Transgender issues

Transgender issues

Speaker offers insight into transgender issues
Kentucky School Advocate
March 2017
By Vickie Mitchell
Staff writer
JoAnne Wheeler Bland arrived for her KSBA annual conference clinic session on transgender issues pulling a dolly stacked with paper – court cases, public school model policies and guides, scientific and psychological studies, surveys and scholarly articles. The retired attorney from Hardin County shared much of it, including a four-page bibliography of resource materials, with her audience.

In the end though, Bland’s talk was more about her personal life than the reams of paper she piled on a table at the front of the room. It is a story that offers insight for educators today as the debate over transgender students and restrooms consumes many communities and states.  
Bland was born a boy but realized early in life that her mind and her biological self were not a match. She grew up as a closeted transgender child in Hardin County in the 1950s, well before social media and cable television, and didn’t become openly transgender until 2009.

“I thought I was the only person like this in the world,” Bland said. “The word ‘transgender’ hadn’t even been invented.”

The current debate over whether transgender students should use restrooms that correspond with their biological or gender identity or whether they should use alternative restrooms is of great importance to Bland.

“I couldn’t go to the bathroom my whole school career, because I was not a boy,” she said.

Although she was a good student, being unable to go to the bathroom at school damaged not only her health (she now has kidney issues) but her grades. She was class salutatorian and would have been valedictorian but for one bad grade. “Guess which class?” she said. “PE.”

Her situation didn’t improve at the University of Kentucky, where she lived in a dorm and rose at 3 a.m. each day to take a shower so she could avoid her fellow students in the communal restroom.
Despite greater awareness and acceptance of transgender students today, many are doing exactly what Bland did, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. It showed that 59 percent of transgender people had avoided bathrooms and 31 percent had avoided drinking or eating so that they would not need to visit the restroom.

Today, at 72, Bland dedicates much of her time to educating others about transgender issues. Six years ago, she had a series of sexual reassignment surgeries to align with her gender identity. She is divorced from her first wife, whom she married when she was outwardly a male; and, as a lesbian, she has remarried a woman. Bland was rejected by many from her former life: her wife, her longtime law partner, her church family. But the new friends and supporters she has gained, she said, surpass those who have shunned her.

Because Bland lived most of her life as a transgender person, albeit closeted, she has been asked to become involved in a number of organizations. She is on the board of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, served on the Council on Postsecondary Education’s diversity council and has been a speaker for the Kentucky Bar Association’s diversity summit and the annual Governor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Conference.

Bland also works with young transgender students who are depressed and, as she once was, on the verge of suicide. She has helped many students who realize she truly understands. One student, Bland said, was an 8-year-old who had come to her after sessions with a psychologist who had little understanding of trans issues. The child told her, “Miss JoAnne, you have lived it. You know better.”

Bland urged her audience to invite her back – “I’ve barely scratched the surface here” – and to study effective model programs instituted around the country that treat transgender children fairly. School districts nationwide, encompassing 6 million kids, have instituted bathroom policies that are fair and working well, “and there have been absolutely no problems,” she said. “Have the moral courage to do what’s right. Transchildren deserve to be treated right.”
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