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Transgender Chaperon Ignites School Dispute

Some insist on a rule on 'appropriate' attire after a dad dressed as a woman goes on trip.

January 05, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — The fourth-grade field trip to the state Capitol was going well: The kids gaped at the rotunda, peeked in the Senate chambers, listened politely to a lecture on how a bill becomes law.

Then someone noticed that the parent chaperon with the gorgeous hair and tasteful makeup was a dad.

Most of the kids on the trip, apparently, either did not notice or did not care that a classmate's father was dressed as a woman, in jeans, a sweater and nice shoes. Most of the teachers, apparently, were equally untroubled.

But when the fourth-graders returned from Jefferson City, Mo., that afternoon in mid-October, the parent chaperon who had spotted the "cross-dressing dad" alerted some friends. Word spread quickly though the Francis Howell School District, in the middle-class suburb of St. Charles. The resulting tumult has not yet subsided.

Alarmed, outraged and indignant, several parents demanded that the school board look into the matter. They found a receptive audience in board member Lisa Naeger, a mother of two who recoiled at the thought of her 9-year-old being exposed to a transgender adult on a field trip.

"I don't think it's fair to the kids or to the parents," Naeger said. "Parents have a right to make the decision about how their children are to be exposed to these issues. It's crucial that we make a stand."

Naeger has proposed a new policy that would require parent chaperons to wear "gender-appropriate" clothing for school functions. It's unlikely, however, that such wording would survive a court challenge. In 1985, a federal court struck down an obscure (and rarely used) St. Louis ordinance that banned anyone from dressing in clothing "not according to his or her sex" while out in public.

Naeger expects the board to make a decision by mid-January; she is not optimistic that her colleagues will back her request. But a handful of fired-up parents is not willing to let the matter drop.

The parents have asked the district to let them know whenever the father in question visits Castlio Elementary School, so they can withdraw their children from class. And they are pleading for a dress code that would require all adults who interact with students to "dress in what a 9- or 10-year-old perceives as normal clothes for a man or a woman," as mother Patti Hight puts it.

"This individual did not use common sense. He did not put the children first. He did not think how this would confuse them," said Hight.

Her daughter did not notice the cross-dressed dad during the daylong field trip. Still, Hight said she's furious to think that, if her daughter had noticed, had raised a question, it would have fallen to a stranger to explain transsexualism. "He shouldn't have put the other parent chaperons or the educators in the position of having to explain such a controversial lifestyle," Hight said.

The father has not been identified. But sources who know him said he has dressed as a woman at work for at least six years, keeping his hair long, wearing slacks and blouses and using a name that could be either male or female. Actively involved in his daughters' education, he has volunteered in their schools, attended their concerts and conferred with their teachers while in women's attire -- without any backlash, until now.

"This guy was not a disruption," said Jon Bennett, a school board member. "He didn't show up wearing a skintight leather dress and fishnet stockings."

"It wasn't obvious at all," added Karen Finch, a special-education teacher who went on the field trip. "I'm not going to say I get it. I don't. But that doesn't matter. It's a free country.

"We're just a Midwestern, conservative, middle-class white neighborhood -- this isn't San Francisco, you know -- but the staff at the school is supportive of this man. The teachers accept him. A few parents just freaked out and now it's blown up out of proportion."

The father's supporters point out that teachers already have the right to remove any volunteer who disrupts the educational process. A parent who cross-dressed so flamboyantly that kids couldn't pay attention to their lessons could be asked to leave. So could a chaperon who made racist remarks.

This father, however, was by all accounts dressed in an understated style; he did not seek to explain himself or promote his views on gender to the children.

If he were barred from volunteering in the schools, his supporters ask, what would stop the district from excluding a lesbian couple, or an interracial couple, or any other parents whose lifestyles or orientations some would regard as controversial?

"We don't have the right to discriminate, and we shouldn't," Bennett said.

Transgender advocates point out too that to qualify for sex-change surgery, individuals first go through a prolonged period of "transition," when they present themselves in public as the gender they hope to become.

"They can't just arbitrarily switch back and forth to appease parents on a field trip," said Vanessa Edwards Foster, founder of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition.

A recent poll by the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay-rights group, found that 77% of Americans favor allowing transgender students to attend public schools. But just half support the idea of transgender high school teachers.

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