In Swampscott, parents grapple with transgender issues
SWAMPSCOTT — What happens when the principal comes out as transgender?
When Stanley Elementary School’s principal, Tom Daniels, announced this month he would henceforth be known as Shannon, his community tried to shrug. “He’s a nice guy,” one man told WBZ-TV. “I’m sure he’ll be a nice woman.”
But behind closed doors, some parents fumbled for the appropriate pronouns and fumed about the abruptness of the news. How were they supposed to translate this to kindergartners by the start of school the next morning?
“I didn’t know what to say yet,” one father told the Globe, admitting he took his children to school 15 minutes early to avoid the principal. “I didn’t have my story straight because I had a matter of hours. Is he going to be wearing a dress? Do I have to deal with this? Can you give me a little bit of time?”
If transitions like this seem like they’ve become commonplace in America, that doesn’t mean they’ve become comfortable — even among those who accept the idea, as many in Swampscott do. A generation raised to operate within strict gender lanes is grappling for the most suitable language to talk about the gender continuum with their children.
“This is new territory for all of us,” Swampscott Superintendent Pamela R.H. Angelakis told parents at a question-and-answer session last week. “I’m learning alongside you.”
While transgender awareness has soared in recent years, most people still don’t personally know someone who’s transgender and lack the familiarity they have developed with gay and lesbian people, said Jeff Perrotti, the director of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students who led the parent talk.
“Where we are with gender identity now is where we were with sexual orientation 10 or 15 years ago,” Perrotti said.
As transgender people gain visibility, though, they are facing a backlash. The Trump administration reversed anti-discrimination policies for transgender people at school and at work and tried to bar them from serving in the military. Newly granted protections might be revoked, even in Massachusetts: A November ballot question will ask Massachusetts voters whether to repeal a 2016 antidiscrimination law on public accommodations, marking the first statewide referendum on transgender rights in the country.
In Swampscott, many parents expressed liberal attitudes — or at least libertarian tolerance — about Daniels’ news.
“I think now as a society we’re open to all these things,” said George Ciuc, the father of a second-grader whom he’d told the principal might look or sound different. He reminded his daughter that “you shouldn’t make fun of anyone regardless, so whatever you see, go with the flow.”
But Daniels’ disclosure on Feb. 6 rattled others. Anonymous messages have been arriving daily at the principal’s office, calling Daniels a “pervert,” quoting the Bible, or warning how hot it is in hell. Though some callers have Southern accents and are clearly not local, some Swampscott residents have also vocally questioned Daniels’ leadership, judgment, and handling of the announcement.
“They say they’re worried about their kids,” Daniels said in an interview. “But they just don’t want it. They don’t want their male principal to be dressed up in women’s clothes. I think they think that means he’s crazy.”
Gender identity refers to someone’s internal sense of being male, female, both, or neither; it’s not visible and it’s independent of gender expression (the way people dress, wear their hair, speak, and act) and sexual orientation (attraction to other people). Being transgender means someone’s gender identity doesn’t match their biological sex; it doesn’t mean that a medical transition is necessarily underway. Transgender individuals often change their gender expression to align with their gender identity. Daniels identifies as both male and female and plans to present more as female over time.
A father of three children who is married to a woman, Daniels, 52, had been quietly cross-dressing since childhood. Still, the decision came rather suddenly. After quitting drinking in November, Daniels began dressing female more often at home, buying more women’s clothes, and joined a transgender support group. The secret was about to get out, and school officials decided to get ahead of it, sending e-mails to parents.
“The time was right, and I don’t think there would ever be a great time,” Daniels said. “Could I have done it better, more gracefully? Definitely.”
That same day, Stanley Elementary teachers were rushed into an emergency training with Perrotti. He returned the following week for the meeting with parents where good intentions and tension were both palpable.
Two uniformed police officers stood guard at the meeting. And though the session was being videotaped for parents who couldn’t be there, the superintendent assured parents that their faces would be blurred on the video so they could not be identified. The meeting was attended by a Globe reporter who learned of it from Daniels.
When Perrotti asked how parents now answer their children’s questions about why some kids have two moms or two dads, one man said he never had to; kids these days don’t even ask.
But as Perrotti rolled out videos of transgender students, one mother piped up in protest: This situation is different. They weren’t talking about a transgender student, whom their children would accept. This was the leader of their school, someone in a position of authority.
“I’m worried that it’s a little bit of a distraction for them, and it’s taking away from the authority of the position of Principal Daniels,” she said.
Perrotti gently tried to put their complaints into historical perspective.
“When women first got the right to vote, people were uncomfortable,” he said. The same was true of interracial couples and same-sex marriages.
“Discomfort is not a reason to treat people inequitably. It is an opportunity to learn and grow,” he said.
With the floodgates open, the parents’ complaints cascaded. Fine, the principal is transgender, some suggested, but why did they have to hear about it midweek? Couldn’t Daniels have broken the news over school vacation, when there was time to process it thoughtfully with their children? They wished they’d had more notice, better communications.
“I am really happy now, like I’ve never been,” Daniels said later in an interview. “I want to come out. But I feel bad for the Stanley community, because no one can understand. They think I was just being a jerk. Like, why couldn’t he have waited a year?”
“They don’t get what they’re asking,” Daniels said. “They really don’t.”
Still, even Daniels acknowledges, “My coming out came at a terrible time.”
Just two weeks earlier, the Swampscott School Committee had announced budget cuts that seemed to disproportionately hit Stanley Elementary. Parents wanted their principal advocating from a position of strength to fight the changes, which will force many of their children to transfer to different elementary schools.
“This is going to make it a whole lot easier to do that if people don’t like this leader,” one man griped at the meeting.
Other parents asked how teachers were explaining the transition in school.
“This was a little mature for my taste, for what I want presented to my second-grader,” said one mother.
Stanley Elementary’s oldest students are in fourth grade; only in that year do they get their first introduction to bodily changes through a puberty video their parents are allowed to review — or even refuse — the mother pointed out.
She worried whether she’d gotten her own hurried explanation to her children right. If she’d said something wrong, would the teachers deem her “hateful”?
Perrotti and teachers assured parents that teachers are conveying what they always have — that children should be accepting and respectful of other people. The school’s initial letters to parents offered sample language:
There are many different ways that boys and girls express themselves. It is important that we accept everyone as they are.
Principal Daniels may look and sound different, but inside Principal Daniels is the same caring person.
But even the name “Principal Daniels” is new. The students used to call him “Mr.” One girl was so anxious about getting the name wrong that she’d been sent home sick, her mother told the crowd.
Confusion over names and pronouns isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon. Daniels initially invited families to use any pronoun — he, she, or they— to describe him. But on Friday, Daniels began using slightly different self-descriptors. “She” doesn’t always fit, Daniels acknowledged. “They” works, although it’s plural and feels awkward in common speech. Daniels described himself as “gender fluid” meaning he feels both male and female, at different times, in different proportions.
“I mean, I have 5 o’clock shadow right now,” Daniels said, while wearing a pinkish scarf, a long skirt, and velvet, over-the-knee boots. It wasn’t the first outfit of the day; Daniels had made several wardrobe changes, dressing up and then succumbing to the weight of people’s glances.
“I changed clothes four times today,” Daniels said. “That’s how it feels.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com.