April 27th is Day of Silence, dedicated to spread awareness of the harassment, bullying, silencing and erasure of LGBTQIA students from their schools. At the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, we work to advance the rights of girls, young women and those who identify as female by honoring their lived experiences and listening to their truths. Join us in elevating the stories of transgender girls.
Despite being born male, Nikki Brar has always known that she is a girl. In February 2017, the transgender eight-year-old unenrolled from and sued her California elementary school for disallowing her to be identified by female pronouns, dress as she chose or use the female restroom.
From a young age, Nikki found joy in painting her toes with nail polish and playing dress-up in her mother’s heels while using her grandmother’s scarf as a dress. She had a keen preference for rainbow ponies and outfits in any shade of pink. When she was four, she expressed to her mother that she wished she was a girl. Shortly before turning seven, she told her mother she was one.
In order to support their daughter, Nikki’s parents Priya Shah and Jaspret Brar brought her to gender-responsive therapy and encouraged her to act in the ways that she felt most expressed her identity. Nikki began dressing in girls’ clothes, later telling her parents that boys’ garments, “felt like a prison,” and liked being photographed in the outfits she chose for herself. More and more, Nikki was speaking her truth, and longing to be accepted as what she felt to be her unique identity.
Nikki’s parents decided to enroll her at Heritage Oak Academy because of its values of diversity and focus on the “whole” student. At the beginning of the school year, Priya and Jaspret sat down with the administration, detailing Nikki’s lifestyle and making it clear that she was in a self-paced, social transition from male to female. They requested that, when Nikki decided, she be permitted to use the girls’ restroom, wear the girls’ uniform, be identified by gender pronouns of her choice and called “Nikki,” instead of her given name of “Nikesh.” According to the lawsuit, the school deferred on a decision, only allowing Nikki to grow her hair long if she tied it up. Students at Heritage Oak also received a “free dress day pass,” a reward for hard work, to express themselves outside of the confines of a uniform. Nikki could not participate unless she chose boys’ clothing.
Because of these limitations, Nikki felt unaccepted for who she was. The young girl became socially withdrawn and depressed due to the stigmatization and misgendering she was experiencing in a place intended to enhance confidence and growth. Misgendering, or the application of pronouns or identifying terms that do not align with one’s chosen gender identity, can cause undue stress, especially to transgender youth. When the school refused to acknowledge Nikki as a girl, she felt shame, rather than pride, in the person that she was. The eight-year-old shared that her “inner light” was being blocked at school.
Instead of valuing the needs of every student, the administration decided to put the needs of the student body as a whole before Nikki. They claimed that her transition would cause an “imbalance” to the environment and voiced concern about the confusion and distraction of other students in response to Nikki’s transition, rather than of Nikki’s mental health and comfort in her learning environment.
Gender status on its own is not distracting. Rather, it is the stigmatization of transgender students that poses the biggest threat to learning environments. When an educational program fails to guide itself through gender relevant principles that focus on all students’ identities, it creates disparities within the student body instead of unity. When each students’ unique identity is not recognized, it leads students, like Nikki, to feel singled out and otherized. Otherization occurs when individuals are regarded as extremely different or even alien.
Policies that otherize transgender students can make them feel like outsiders. This has possible repercussions of depression and loneliness as the student struggles to feel accepted by their community. In-school discrimination should not be tolerated, and leaders at the school and district level must be challenged to implement policies that foster a safe and comfortable setting for transgender girls. To effectively meet their needs, adults must be willing to see the world through the lens of the girl they seek to help. Educational policies are the invisible hands that create and maintain a learning environment, and education systems fail girls when they create school environments shaped by policies that reflect condemnation, ostracism and otherizing.
Nikki, and other girls like her who have the courage to speak their truth about their core gender identity, should be met with acceptance and support. At only eight years old, Nikki has shown incredible bravery by choosing to advocate for herself and for the treatment she feels is fair. She is leading her own charge, due her school’s failure to treat her as equal to all other students. The teachers and administration at Heritage Oak made decisions based on their own preconceptions of gender identity, rejecting Nikki’s individual needs.
A student’s environment shapes what is possible for them. At Heritage Oak, it was made impossible for Nikki to express her core gender identity and let her inner light shine. When a girl is prevented from being her unique self, her lived experiences are not valued. Adults that implement roadblocks and restrictive policies for girls create undue burdens in girls’ lives, and fail to See the Girl© for who she truly is and who she wants to be. Girls, like Nikki, must be seen as the leaders of their own lives. When girls speak up to voice their truth, we must listen.