Portland has become the latest and the largest school district in Maine to adopt an inclusive transgender and gender-expansive student policy. It follows half a dozen other school districts across the state that have taken steps to prevent bullying, provide equity and clarify best practices.
Advocates say Portland’s policy, unanimously adopted by the school board Tuesday night, is a potential model for districts around the country.
Not long after President Donald Trump took office and rolled back federal protections for transgender students, members of the Portland School Board decided they wanted to pursue their own policy. And they wanted students to help develop it. So, with the support of the school superintendent, they, along with parents, teachers, advocates, attorneys and students, got to work.
“We had long meetings and it took seven months, but I wanted it to be right and to make sure we did it right the first time around,” says board member Holly Seeliger, who is credited with championing the policy that allows transgender and gender-expansive students to use the preferred pronoun of their choice and to use bathrooms and changing rooms that correspond with their gender identity.
Gender expansive is a term used to describe people whose gender expressions and identities go beyond what are perceived as expected.
The policy also requires annual training for teachers and staff and affirms the right of students to be who they are and to be safe from bullying.
Seeliger says she understands what it’s like to feel marginalized and vulnerable because of gender identity and body issues. Back in 2003, she was experiencing that in her rural Maine high school.
“And I wanted to found the GSA — we called it the Gay-Straight Alliance back then — with some other students, and we got a teacher rep to help us have meetings after school,” she says.
But Seeliger says on the day the first meeting was to take place, the principal canceled it, saying it was not “school appropriate.” More than a dozen years later, it’s a different story.
“I want to thank you on behalf of our students and families,” says Kathy Marquis-Girard, an assistant principal at Portland High School who was one of several members of the public who spoke in support of the new policy. “I can’t tell you what this is going to mean for many and I also want to speak on behalf of all the work and the leadership that you’ve shown to our students.”
No one spoke against the policy.
For some, it was an emotional meeting. Just before the vote, one board member read a letter from a parent describing the anxiety and suffering her 21-year-old transgender daughter experienced before she took her own life. It highlighted, another said, that “lives are on the line.”
“Having grown up as a bisexual, transgender person and not having any support, I probably never thought there’d be a place and a time where schools would be voting on a policy that would affirm my identity,” says Gia Drew, program director for Equality Maine and a longtime former teacher who helped draft the policy.
Asked whether the policy will make a difference for kids who are being bullied, Drew says, “I hope so. I mean that’s really the reason behind this and I think what we’ve noticed is that students and teachers and parents in school have been looking for some type of guidance and specifics about, how do we talk about this issue? How do we support young people? And I think a policy like this provides some language and some guidance for folks. And I do think it will make a difference.”
Mary Bonauto, a parent and attorney with GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders, calls the policy a “watershed moment for Maine.” The Maine Human Rights Act requires nondiscrimination in schools, but Bonauto, who argued for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015, says this is about respect.
“I think it’s terrific. The one thing that I would say that I’m concerned about is, in Maine for public high schools, a lot of this is controlled by the Maine Principals’ Association and they have a transgender athletic policy. However, it does require students, or their schools, to come and have a hearing, essentially, about whether they can play girls’ sports or boys’ sports,” she says.
Bonauto says she appreciates that transgender athletes were included in the association’s policy, but she says the hearing requirement is something that will need to be addressed.
Correction: Mary Bonauto argued for marriage equality, not against the Defense of Marriage Act, before the U.S. Supreme Court.