Transgender Boy Sets Precedent for Using Restrooms of Choice at Performing Arts Academy

By VICTORIA FORD | May 02, 2018
Photo by: Rubin Smyers

Rubin Smyers of Lacey is a 2016 graduate of the Ocean County Vocational-Technical Schools’ Performing Arts Academy in Lakehurst. A few years back, he attended the same youth group as Anthony Lundy at Forked River Presbyterian Church (see related story).

While at PAA, Smyers “set a precedent regarding the use of the bathroom that best aligns with an individual’s gender identity,” which gained the attention of regional print and television news outlets. Aside from the single-stall bathroom that already existed when he enrolled, the school still does not have officially designated gender-neutral restrooms.

Smyers came out as transgender in high school, in the summer after his freshman year. When he started at PAA in the fall of his sophomore year, he said, “I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I didn’t want to go into the girls’ room, but I was afraid I’d get in trouble if I used the boys’ room.

“A couple weeks of using only the one single-stall restroom in the school proved to be incredibly inconvenient and frustrating.” So he started using the boys’ room. For months, it was never an issue, he said, until the spring, when the PAA vocal department was preparing for its annual showcase at Ocean County College.

At the beginning of “tech week,” when the high school students would spend evenings at the college getting ready for the showcase, his high school guidance counselor told him he would need to use the girls’ dressing room while at OCC.

And, by the way, he should stop using the boys’ restroom at PAA, but also, he shouldn’t use the ladies’ restroom, either, unless absolutely necessary.

He should try instead to use only the single-stall bathroom, “located at one end of the second floor of a building literally the size of a blimp hangar,” he pointed out, or the nurse’s office. “I immediately protested, but was cut short by the final bell. I had to go catch a bus to OCC.”

When his friends heard, “they were just as angry as I was,” Smyers recalled. “It was ridiculous.”

At OCC, the ruling was that Smyers could not use either dressing room, and should instead change in the single-stall bathroom backstage.

“Now I have nowhere to be,” he recalled. “I’m standing around in the hall, in everybody’s way, isolated from everyone except for those on their way to or from the bathroom. And that’s how I spent the entire week.”

During and after the showcase, he was back to using the one restroom at PAA.

He dealt with his bitterness and anger in silence, riding out the school year with his head down and his mouth shut. He returned in the fall, just as frustrated as when he had left in June, “and every day getting more and more so.”

“This was unfair, unnecessary, inconvenient,” he said. He had to weigh missing significant class time to walk across the school to urinate, against the discomfort of a full bladder.

In an effort to show the administration how many supporters he had, Smyers created a petition on change.org. He shared it on Facebook, “and it just blew up. So many students were signing it and sharing it. I got signatures from current students, alumni, current student and alumni parents, complete strangers from Ocean County, complete strangers from around the world. I got hundreds of signatures in just the first few hours, with the total coming to around 3,000.”

When he posted his petition to the Facebook page of Garden State Equality, the organization’s executive director, Andrea Bowen, reached out to him. She gave him advice about approaching his school administrators. She pointed him toward pertinent legislation. She wrote letters of support on his behalf. “She was a huge help to me and became something of a mentor.”

When he presented to his guidance counselor the signature count, along with a few articles and other resources supporting his position, she set up a meeting between Smyers and the principal. Three weeks later, when the meeting happened, according to Smyers, the principal responded about the same way his guidance counselor had. Another meeting was arranged, of Smyers, his mother, the school principal, and Vocational-Technical Schools Superintendent William Hoey, who “seemed generally to be in support of me,” Smyers said. “(Hoey) said it would be discussed at the next board meeting and he would call me with their decision.”

After Thanksgiving, Smyers got his answer.

“I’m pulled out of class and down to the guidance counselor’s office once again. She informs me that the board has decided to grant me permission to use the boys’ restroom at school. While I’m happy about this, a number of things are frustrating me:

“First, that it took months for such a simple thing to be resolved. Second, that the board was giving me ‘permission’ to do what I have the legal right to do. Third, that everything about the way she said this made it seem as if it pertained only to me.”

Smyers’ mother wanted to know if the decision would apply to all transgender students, present and future, who attend PAA; Hoey said decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis.

“My mother and I agreed that this was not good enough, and so did Andrea (Bowen). We needed to set a definitive precedent for all transgender students at PAA, so no one else would have to deal with this how I did.”

Bowen helped get Smyers’ story on ABC Eyewitness News, on Buzzfeed, in The Asbury Park Press and The Washington Post. Smyers also gave a TEDx Talk at Bergen County College, titled “The Fight for Transgender Rights in the Public School.”

