LGBTQ+ advocates unite to train school board on fighting transphobia


Photo: Jenna Peterson / Allies and members of the LGBTQ+ community march at Burlington’s pride event in 2018.

Jenna Peterson

The Burlington High School (BHS) cafeteria hummed with excitement on Tuesday night while advocates, allies, and transgender youth eagerly waited to begin training the Burlington School Board on transgender issues and identity. 

Interest in the meeting spiked last week, when a post on the Facebook group “Take Action for Burlington Schools” circulated. Jessica Oski, parent of a transgender student and an attorney and lobbyist, reported that a transphobic letter, allegedly written by an anonymous Burlington School District (BSD) staff member was sent to the school board. 

“The letter basically objects to kids being taught that trans and/or gender nonbinary is anything other than “orthodoxy, and that the school district should immediately stop teaching kids that being trans or gender nonbinary is ok or normal,” Jessica Oski wrote in the post on February 3.

On November 13, 2019, BSD signed a settlement agreement with the United States Department of Justice after the district failed to address peer-on-peer based harassment based on sex. In the settlement, the district agreed to appoint a District Nondiscrimination Coordinator who would monitor compliance, coordinate form submissions to the United States, make all nondiscrimination, bullying and harassment policies consistent and provide up to date information and training on these issues. 

“I helped organize the presentation here tonight because I know the board is embarking on the training and policy reform required by the settlement agreement with the Department of Justice,” Oski said in her speech to the board.

The advocates, including doctors, staff from the Department of Child and Family services, policy advisors, lawyers, parents, and students, addressed the anonymous letter by presenting the school board with the facts and current standards and practices. Speakers introduced the roles of various LGBTQ+ advocacy groups in Vermont and pushed for immediate and robust training practices in the district. 

“Listening to other people share their opinions about my identity is a regular occurence, and it is exhausting. It feels like it is our responsibility to educate our peers and teachers about our right to exist.”

– Ezra Totten

“We cannot optimize support and care for transgender and gender non conforming youth without working all together to encourage supportive school and community environments,” Dr. Erica Gibson, adolescent medicine specialist at the Department of Pediatrics at UVM Medical Center and current medical director of the transgender youth program at UVM, said. 

Sophomores Oliver Oski and Ezra Totten, who both self identify as transgender, spoke to the board to communicate their concerns for the treatment of transgender youth at BHS. As leaders of BHS’ Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA), they said members often come to them with their stories of homophobia and transphobia in school spaces.

“Listening to other people share their opinions about my identity is a regular occurence, and it is exhausting,” Totten said. “It feels like it is our responsibility to educate our peers and teachers about our right to exist.”

The push for a change in staff training was a common theme among the speakers. After much discussion on the topic, Director of Education at Outright Vermont Mara Iverson introduced herself as “the trainer” to warm laughter. Outright Vermont is a Burlington based organization that aims to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ young adults in Vermont. She said that BSD’s District Nondiscrimination Coordinator Henri Sparks approached her last year and asked her to create a comprehensive LBGTQ+ training plan. The manual is ready and Iverson is hopeful that BSD will get to work. 

“It’s important to create some representation from organizations so that there is a legitimizing of [the idea that] this isn’t just one person’s experience, but this is happening for youth across Vermont,” Dana Kaplan, the Executive Director of Outright Vermont, said.

When the presentation was over, the cafeteria erupted with applause. The room held such overwhelming emotion that although still in the middle of the meeting, school board members left their seats to introduce themselves and thank the students, parents and professionals personally.   

“I hope that tonight will raise the awareness on the school board and for the school district of the urgency of the issue,” Vermont Representative Brain Cina said. “And that from this moment we can move forward even stronger in the right direction to make sure that the school system is working for all youth to thrive.”

Oliver Oski and Totten will continue to advocate for  LGBTQ+ youth beyond tonight’s meeting.

“I hope that once Ezra and I are gone from the school, we’ll have left [BHS] a safer place for LGBTQ+ students, and that we will be able to feel confident with the work we’ve done,” Oliver Oski said.