Letter: Finding the courage to support transgender students

     Ari Bowman is shown in this image. courtesy of his mother, Alisa Bowman.

    Ari Bowman is shown in this image. courtesy of his mother, Alisa Bowman.

    It’s easy to feel like we live in a world that is populated almost exclusively by bullies. For most of my life, “put your head down” was my guiding principle. But then things got personal, extremely personal.

    Family and supporters of East Penn School District seventh grader Ari Bowman addressed their local school board on Monday, Sept. 12 to encourage the district to continue working toward an inclusive environment for transgender students. Published below, with the permission of Bowman’s family, is an open letter from Bowman’s mother, Alisa. Read Ari’s remarks to the school board.

    It’s easy to feel like we live in a world that is populated almost exclusively by bullies. It’s also easy to believe that the only way to survive in a hate-filled world is to put your head down, and try not to call attention to yourself. For most of my life, “put your head down” was my guiding principle. I was quiet. I didn’t speak up. I blended in.

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    But then things got personal, extremely personal.

    A few weeks ago, a family from the East Penn School District went before the school board and said they’d rather their daughter fail gym class than have her change clothes in a locker room among transgender students. My son is transgender.

    I know better than to read the comments on news stories, but I couldn’t stop myself. People were calling kids like mine “freaks” and “misfits” and “perverts” and “mentally ill.” They were claiming to be the majority. They were saying that kids like mine were so few and far between that society should just forget about them, discriminate against them, and legislate them out of existence.

    It hurt. I was wounded, and I was also scared.

    It seemed like everyone was against us. I walked with my head low, tension throughout my body. Rather than smile at neighbors, I looked away. I made myself small. I told my son to be careful. I considered our options. Could we move?

    Then something surprising happened. People reached out to me — lots of people. They asked us how we were holding up. They wanted us to know that they were with us and that they had our backs.

    They wanted to know what they could do.

    And that’s when I decided that I was done being small. I decided that someone had to stand up to the hate and ignorance, and I formed a wish. If I stood up to protect the vulnerable, perhaps other people would follow my lead. We — my son, myself, and allies — would address the school board with messages of support for transgender kids.

    Please don’t for a moment believe that I wasn’t terrified. I worried — about practically everything.

    I worried about opponents packing the meeting and harassing my son during his talk. I worried that, the day after my son’s remarks, he’d go to school and find out that he’d lost all of his friends overnight.

    Yet my fear was balanced with an unwavering conviction. I knew, without a doubt, that speaking before the school board was the right thing to do for us both, no matter the consequences.

    The night of the school board meeting, my heart beat wildly and my tongue went dry. Dozens of friends came to support us — so many that officials had to bring in extra chairs. Some of them had driven from hours away. Others had rearranged their schedules, just to pack the room with love.

    When my son finished speaking, everyone stood and applauded and cheered. That’s when I started crying.

    After the public comment period, we all quietly filed out as the meeting moved on. The district superintendent left his chair at the front of the room. He found my son, and he shook his hand.

    The following day, my son’s vice principal slipped him a note. It read: “You are my hero.”

    My son’s middle school tweeted:

    So proud of our own 7th grader Ari Bowman who spoke with our school board Monday night! https://t.co/KeUO64zED3

    — LMMS (@EPSDLmms) September 14, 2016


    The following day, as the news spread, so did the love. I got message after message from people who were so impressed with my son and wanted me to know they thought he was amazing. I couldn’t keep up with them all.

    At soccer, mothers walked over and hugged me, tears in their eyes. Then we introduced ourselves officially.

    Within hours, my son’s name was blowing up on Twitter and he didn’t even have a Twitter account.

    But what really floored me were the messages of support I received from people I’d once pegged as haters. Some had shared questionable memes in the past. Others were connected to people who’d written nasty comments. I’d prejudged them, assuming they were guilty by association. I’d been wrong.

    It made me realize how easily irrational fear can divide us. It also helped me to understand that love is stronger than hate. Mostly it taught me an important lesson about courage.

    People have called both me and my son brave, yet our courage comes from the strength of the people who have chosen to love us courageously. As the saying goes, there is no I in “team.” There’s no I in “courage,” either.

    Without the courageous love and support of others, many of the world’s heroes no doubt would have remained simply ordinary.

    So whenever you find yourself saying “Someone has to do something about this,” please ask yourself two questions:

    What am I going to do about this?
    How can I help someone else do something about this?

    You might discover that now is your moment. Or you may find that this moment belongs to someone else, but that you are needed to prop that person up and help that person remain strong.

    Standing up to hate is scary, and it causes so many of us to cower. The bullies count on that. As the saying goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

    We must stop doing nothing.

    Our transgender population needs us, and they cannot win this fight without a legion of allies.

    Sometimes we face the fear and we are immediately rewarded, as my family was this week. Other times we face the fear and we end up with more pain and anguish.

    No matter the result, however, it’s always worth it to face the fear and stand up for what’s right. It’s by doing this over and over and over again that we slowly, over time, change this world for the better.

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