A transgender activist is scheduled to perform and give a talk Thursday evening at Needham High School, but student organizers are disappointed they couldn’t hold the event during the school day, when it would reach the students who are least likely to be educated about transgender rights.
Jonah Miller, a junior who is a member of the high school’s All Genders and Sexualities Alliance, which is hosting the event, suggested Ryan Cassata as a speaker after becoming a fan of his music.
On the plus side, a night event means people from outside Needham can attend, he said, but an event during school hours would have involved more students, including those who are less tolerant of transgender people.
“We would reach people who are making rude comments to people,” said Miller. “When you make it at night, it becomes a completely optional event. The people who are going to take the time to show up are the people that are already going to be open-minded enough to care to come.”
Principal Jonathan Pizzi said the biggest reason for not having it during the school day was logistical.
Needham High has only two schoolwide assemblies during the year because administrators don’t want to take away from instruction time, he said.
“There are so many perspectives around sexuality that we wanted them to have an event that could be accessible to a lot of different people,” said Pizzi. “Sexuality isn’t a topic we shy away from.”
Cassata, who came out nationally as transgender on “Larry King Live’’ when he was 15 years old, said he has given talks at about 50 high schools, colleges, and conferences since then. Originally from Long Island, he is now 19 and a freshman at San Francisco State University.
His appearances at high schools usually occur during the day, he said. He said it’s unfortunate this one won’t be, adding “but it’s okay, because I’ll be able to give students all the information they need.”
Cassata said he sings some songs and talks about being transgender, covering topics like bullying, suicide, and terminology, as well as surgery and hormones.
The free presentation will start at 7 p.m. in the high school’s auditorium. Student organizers said they hope they can bring Cassata back next year for a schoolwide assembly.
Pizzi said that having the event at night allows parents and people from other communities to attend.
Another alternative discussed was to hold the presentation during the day, but to make attendance optional. Pizzi said the school has tried that in the past, but then some students in a class want to go and others don’t.
“We talk about issues of sexuality. It is a very charged topic,” he said.
Pizzi said having the event during the day might have caused some friction in the school (“There might have been some pushback, hard to say”), but that isn’t why the decision was made to have it at night.
One of the two all-school assemblies is an annual event called “Own your Peace-Piece,” which allows students to share difficult stories with their peers. In the past, students have talked about struggles with eating disorders, sexual orientation, and other adversities, said Pizzi.
Greg Raubach, a junior in the school’s All Genders and Sexualities Alliance, echoed classmate Miller’s concerns.
“We wanted it to happen during the day so people who really needed to see the presentation,’’ who weren’t always interested in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) activism, or weren’t exposed to it, “that they would have a chance to see it,” said Raubach. Having the session at night, he said, means that “the people who will most need the message that Ryan Cassata will be able to bring won’t show up.”
In February, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued guidelines on how to foster a safe and supportive school environment for transgender students. The 13-page document, which builds on a Massachusetts law passed last year that prohibits discrimination against transgender students in public schools, informs schools that they must allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and play on the sports teams of their preferred gender.
Further, the guidelines advise that schools should weave education about transgender students into their antibullying curriculum, student leadership training, and staff professional development.
Jesse Begenyi, interim director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, said those guidelines, which the coalition supports, have made for a tense environment in some schools where they have run up against criticism.
“In some ways, this is a time when people really need to see positive role models and positive representations of transgender students and transgender people,” said Begenyi.
“I think that it’s definitely going to start shifting, but I think it’s still in that tricky place, where opponents still have enough tools that people who are on the fence are afraid of. . . I think it’s the fear of difference, fear of the unknown.”