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A Transgender Student Moved Cross-Country for a Welcoming School

A Transgender Student Moved Cross-Country for a Welcoming School. Here’s Their Story

Dandelion Hunt-Smith moved across the country with their family from Columbus, Ga., to San Francisco for their senior year of high school in search of a welcoming school.

Dandelion, a 17-year-old transgender and nonbinary student, excelled academically in Georgia, but socially, they felt stunted. The bullying and insensitive comments aimed at queer students left them feeling like they couldn’t fully open up with peers about their gender identity.

About 300,000 young people ages 13-17 identify as transgender in the United States according to the latest data from the Williams Institute, a research center within the UCLA School of Law that specializes in LGBQT issues.

Within the last year, dozens of bills targeting LGBTQ students have been introduced across the country, including a federal “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would ban the use of federal resources to teach students about sexual activity and sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender dysphoria or transgenderism.

In Georgia, legislators have introduced bills that would, among other things, “prohibit school nurses and other employees and officials from engaging in certain conduct relating to a minor’s perception of his or her gender” and “prohibit the modification of a child’s official school record with respect to gender without consent of the child’s parents or legal guardians.”

Not every family can afford to move across the country seeking a new school, but when an opportunity arose for Dandelion’s family, it was the best decision for them. Now at John O’Connell High School, Dandelion, their dad Christopher Smith, and stepmother Alexandra DellaVecchia, spoke with Education Week about the value of inclusive schools, and why it matters for schools to cultivate such environments.

Editor’s note: Dandelion told Education Week at the time of the interview that they had recently chosen a name for themselves, which is used in this story. “I knew that I wanted a flower name because my given name was a flower name,” they said. “Dandelions are very hardy and the name Dandelion opens up many fun nickname opportunities.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your experience at your former high school as a trans and nonbinary student?

Dandelion: In Georgia, in my experience, “gay” was thrown around a lot as an insult ... So really the only positive experiences I had with queer, LGBTQ stuff was in my friend group, where usually there were quite a few queer students. And I also had a friend of a friend who was definitely homophobic and transphobic, but like, low-key. At school, it felt like I was surrounded by girls that did not have my best interests at heart, at least not for my identity discovery interests.

What ultimately led to the decision to move, and was it a tough choice to make?

DellaVecchia: They’re my stepchild, but they were my godchild, when I knew their mother, when I lived in Georgia. I’ve lived in California for the past 15 years. Dandelion’s mother passed away [when Dandelion was 6 years old] and I came out to help with them, and we made a family. I moved my son out from California, where he’d grown up, to Georgia, and he immediately did not like it there. As [Dandelion] was first identifying as queer and then nonbinary, I felt like it just was not a place where I wanted my family to be when I knew that there was such a welcoming and inclusive environment that they could live in. So, we started making plans Dandelion’s junior year to move the family out.

I really wanted them to have access to those kinds of resources where they can explore their gender identity, and figure out what it is that is going to make them happy, and feel most comfortable in their skin.

Dandelion: I feel like I was a very dependable friend of a friend group. And it was difficult leaving them, but I was very excited to go to school in San Francisco, because I had heard that they had a much laxer dress code. My gender, as far as I have figured it out, is boy. My gender expression is femme and sometimes I like wearing really short skirts, and it’s really frowned upon in Georgia. So it was part being accepted, and also a part of expressing myself how I wanted to.

How has your experience been so far at your new school?

Dandelion: It’s great. In Georgia, everybody wore a hoodie and pants. But in San Francisco, you can see so much variation in outfits and stuff. And I bring this up again because of the dress code. But also there’s a [Gay-Straight Alliance] club at my school, and it’s inclusive to everybody on the spectrum. And I love it so much.

Basically, I can mingle with other students without being bullied about my gender, and them providing feedback. Like, the last GSA meeting, I was like, ‘alright, so I have a guy’s voice in my head and I imagine my voice being more masculine.’ And my friends are like, ‘Oh, [Dandelion], that’s called voice dysphoria.’ So I’m able to learn more about myself because I can express myself to other people.

