it would cost.

On Thursday, Clark will introduce the film during an 11:30 a.m. premiere at the Wells Fargo Auditorium of the Knight Theater in uptown Charlotte.

Starting Friday, the film will be also be available to stream free at meckmin.org/souls.

But mostly, “A Transgender Focus” was made for educational purposes. The plan is to eventually show it to ninth-graders in health classes at CMS. Then it will “hopefully go across the state” to other schools, said Deb Kaclik, CMS’ director of social emotional learning and behavior support.

Transgender students, their families and teachers need to know that such resources are available, Kaclik said, “and that they are not alone in their journey.”

And like the previous “Souls” film, it’s expected to be included in corporate training sessions on diversity.

The film is a collaborative project of CMS; NC Healthy Schools, which is part of the state Department of Public Instruction; MeckMin, an interfaith group of about 100 congregations; Temple Beth El; and Time Out Youth, which supports young people in Charlotte’s LGBT community.

‘It made me feel worthless’

At 11 minutes long, “A Transgender Focus” is short but powerful.

Alexander: “I grew up thinking that most people wouldn’t want to be around me, and most people wouldn’t want to talk to me or be friends with me. ... It made me feel worthless, like everyone would be better off if I just wasn’t there.”

Scout: “Children (who are transgender) are taking their own lives because it’s unbearable to live in a place that won’t make the smallest accommodations.”

Punctuating the stories in the film are statistics – including this one: 51 percent of transgender people who were harassed or bullied have attempted suicide.

In Charlotte, Time Out Youth lost four transgender members in a month to suicide, said Rodney Tucker, the group’s executive director. The new film “is super important to us ... in bringing more awareness in the schools (and helping) parents and teachers know how to deal with their students so they can get the support they need and be happy, healthy.”

During the shooting, filmmakers Russ and Wendy Gill of Professional Communications in Matthews had to stop recording to give one of the students a break to regain composure.

“We were talking about the staggering number of suicide attempts by trans students,” Wendy Gill said, “and the memory of a friend’s suicide was very painful.”

Get ‘everyday folks’ talking

“A Transgender Focus” is also a plea by the students to respect them by recognizing their struggle, using their chosen names and pronouns – and by not reducing them to their gender identity.

“I’m a lot more than just a trans person,” says Olive, who is also an aspiring artist, a feminist and an activist.

Adds Scout: “We’re just trying to be the best people we can be, too.”

Bishop Tonyia Rawls, whose group – the Freedom Center for Social Justice – helped fund the film, said transgender students are trying to live life abundantly and authentically. That’s a tenet in every faith tradition, she said.

Danny Trapp, who heads MeckMin, said he hopes the film gets “everyday folks” talking, especially those in houses of worship that continue to adapt to change.

In fact, the film ends with this invitation: “Let’s continue the conversation …”

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