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Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

SPRINGFIELD - By mid-May, most high school seniors are focused on matters other than school district policy statements. Esmael Spencer is the exception.

Spencer, an 18-year-old at Thurston High School, is a transgendered youth - born female but identifying as male. At the start of the school year, Spencer asked teachers and classmates to call him Esmael - a variation of the Hebrew name Ishmael.

Spencer said it wasn't until later that he learned the word means "outcast."

The graduating senior insists he will feel less like an outcast if the Springfield School Board ultimately approves a diversity plan that specifically lists gays, lesbians and transgendered youths as among those who are guaranteed equal rights and protection from harassment.

"It would make me feel safe - we all have a right to feel safe," he said. "It's like having another blanket on you at night."

It's uncertain if Spencer will get his wish. The school board backed away from endorsing a new diversity plan last fall after more than 100 people showed up for a meeting in October, many asking that the plan be thrown out or overhauled.

The primary objection: language that places sexual orientation and gender identity under the umbrella of diversity.

The district responded by inviting a broader cross-section of people to join an advisory committee charged with developing a new plan and also hired Greg McKenzie, a professional facilitator with the Oregon School Boards Association, to help come up with compromise language.

McKenzie will present that language to the advisory panel, known as the Safety and Respect for All Committee, on Monday. He said he wants to be viewed as a neutral party, declining comment on whether he'll suggest any groups be given special mention in the document.

Spencer shared his views about the diversity plan in a letter to the editor published last week in The Register-Guard. "I was disappointed when gender identity was taken out of the proposed protection list," he wrote. "My, that makes me feel very safe at school."

Spencer typically attends school dressed entirely in black, down to his high-top tennis shoes. With short-cropped hair but a high-pitched voice, his gender isn't immediately obvious.

"I get a lot of, `Excuse me, ma'am, I mean sir, I mean ma'am,' ' he said. "I just laugh and say, `It's sir.' A lot of people tell me I'm androgynous - that's how I learned what the term means."

Spencer plans to wear a black cap and gown - the assigned color for male students - when he graduates with the rest of his class on June 11. Then he wants to find a job, in hopes of saving the money he said he needs to begin hormonal therapy and, ultimately, sexual reassignment surgery.

"I just look at it as one big mistake - it's just something that should be fixed," he said of his female body. "I don't blame anyone, or God - not anymore."

Conflicted parents

The issue is not so clear for Al and Debi Spencer, Esmael's parents. They view gender identity as a choice rather than a condition, and prefer female pronouns when referring to Esmael, the eldest of three children.

"It doesn't change how much we love her - we love her completely," said Al Spencer, a mechanic. "It's the parents' job to raise a child to be independent and self-sufficient and make their own choices. We're giving her free rein in that area."

But the two continue to struggle, said Debi Spencer, a special education teacher assistant in the Springfield schools. "We have some religious beliefs, and it's hard to find an answer," she said. "Maybe there's not an answer."

"It's a real line to walk," Al Spencer said. "We want to show her and prove to her that we do love her, but at the same time we have our beliefs and lifestyle that we want to uphold."

Amid the confusion and pain, there's also a dose of parental pride. The Spencers say they are impressed by Esmael's willingness to act on personal convictions. "Whatever she's passionate about, she goes for 100 percent," Debi Spencer said. "That's awesome."

Al Spencer said Esmael's experience has given him and his wife a front-row seat to some of the discrimination transgendered and gay people experience. "I think people who judge others because of their orientation are wrong," he said.

Esmael Spencer said he's felt gender confusion from an early age. "Dresses always annoyed me," he said. "My mom could hardly get me into one. I know she tried for Easter."

The quandary became more pronounced in middle school, in the locker room after gym classes. "I always found a corner away from the other girls," he said. "I think I was ashamed of what I was and what I wasn't, and knowing that what people saw wasn't the truth."

He was "outed" last school year when he confided in a friend, "who occasionally has a big mouth," Spencer said. "He didn't see much point in keeping it hidden."

Rather than get angry, Spencer said he came to agree with his friend. "I thought, this thing is worth fighting for. It's my life, and other people like me, it's their lives, too. I guess we have a right to be who we want to be."

