How a public elementary school saved the day for a transgender student

Maddison follows her brother on their first day of school.

By Sabrina Holcomb

When a private school closed the door on six-year-old Maddison Kinsale, a public school welcomed her with open arms.

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Maddison transitioned last summer between pre-K and kindergarten, becoming the youngest child in Connecticut to change the gender designation on her birth certificate. When her mother informed the private school in which her daughter was enrolled about Maddison’s new status, they made it clear Maddison would not be welcome says Kate Kinsale.

Devastated that the school she had attended as a child had turned its back on her daughter, Kinsale recalls sobbing as she headed to the public school three blocks away. “I had so much running through my mind,” she explains. “I had to keep my daughter safe and withdraw my son from the school that he loved.”

It was the Friday before school started, but within 10 minutes of talking to the principal, they had worked out a plan for Maddison and her brother.

“I went from heartbreak to utter relief,” confides Kinsale. “There’s a huge fear in the parental community about the day you have to sign up your child for school. Schools are filled with mandated reporters, so we’re not just concerned our children will be turned away; we’re afraid they’ll be taken away.”

Kinsale says she knew she was in the right place when the principal told her that every family has a story, and it’s the school’s job to figure out how to support them.

As a growing number of states gear up to introduce anti-transgender bills that will impact public schools, rainbow-friendly schools that welcome and respect all students can a make a profound difference in the lives of LGBTQ children say educators.

“Our state has progressive LGBTQ policies, but Maddison is the school’s first transgender student,” shares school counselor Nick Lynch. “So we went to work transitioning into an inclusive, transgender-friendly campus by raising awareness and making changes to the physical environment.”

  • Two single stall restrooms in the center of the school were changed to unisex bathrooms. Maddison is also allowed to use any bathroom that aligns with her gender identify.
  • Gender-designated reading nooks became reading spaces for all children, and parents are being asked to donate grade-appropriate books about diverse cultures and gender expression. The school also plans to display images showing various ethnicities and LGBT-inclusive families.
  • Lynch has written an article for the school newsletter to raise awareness about gender color coding, and educators have stopped lining up children by gender.
  • The school district has also amended its policy to be more inclusive of transgender students in response to Maddison’s enrollment and the nationwide proliferation of “bathroom bills.”

“Transgender kids have a difficult road as it is,” declares Lynch, who has worked with trans students before but never one as young as Madison. “As a school and a society, we don’t need to add to their angst; we need to support them.”

Affirmation at home and at school has worked miracles for Maddison, who’s making social and academic gains as she becomes “more comfortable in her skin.” Prior to the change, Maddison was often angry and unhappy, but transitioning was like a light switch, says her mother. “Now she’s as healthy as she can be emotionally.”

The family was reassured by recent university studies reporting that transgender children who are loved and accepted by both parents have the same mental health rates as cisgender (non-trans) children. Maddison’s parents have added the report to Maddison’s “safe folder”—legal paperwork and documents that help protect the family and advance the child’s rights.

“I’m trying hard to get acceptance institutionalized,” vows Kinsale. “I don’t want my daughter to be the last of the generation that had to fight. I want her to be the first of the generation that had it easy.”

As a school counselor and advocate for LGBTQ rights, Lynch praises the courage and strength of the Kinsale family and his school’s actions. He has a message for states contemplating hostile legislation and schools struggling with the issue. “Look what you can accomplish when you do the right thing.”

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