Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Courageous Conversations

It started with a simple request. Could I come in and help your district support your LGBTQ students even more than the district is already doing?  But, Dr. Linda Wagner, at that time the Monrovia Superintendent, and currently the Anaheim City School District Superintendent, had bigger visions.  Why not help multiple districts support their LGBTQ students to feel safer and more accepted?  And so on October 16th, in Alhambra, California, 72 participants, representing 22 school districts met to listen, dialogue and gain resources to make their districts even safer for LGBTQ students.  In attendance were seven superintendents, seven assistant superintendents, and multiple leaders from as far away as Bakersfield, Lancaster, Irvine and Manhattan Beach.

Dr. John Deasy, Superintendent for Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the largest districts in the nation, provided the keynote address. “It is not about tolerance.  It is about acceptance.  We have to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice yet.  Remaining silent is abandoning our role of being there for the students.”  Dr. Deasy passionately expressed that educational leaders need to visibly set the bar of acceptance for all who walk onto their campuses. As he spoke from his heart, the audience was drawn in. A sense of calm and ease began to flow into the day.  Participants recognized  we are all on this journey together, we have made mistakes, we doing the best we can with the knowledge we have and we are all here to do our jobs better by gaining more knowledge. 

Two presentations followed Dr.Deasy’s opening comments.  One presentation from two LAUSD experts, Dr. Judy Chiasson and Stephen Jimenez-Robb, focused on balancing California laws with finding the heart to do the right thing.  They used several examples where LAUSD made decisions of the heart, even when the laws did not require their action.   In addition, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) represented by Dr. Robert McGarry, as Senior Director, provided the participants with a wealth of information and Safe Space Kits to begin introducing both elementary and secondary schools to valuable suggestions on making their schools more welcoming.

To respond to questions that participants may have had following the presentations, a panel presentation with Dr. Chiasson, Dr. McGarry, and Stephen Jimenez was provided, adding Ariel Bustamante from the Gay Straight Alliance Network (GSA). There were questions about accommodations for transgender students, inquiries about LAUSD’s new campaign where straight allies identify themselves as safe places for LGBTQ students to turn to for support by wearing rainbow badges, and specific questions regarding struggles within districts. 

The day closed with my son Aiden and I sharing our story.  I spoke about the fear and struggles of a mother and made the analogy that districts are like families.  Families love their children and districts care about their students.  We are all learning and growing.  I shared districts could never make as many mistakes as I made . . . and yet here I am with my son and we are closer than ever, because in the end the love and care were things that mattered most.  Aiden shared his experiences and the changes he has seen in the past few years at the school he attended.  In our evaluations, one participant called my son, courageous.  I couldn’t agree more with that assessment of Aiden, but of course, I am his mother.

Besides the presentations, multiple resources around the room were available. Visibly present were resources from PFLAG, a national organization that supports LGBTQ individuals and their families.  I currently sit on the PFLAG National Board and Aiden sits on the PFLAG National Transgender Advisory Council.  Five local chapters of PFLAG sent representatives, as well as resources. 

Also in attendance was a newly formed coalition made up of various PFLAG chapters, GSA Network and other supportive individuals and organizations.  The Southern California Safe Schools Coalition was present not only to support this event, but to be a future resource for the school districts who might want specific knowledge or trainings.

As participants walked out of the room, an air of hope and possibilities followed them. I believe that our LGBTQ students will be a little safer when they walk onto the campuses of the 22 districts that attended.  And although it is just a beginning . . . . that is where all of us had to start.

Marsha Aizumi is an educational speaker and author of Two Spirits, One Heart. Visit Marsha at www.marshaaizumi.com

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The World Is Watching

Recently I had a chance to travel to Fuzhou, China, to speak to LGBT young people and their parents at a national conference for PFLAG China. Initially I was going to turn down the invitation; it is so far to travel alone, and I don't speak Chinese. I was afraid. But I want to make this world safer for my transgender son and all LGBT individuals. How can I do this if I don't take a risk and travel when invited? I typed up my positive response to the executive director of PFLAG China, and with my finger hovering over the keys, I took a deep breath and pushed the "send" key, feeling courage enter me as my message traveled halfway across the globe.
Two months later I was traveling to Asia, scared and excited, and having few expectations but anticipating that I would experience things that would change who I am as a mother and LGBT activist. I wasn't disappointed . . . Read More

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I Love You With All My Heart

My husband and I have been married for over 40 years and have lived in California even longer. We have a transgender son who is getting ready to marry his best friend, Mary, on Nov. 8. So when the Supreme Court overturned DOMA and Prop 8, it didn't affect us in the same way that it affected many of our lesbian and gay friends, but we celebrated along with everyone, because we are part of the LGBT community, and they are a part of us.