And I also have teachers who help my other teachers for me, because I don’t know about other people, but I get nervous correcting others. So I have teachers that will support me that way. And it’s great. I love it.

Smith: I’ve been very happy to see Dandelion being very excited about school and being engaged in so much stuff. All the teachers at the school really love them and love to talk to them, or talk to us about them and what they’re doing. Of course, Dandelion was engaging or trying to engage in previous schools, but the general attitude was not encouraging.

DellaVecchia: I just feel like Dandelion was always very happy about school, like going to school, excelling in school. But there was never the social component to their day. A lot of our after school discussions were about ways in which they weren’t sure whether they should, or shouldn’t, have spoken out about people saying hurtful things about queer people, having to explain the same things over and over again to people who just kept asking very insensitive questions, and not knowing if this is genuine curiosity or if this is some form of bullying that you were too nice to understand.

And now when they talk about school, it’s not just, ‘I’m doing really well in my classes, and the teachers are giving me this extra credit work.’ It’s talking about the people that make up their day, and talking about the relationships that they’re having now that were really missing from their previous school experience.

Dandelion Hunt-Smith, right, and their dad, Christopher Smith, pictured at San Francisco’s Dolores Park on Feb. 23, 2023.

Dandelion Hunt-Smith, right, and their dad, Christopher Smith, pictured at San Francisco’s Dolores Park on Feb. 23, 2023.

Nic Coury for Education Week

What does an inclusive, welcoming school environment look like or mean to you?

Dandelion: So, up front, of course, you have cracking down on the bullying of queer students and more informative programs, and GSA clubs.

In history, we know that there were people of all sorts doing very important things. Like during Black History Month, we have all these lessons about African Americans, and how they influenced the United States and their inventions. And you get that with Latinos, you get that with Asian Americans, with a lot of ethnic groups, but you don’t really get that for people who are queer. So queer history class, I think that would be cool.

DellaVecchia: In their old school, they couldn’t experiment with their gender, because then they’re feeding into the idea that kids don’t know what they want and don’t know anything, because they can’t just settle on one thing immediately. I really think that allowing children and teenagers, young adults to express differences as they navigate their gender identity and accepting changing pronouns from week to week, as we try to figure out what’s going on, is a really, really big part of that inclusiveness that you might not think about.

How does being in an inclusive, welcoming school impact your academic performance if at all?

Dandelion: It has affected me positively. Because, in my previous schools, I didn’t really socialize much with people outside my friend group. Nor was I able to actually meet up with people inside my friend group very often outside of school. But I basically destress with people who aren’t my dad and my other mom. Basically, I destress around my peers. And that’s great because they can offer insight about situations I had previously known. I feel as if I’m socially stunted, because I never really was able to communicate with my peers before, in Georgia.

Smith: Now that they’re in a school where they can have that freedom, they can relax more, they can have time to recover from whatever stress they might have been having while engaging with people and finding out more about who they are and what’s going on.

Should schools be responsible for enacting policies or programs to be inclusive and welcoming to LGBTQ students?

Dandelion: Schools should absolutely have a better environment. Because we’re talking about the future generations, and I get schools feel like they only need to teach. But many students have their social life mainly through school. And if a school isn’t welcoming, then they’re not going to want to participate. It would affect their academics.

Smith: One concern that seems to be expressed by people who are against this sort of thing is the concern that schools are going to spend outrageous amounts of money to handhold the minority of the population. And I cannot attest to the percentage of the population that might benefit from this. But there’s no end of benefit to society, for people to be friendly with each other and help each other. And if we can discourage the negative things we’ve seen in Georgia, and encourage humanity to each other in these difficult times, that I feel will go a long way towards benefiting society as a whole. I don’t know what exactly needs to be done. I’m a straight white guy so I don’t have a lot of insight into all this. But we don’t have to go well out of our way to not be awful to each other. We can just accept people at face value and help them to be better people if they need to be better people.

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