Rocky Sanabria was seen as different for much of her life.
On the outside, she appeared to be a normal girl who was a bit boyish but otherwise nondescript.
But on the inside it was different. On the inside, Sanabria wasn’t a little girl but a little boy.
Labeled as suffering from gender identity disorder, she was admitted into a developmental class in first grade because of “tomboy issues.”
“Everytime I was bullied, the teachers would ignore it because they didn’t understand why I was choosing to be what I was,” Sanabria said. “In a meeting with a principal, I was told that the best solution would be to grow my hair out and ignore my feelings of being a boy.”
Sanabria, a Woodside resident, isn’t alone in feelings of being discriminated against and misunderstood. Many students who identify as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning experience some of the worst years of their lives while in middle and high school.
To bring awareness of these distressed students, Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), chairman of the Education Committee and former teacher who is openly gay, called for an oversight hearing on the treatment of LGBTQ students, family and staff.
“An LGBT teacher should never be afraid that administrators will not back him or her up as administrators repeatedly failed to do for me,” he said in an opening statement on Tuesday. “A student from a so-called nontraditional family should never be afraid to talk to his or her two moms or two dads in or out of the classroom.
“And no student should have to learn in an environment saturated with anti-LGBTQ hate speech and violence.”
For more than four hours in the Council chambers, dozens of activists, students, teachers and parents shared their experiences with homophobia and transphobia in city public schools. Chancellor Carmen Fari–a was on-hand to take in all of the testimony to review further.
Many accounts, especially those from students, were emotional but a few were informational.
“Yes, there are problems in our schools when it comes to sensitivity but we need to address the root of the problem,” one speaker said. “We need teachers and students actively making the school safer for LGBTQ youth while informing students of LGBTQ culture, history and prominent figures. It shouldn’t just be about security and safety, we need to embrace LGBTQ youth and have our students embrace them too.”
Last year, Dromm drafted legislation to require the history of the LGBTQ group — including the gay rights movement, AIDS epidemic and prominent leaders — to be included in the history curriculum.
It was not passed but the councilman plans to introduce it once again, hoping that the new, fairly progressive members will be more likely to vote in favor.
“Learning from the lessons of the past, we will be able to work together to ensure the way things were done is not how they will be done moving forward,” Dromm said. “This means no one should ever be punished for speaking about the history of LGBTQ civil rights.”
While there are still problems, strides have been taken. The City Council has six openly gay members, the most in the city’s history.
Even Sanabria noticed improvements when he entered Maspeth High School two years ago.
“High school has been the easiest two years that I’ve had in New York City public schools,” he said. “The staff made a plan ahead of time so that I can use the boys bathroom and locker room. They knew what to do and that’s what made me comfortable.”
Not every speaker addressed bullying. Brian Ellicott, a 24-year-old female-to-male transgender bisexual, said he wants students to embrace who they are while learning about their culture.
“The person you see today didn’t exist back then, she wasn’t allowed to,” he said. “Had I learned about people like Harvey Milk, about Act Up, about the 1980 Democratic National Convention when they took a platform on gay issues, my life would have been so different.
“History and politics has always been my thing. I used to argue in my classes all the time and if I knew this, I wouldn’t feel like such an alien in my own body. I want for people like me to pick up a textbook and see Jason Collins in that textbook and maybe all of you will be in that textbook too.”
Progress may be slow coming, especially for the transgender population. New York state does not collect data on gender identification, making it difficult for guidance counselors and other student support systems to learn how to address transgender students in school.
Nationally, transgender youth are more likely to be assaulted sexually and physically, develop an eating disorder, become homeless, turn to drugs and commit suicide than any other demographic. The odds spike even higher in minority transgender groups.
“If the only electronic a student comes in contact with in school is a metal detector, that’s a problem,” one speaker said. “More schools are resembling prisons than places to educate our kids.”
“With a few exceptions, nearly every single LGBTQ individual in this country has stories of trauma — physical and emotional — lost friends, silent teachers, unsympathetic administrators, etc,” Dromm said. “Failing these young people is not an option. When we fail them, or any member of the LGBTQ community, we fail all members of our school communities.”