I heard stories from parents who attend our PFLAG chapter. They called their sons or daughters to share in this historic decision. One mom and dad even planned to visit their gay son regardless of the outcome of the ruling. If the decision was positive, they wanted to look their son in the eye and share in the hope that became part of the day. If the decision was not positive, they wanted to be there to console their son, so that hope would not be lost. There was such an outpouring of love, joy and gratitude. My heart was filled with warmth for days. . . .Read More

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Proudly Living a Life of Dreams

June was a month of graduations and of Pride. And I recently met a student that was celebrating both. His name is Abel and he sat in a bus for 1 1/2 hours, each way, twice a week, then returned home, disciplining himself to do work for 4-6 hours per day. He could have gone to a school closer to home, but Abel chose to make this trek for over 18 months to graduate from Opportunities for Learning (OFL), a public charter school. OFL who provided the teacher and books partnered with LifeWorks who provided a classroom at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center. It was a safe space for Abel.
In the beginning, Abel's mom didn't want him to enroll in this school. It was too far from home and it was not a traditional public school. But when she walked in and met OFL teacher, Jeff White, her feelings began to change. Jeff was kind, encouraging and genuinely cared about her son. He also took time to talk with Abel. Little did Abel's mom or Jeff know that Abel was planning to use this new school as an easy way to drop out of high school completely. Being gay, hanging with the wrong crowd and falling behind in his credits had created a hopeless feeling inside of Abel, but dropping out of his local high school did not give him enough reasons to fail. Going to a charter school, riding a bus six hours per week and having to work independently would give him those reasons. To Abel's surprise, something different happened. The connection he made with his teacher started to spark a tiny light of hope in him. And with Jeff's support, he started to believe that his dreams were possible. "Could I actually catch up on my credits and graduate?" Abel thought.

Jeff held Abel to a high standard. If Abel fell behind in his work, Jeff sat him down and talked to him about what was going on. This was a teacher that truly cared, took the time to get to know his student and found ways to connect with him. Abel wanted to make Jeff proud of him, so he began to study harder. And so little by little, Abel's thoughts of dropping out switched to believing that he could graduate. As graduation drew near, Abel began to dream that he would be able to attend college. He is now on his way to California State University Northridge pursuing another dream . . . getting a degree in film and eventually applying to USC's Film School.
What kind of school can bring a student without hope to dream big and start believing in himself? Opportunities for Learning was founded by John and Joan Hall. John a dyslexic student, who could only read a few words at the age of 12, developed a method of education that requires the students to work independently, developing character assets, like being responsible, persevering, being disciplined . . . .qualities that will prepare them for college. It is a year round school, with a low teacher to student ratio (one teacher to five students per hour). And this l:5 ratio allows teachers to really bond with their students. Students are asked in their initial meetings with teachers, "What is your dream?" John says having a dream, a passion, a purpose that ignites you, is the key to students working hard, overcoming adversity and believing that success is possible. In addition, OFL hires teachers that do not see the failures of the past, but empower students in the possibilities of their future.
This school also believes that community is important, because people need to feel like they belong. So although the students work independently of each other, John and Joan's daughter, Jamie, has built in community pieces through her non-profit, Pathways in Education. Students fly to Colorado to work on a ranch for ten days, board a bus to go into the mountains to study leadership for a weekend or explore different colleges over four days while talking about the steps needed to pursue post secondary education. Individual school sites also have the opportunity to create other learning experiences, such as travelling to Washington DC to lobby for safer schools and attending a PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) convention.
So in the month of Pride, Abel and his family not only celebrated his academic accomplishments but they are proud of who he is as a person. I dream that our LGBT children have teachers like Jeff, who will advocate for their students, see their greatness and make sure they are safe. I dream that our LGBT children can be themselves in a world that often tries to tell them that they are not good enough. And though we still have so much further to go in our work, hearing the decisions from the Supreme Court on DOMA and Prop. 8 and seeing students like Abel succeed, give me hope that we are moving in the right direction.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

From Darkness to Light: How a mother and her transgender son journeyed to love and acceptance

written for Hyphen Magazine Issue 27

Four years ago, my 20-year old daughter fearfully looked across a table at me and said the words that would forever change my life: "I want to transition to be a boy."