*   *   *

For Smyers, coming out was a relatively easy experience. He has never doubted his family or friends would accept him.

“The struggle for me,” he said, “was figuring it out for myself.

“I was actually a very girly child. It was around fifth and sixth grade when I became unhappy with myself and the way I looked. I couldn’t really understand why. I just wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.

“I found everything to blame it on. I’ve always been overweight – I thought maybe it was that. Or maybe I didn’t dress ‘cool’ enough. I’d always felt kind of different and separate from other kids – maybe it had something to do with that. Maybe I just wasn’t pretty.

“I knew that trans people existed, in some vague, conceptual way, but I really knew nothing about them. I suppose I read some article or saw something online and the thought just struck me for the first time, that maybe that was it. … I thought about my life: my depression; my discomfort in my body; how I’d gradually stopped wearing dresses and started trying on more and more ‘boy’ clothes; how I wanted so badly to cut my hair short.

“At first, I was resistant to the idea. I doubted myself because I hadn’t known my whole life, like most people, and because the concept I had in my head of a ‘man’ was someone much tougher and more masculine than I was or wanted to be. But the more I researched, the more I knew I definitely was not a girl. At that point, I had to come out. All the details regarding my presentation and my sexuality (which had been a separate subject of confusion and would continue to be for some time) would be figured out later, but I knew I would never be happy if I continued trying to be a girl.”

When he first came out, he admitted, he “overcompensated quite a bit,” wearing almost exclusively cargo shorts with flannels over graphic tees and work boots or sneakers. “I tried to kid myself that I was straight, and that any infatuation with boys had more to do with wanting to be one of them than actually being attracted to them. But as time went on, and I became more comfortable with myself and my identity, I stopped trying so hard, and I settled into being who I really am.

“I’m not some tough, manly guy who lives for football and cars and beer and women. I’m a softer, more feminine kind of guy. I like theater and animals and museums. And that’s OK. Just because I’m a more feminine kind of boy doesn’t make me any less of a boy. My identity is perfectly valid.”

*   *   *

As far as Smyers is concerned, the most important thing a school district can do is listen to its students and let them take the lead. If schools make their LGBTQ students feel safe and feel heard, he said, the students will guide the administrators to make the changes that need to be made.

Equally important, he added, is for LGBTQ students to be allowed to express themselves openly at school.

“I am very fortunate to have the family that I have, but many, many kids are not so lucky,” he said. “Lots of kids in high school are not out to their parents, or came out and are not receiving support. They have to go home every day stifling their identity out of fear because of the ignorance of others. Coming to school and being with their friends may be their only opportunity to feel free. Their self-expression should be encouraged.

Never assume a student’s parents are aware of their child’s LGBTQ identity. No matter how well (school officials) may think they know these parents, it’s not their secret to tell, and, as it has no bearing on the health and safety of the student, it is best to maintain confidentiality.

“Accidental or intentional outing of a student could have very serious consequences for them at home, which the administrator or teacher may never see. The statistics regarding physical abuse, sexual abuse, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, drug use, homelessness and so many other things among LGBTQ youth are staggering.

“When your parents don’t share your marginalized identity, home may not always be a safe place.” 

Smyers wants people to know it’s better to ask a “stupid” question and get the right answer, than to make an assumption and be wrong. “I can’t speak for everyone, but, especially if someone prefaces their question by saying something like ‘I don’t know if it’s OK for me to ask this, but...,’ I’m happy to answer. If your question is considered rude or inappropriate, I’ll tell you that.”

*   *   *

Smyers’ general tips: “Ask someone their pronouns if you’re not sure what they prefer; don’t ask trans people their birth name; and don’t ask trans people about their genitals or how they have sex, unless you’re planning to have sex with them in the very near future.

“If you do mess up (and it happens to the best of us), just apologize and correct yourself, making a conscious effort not to slip up again; please don’t make a big, giant scene of regret and apology out of it because that just makes it a thousand times worse; apologize, correct yourself, and move on.”

“In general, we just want basic respect. Many reputable online resources address queer identities, the difference between sexual attraction and romantic attraction and gender identity, do’s and don’ts regarding what to say to or about trans people and why.

“Ninety-five percent of transphobia and homophobia stems from ignorance, and ignorance is just a lack of education, so educate yourself.”

Smyers currently attends Ocean County College’s ASL to English Interpreting program. After he graduates next year, he wants to do a semester in the Disney College Program and then go to Montclair State University for a BFA in musical theater.

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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