Spencer said he's pleased that most students and teachers have honored his request to use male pronouns and the name Esmael when talking to or about him. There have been isolated incidents of verbal abuse but no physical abuse, he said. "Most people just leave me alone about it," he said.

But he said he's also heard hallway epithets, and offensive remarks on the bus rides to and from school.

He typically spends the lunch hour on his own, often in a corner of the band room. When nature calls, he uses a unisex bathroom in the school's health room.

`Cowboy country'

For much of the year, Spencer has been active in the school's Gay Straight Alliance, a student club that formally elected officers for the first time this year. The group, which meets weekly, has attracted perhaps 15 to 20 students during the year, but never more than seven at any one meeting, said Susan Cundiff, a school counselor and the club's adviser.

The club's first meeting last fall attracted about 30 student detractors who gathered outside the meeting room, physically intimidated attendees and made negative comments, Cundiff said. Some signs announcing the new club were vandalized or torn down, she said.

Cundiff said advocating tolerance for sexual minorities is a challenge at Thurston. "This is cowboy country," she said. "We're the Colts."

Nonetheless, she said she sees some movement toward greater acceptance of gay and transgendered students. Alliance members early this year distributed yellow signs to teachers, asking them to post them in their rooms. "Degrading ethnic, racial, sexist or homophobic remarks not accepted here," the signs read.

"I've seen a number of them up, and they've stayed up," Cundiff said. Some teachers also have displayed classroom posters advocating tolerance of gays, she said.

English literature teacher Paul Halupa says Spencer, who is in two of his classes, is "respectfully received" by other students. The only gaffes tend to come when someone accidently refers to Spencer with female pronouns or Spencer's former first name. "I've slipped up a couple of times," Halupa said.

That's not totally surprising, considering the circumstances: "I had her two years ago as Jennifer," he said, referring to Spencer's name as a girl. Halupa said Spencer stood out academically in that sophomore literature class, and has continued to blossom as a writer and student of literature since then.

"There are craftsmen and there are artists, and I'd say Esmael exhibits artistry," Halupa said.

Earlier this spring, Spencer reluctantly declined a school award that is traditionally presented to the top female senior in English literature. He had hoped to be nominated as the top male senior in English lit.

Spencer's love for writing spans poetry and a half-finished fantasy novel set on a different planet. The novel's main character, he said, "is banished from his homeland and searching for his way in life."

Question of language

As for his own sense of banishment, Spencer said he thinks critics of an expanded diversity plan are acting out of fear. "They're probably thinking, `Oh my God, now they're going to be teaching a gay curriculum in class.' But it's not really that way. We want equal rights, not a quota for gay teachers."

The anti-harassment language that Spencer champions - specifying protection of sexual minorities - already has been adopted by the Eugene and Bethel school districts. Illinois, meanwhile, is the latest among a handful of states that prohibit discrimination of transsexuals - people who live as the opposite gender from the one they were born as - in such areas as employment and housing.

But that misses the point, said Reis Kash, a member of the Safety and Respect for All Committee that will meet Monday.

"Springfield is a unique community that has a right to define within the law its own standards for local schools," said Kash, a retired Army criminal investigator. "There's a strong element here that's willing to give equal rights to all but not special rights to some."

Kash said the school district has no statistical evidence to suggest that discrimination against gay or transgendered students is a persistent problem.

He said the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection of all citizens, and that he objects to the listing of specific protected classes.

"By listing a few, you inescapably exclude the majority," he said.

He said the counsel he would offer Spencer is the same he would offer if his own daughter were transgendered: "I would say I respect you and I love you and I insist that your rights be protected, and that you be protected from assault and intimidation, but I don't believe it's appropriate for you to have a status that's higher or more important than everyone else in the country."

Among the district patrons who share Kash's view on the diversity language: Al and Debi Spencer.

"I feel all students are covered from hate crimes and discrimination and harassment," Debi Spencer said. "I don't think any one particular group should say, `I need to have my name in there.' Once you start listing special groups, there's no end to that."


Monday: Safety and Respect for All Committee will consider new diversity language, 6 p.m., Administration Building, 525 Mill St.

June 13: Presentation, public hearing before school board, 7 p.m.

June 27: Board discussion, possible action, 7 p.m.
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Title Annotation:Schools
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 14, 2005
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