The first 20 years of my daughter's life suddenly began to make sense: the toddler who pouted at wearing dresses and bows, the elementary school tomboy who only wore pants and T-shirts and the high school cutter who refused to go to school and was diagnosed with agoraphobia. She had struggled with her gender identity after coming out as a lesbian a few years earlier. She had talked with other female-to-male transgender individuals, and their stories had resonated with her .  In my mind, a volley of questions grabbed center stage: What do you mean transition to be a boy? Is it even possible to change genders? How? I tried to remain calm on the outside, but my mind was racing. . . Read More

Friday, May 31, 2013

The World I Dream Of

posted on QAS E-Zine, Vol. 2 (2013)

A reflection on a mother’s journey as she accompanies her child’s transitioning from female to male and the place that church communities played in this journey. Also, this mother shares her hope for the future as more Asian LGBT families try to reconcile their spirituality with both the Asian and queer aspects of their lives.

I am a Japanese American mother who was baptized in a Southern Baptist Church at the age of seven, attended a Japanese American Methodist church throughout middle and high school, but wasn’t involved in church during college and my early years of marriage. Things began to change as my children starting growing up. I wanted them to be connected to God. I wanted them to have some religious foundation, so that as they became adults, they would know God and be able to make a choice on how he would be a part of their lives. So we began to attend a neighborhood Lutheran church. 

In the beginning, it was a community that we felt fairly comfortable in. Most of the congregation was Caucasian, but they seemed to accept having Asian families a part of their church. We loved the pastor’s sermons and his kind ways, but the more we got involved in the church the more uncomfortable I became. This church talked about love, but I began to feel their love was conditional. I attended a bible study class and someone said, “We must no longer be tolerant of homosexuality. It is a sin.” There was anger and strong conviction in his voice. I thought to myself, if God was all about love, why was there so much hatred in that man’s voice? My children would come home and question why the church didn’t like gay people. “Papa has gay people that work at his hair salon. They are nice and have good hearts. Why does the church say bad things about them?” my daughter would ask. 

A few years passed and we continued to attend this church.  My daughter was now in high school and she had come out as lesbian. Her coming out was neither planned nor readily accepted. She had blurted it out in the middle of an argument that we were having. I was stunned. I did not want my daughter to face a world that was unsafe and prejudiced against her. Fearing for her safety and future happiness, I hoped this “choice” she was making would only be a temporary phase, and so for the next few months our family walked around, trying to avoid the subject. My daughter began to dress more masculine and cut her hair short. The avoidance of her sexual orientation continued to drive a wedge in our relationship. I was ashamed. If I was a good mother, how could I let this happen? Then one evening at the end of a Sunday church service, a visiting minister in the kindest, gentlest voice asked my daughter to come back to church when she found herself. The message ... if you are gay, you are not welcome here. She was devastated and so was I. Our family left the church.

A few years later my daughter came out as transgender, a boy living in a girl’s body. She wanted to transition her body to be in alignment with her brain. By this time, I had become more educated, and knew my child did not have a choice. She was trying to find the place where she was in alignment with her thoughts and feelings, but the thought of her changing genders threw me into a new world of confusion and fear. How I wish we had a church to turn to for comfort during those years. For a period of time I was angry at all churches and angry at God. Why had both abandoned us during the time of our greatest need? 

We didn’t set foot in another church for many years. And my transgender son, once a very spiritual being, no longer feels he needs a church to be connected to his God. Aiden has a very personal relationship with God. Aiden’s God loves him unconditionally, allows Aiden to talk to him when he needs to, and my son sees heaven as a place where all of us will be together again when our earthly life is over. Until more churches embrace the concept of unconditional love, I don’t believe my son will return to the church. I, on the other hand, am still searching for a place to feed my spiritual side. I want to find a sacred space of both love and acceptance.

