East Aurora schools transgender policy committee put on hold

Photo: Tony Merevick.

Photo: Tony Merevick.

The future of an Ad Hoc committee charged with creating protective policy for East Aurora School District transgender students is in question after its chairman declined to schedule further meetings due to intense opposition from local religious groups and residents.

The brouhaha over the creation of a policy that would create protections for transgender and gender nonconforming students in District 131 continued Nov. 30, when over 120 conservative and religious protesters picketed the committee’s second meeting, raising safety concerns and much uncertainty over the group’s ability to work together.

Committee Chairman Anita Lewis, who also serves on the district’s school board, concluded the at-capacity meeting without determining a future gathering date over safety concerns for some members of the committee who are transgender, and said she will take her concerns to the full school board for further review.

Because of safety concerns, the Department of Justice ordered a police presence at the meeting, according to District 131 Director of Communications Clayton Muhammad.

“We did due diligence to make sure there was a police presence in the building,” Muhammad said, adding that about 25 people spoke before the committee, most of them in opposition of creating a new policy.

Pro-transgender speakers were hissed at, booed and shouted down by the protesters, according to sources in the room.

“Ms. Lewis, the chairman of the committee — she took that notion of insecurity, that people were not feeling secure and that we had to bring in the police department — and she will take information from both meetings to the board of education for further review,” he said. “[The school board] will make a decision.”

Lewis also expressed concerns over the committee’s ability to work together, given that of its 22 members, some simply oppose creating a transgender protections policy. The development comes after the committee suggested at its first meeting that the policy they’re working on could potentially change the country.

The next school board meeting is set for 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 17 at the McKnight Service Center at 417 Fifth St. in Aurora. Advocates on both sides of the issue are looking to Monday’s meeting for answers, including those who sit on the Ad Hoc committee. The school board will release the upcoming meeting’s agenda on Thursday.

Muhammad said that officials have been overwhelmed by the international attention on the district and the sheer volume of correspondence they’ve received over the last two months.

Local religious leaders and representatives from the Illinois Family Institute, an organization branded as an “anti-gay hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, have mounted intense opposition against any form of protections for transgender students since the school board approved a groundbreaking policy Oct. 15. Because of the deluge of criticism from those groups, the board rescinded that policy just four days later.

The district created the Ad Hoc committee in hopes of raising community support for a new policy.

The crowd of protesters at the meeting was organized by local churches and the IFI, according to Joanie Rae Wimmer, a transgender attorney and Ad Hoc committee member, who felt threatened by a protester who stood behind her chair at meeting.

“This one guy was standing behind my chair the whole evening and I didn’t know who he was, and I thought he was with the board, so I didn’t say anything,” Wimmer said, adding that she was most intimidated when he addressed her specifically in front of the crowd.

“He points his pen at me, and says, ‘This person is trying to force his lifestyle on the children of Aurora,’” she said, emphasizing that he used the wrong pronoun — “him” — as he spoke to her.

Wimmer was shocked by Lewis’ decision to open up the meeting for public comment, leaving no time to discuss the actual policy that night. Many of the speakers bluntly expressed anti-transgender sentiment, she said.

“I thought we were going to be working on the policy. They burned up 90 minutes of our time as a committee,” Wimmer said. “We get it, you guys don’t like queers. Let’s move on. We get that.”

Some of the speakers told the board that transgender people have “twisted minds” and that they are confused, Wimmer said.

“I’m not confused,” she said. “I was born with a penis, and I’ve transitioned to female by taking hormones and having gender reassignment surgery. I’m not confused.”

Shortly after the meeting, Wimmer sent a letter to the rest of the committee detailing her concerns. The IFI responded in a post on its website trumpeting the efforts of the local religious community’s response at the meeting and suggesting that safety concerns are unfounded.

“Homosexual and ‘transgender’ activists have cleverly constructed a rhetorical universe in which only they are permitted to speak. They simply assert that their subjective, non-factual beliefs about homosexuality and gender dysphoria are inarguably true and central to their identity and that all dissenting views are hateful, ignorant, mean-spirited bigotry that make them feel ‘unsafe.’ …,” read the post, written by the IFI’s Laurie Higgins.

“I would argue that if Mr. Wimmer finds it too hurtful to hear dissenting views about gender dysphoria, then perhaps he shouldn’t venture into the public square demanding that public policy reflect his,” wrote Higgins.

Wimmer contends that public policy should not disregard medicine and science, particularly as it relates to transgender people, who are often the target of violence and discrimination.

Earlier this year, two young transgender women were murdered on Chicago’s West Side only blocks away from each other. Approximately 221 transgender people were murdered in a 12-month period around the world, Nov. 20, 2010 to Nov. 14, 2011, according to numbers from Transgender Europe. Nine of the killings occurred in the U.S.

Although policies are gradually shifting in favor of protecting people based on their gender identity, Wimmer believes the transgender movement today is where the civil rights movement was in the 1960s.

“We shouldn’t adopt government policies based on who screams the loudest,” Wimmer said. “These people have already lost the war. The tipping point has already been reached. They’re screaming and hollering because they’ve realized that they lost.”