Being Asian, the mother of a queer child, and spiritual, does have challenges for me. I feel that most of the Asian churches are not very accepting of the LGBT community due to their conservative nature, so I am not drawn to them. I would love to find an Asian church, where my cultural background and spiritual yearning will be fed without judgment about my transgender child.  Attending a church that is welcoming also feels a bit different, since there are not very many Asian faces. For some reason Asian faces comfort me and make me feel a kinship that does not exist in non-Asian spaces. But things are changing and so am I.

In June, Aiden and I are speaking to a number of Asian churches who have decided to sponsor an event around our story and our recently published book, Two Spirits, One Heart. In our book, we share our journey as Aiden transitioned from female to male and I transitioned from being the mother of a daughter and son to being the mother of two sons.

These churches are proceeding very cautiously, because there are church members who will not be supportive. But I applaud the efforts of some of their members to bring this information to their church and raise the awareness of those who are willing to listen. I think it is a courageous thing that they are doing and I am thrilled to be a part of it. It will be the first time that Aiden and I will set foot in a place where the intersection of our Asian, queer and spiritual sides will be publically discussed. I believe it is going to be a very special day.

Sometimes the place where all these parts of my son and me intersect is very complicated. Can we bring all of these pieces to one place without feeling like outsiders in the process? Can we be Asian and spiritual in a queer space and/or queer in an Asian and spiritual space? All of these spaces seem to have their own perceptions of each other, and many times these perceptions are not the most positive. But in the most perfect of worlds, here is what I hope for. When I go into an Asian space, I dream that I can talk about having a transgender son and not feel ashamed. I can talk about my spiritual side, whatever that may be and whatever church or spiritual teaching I follow, and I am accepted for the spiritual path that I have chosen to create my connection to my God. 

When I go into a queer space, I hope that my Asian background is embraced, being the mother of a transgender son is supported and the LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) community does not feel that we have chosen the easy way out to be accepted in society. Many LGB individuals believe that transgender people take the easy way out of transitioning so that they won’t be discriminated against, thereby abandoning and rejecting the LGB community to become a “normal” part of society. Transgender people do not reject the LGB community, as they just want to live in integrity with their own thoughts and feelings. My son did not transition so that he could blend into society or run away from the discrimination of being a lesbian. My son did not transition to receive male privilege due to the fact that in our current world men have more privilege than women. He has chosen to transition to bring into alignment his thoughts, his heart and his body. He has transitioned so he can live his life as the man that has always lived inside of him. 

I also hope that if I find a church to attend, that the queer space will not look at me with suspicion for my need for spirituality. So many LGBT individuals have been shunned by their churches that when they see a person connected to the church, questions arise as to how they can be spiritually connected to an institution that does not “walk their talk.” In my journey, I have now found churches that do talk about love and embrace all with love. They are walking their talk.

And finally, I dream that when I go into a spiritual space, I will not be judged as being a terrible mother, because I allowed my son to transition into the body of a person who has always been inside of him. I also dream that I am valued for my Asian background and all it brings. I dream of a church as a place in which I will once again find comfort, acceptance and love. This would be the world that would feed my soul and allow all that I am to be supported and recognized. And this is the world I work every day to create, so that my son will be safer and more accepted for the man that God made no mistake in creating.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Mother's Love Redefined

posted on the Huffington Post's Gay Voices on 5/12/13

When I was young, I loved my parents so much that friends often said that I would never recover if they died. Today, they are gone, but they are still a part of my life every day. Love is enduring. I fell in love for the first time at 16 and shortly thereafter was rejected. I stayed in my room, listening to sad songs for days. Love sometimes hurts. At 24 I met the man I would marry. And after 40 years together, he continues to be the one who nurtures both my heart and my dreams. Love is being ever present. I believe that all these people and moments taught me what true love really is. But now I realize that love could be all those things and so much more. . . .  Read More

Friday, May 3, 2013

An Activist in Training

posted on The Huffington Post's Gay Voices on 5/3/13.

I stand 5 feet tall in my stocking feet.  I am a Japanese American mother of a transgender son.  And I want the world to be safer and more accepting for my child and all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals.  Every day, I try to do something, even if it is small, to create a safer world for my son and others.   However, when I have been called an activist, I look back with both horror and puzzlement.  Me, an activist . . . I don’t think so!  I am not loud enough, strong enough or trained enough for this role.  But quietly, I realize I have been travelling down the path of activism and taking notes along the way. . . . . Read More

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"She Brings Honor to Our Family, and That Is Good"