- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

STERLING, Ill. (AP) - Safety in schools is a hot-button topic. Safety is also the reason Sterling High School science teacher Elisa Gatz hung a big rainbow flag in her classroom - to assure students of all gender designations that it’s a safe place.

“I guess I’m honored that they feel comfortable coming to me,” said Gatz, 51, who has taught in the district 28 years and sponsors its Gay Straight Alliance. “That’s my job, to make the school a safe place for everybody. But it shouldn’t be special for just sponsors. Everyone in the school should get involved with making the school a safe place for all students.”

Among those who noticed her flag was Isaac Badillo, a 16-year-old sophomore. Born Alexis, he began identifying as a boy last summer.

One of five siblings, Isaac said his family has been tremendously supportive. Shortly after telling his mother, Pamela Harts, that he was thinking of undergoing hormone therapy and surgery this summer, she put some of his anxiety to rest.

“My family was very, very accepting about it,” Isaac said. “And my mom was like, ‘Yeah, I’m down. We can do it. We can have it all.’ My whole family . I couldn’t thank them enough.”

The district’s superintendent, Tad Everett, said a student’s request for gender-neutral accommodations led to renovations. The high school now has five family-style restrooms, complete with changing tables.

There’s one in the nurse’s office, one in the library, one in the district office entryway from the high school, and two in Musgrove Fieldhouse - those last two converted in February. Principal Jason Austin said administration had caught some flak on game nights for not having family-friendly restrooms.

Thus, two needs were met with the renovations.

Other districts in the state are embroiled in legal battles with students denied access to facilities of their choosing. Palatine School District was found to have violated Title IX by denying a transgender student access to a locker room corresponding with her gender identity. Consequently, state Rep. Thomas Morrison, R-Palatine, is trying to move a bill that would require students to use facilities whose designations match that of their birth certificates.

The bill flies in the face of another House bill that would allow transgender people to change the gender designation on their birth certificates without first having surgery, a reform that already has been adopted by the federal government and 12 states.

Neither Dixon nor Rock Falls High has had a student make a similar request to the one made in Sterling, according to their districts’ respective superintendents, Margo Empen and Ron McCord.

Gatz said if they think that means there aren’t transgender students in their schools, they might need to think again.

“There are,” she said, adding that concern over their peers’ reception is only part of students’ concern. “For some kids, that would be the end of a family relationship, if they told their parents they were going to go through a transgender transition. They’re still a little frightened at this stage to come forward. There’s a lot of confusion at this age, even without sexuality.”

Gatz said that her administration has been “very open” to discussing accommodations, and has gotten behind such initiatives as the No Name Calling League, and Day of Silence, which took place Friday - but there’s still work to be done.

“There’s still an issue with locker rooms,” Gatz said. “Right now, the situation is that they go where they identify and where they’re comfortable. Even if we’re not there with accommodations yet, I think we’re going to get there.”

“I just don’t want anybody else to feel uncomfortable around me,” he said. “It’s not that I’m uncomfortable. I just don’t want anyone else feeling uncomfortable.”

He still uses the girls restroom, and hasn’t brought up his transition to counselors yet. He said he’ll likely fill them in on his therapy and surgery plans before the year ends, and let them digest what he’s about to undergo over the summer.

“I’d like to come back and have an answer and a reason,” he said. “I really do put my education first before anything. But I just want to graduate being who I am.”

Isaac was surprised how easy it was to let his friends know who he was, and who he was becoming.

“They thought it would be awesome having a trans friend,” he said, laughing. “They were very excited. After I told them, we had a bonfire, and they were excited and had a whole bunch of questions.”

Then they asked what his name would be.

“I froze,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t figured it out yet.”

On a friend’s recommendation, he went with Isaac, because it means “he laughs.”

Despite how long the transition has been going on, there were a lot of questions he didn’t see coming. Isaac came out as a lesbian in sixth grade.

“It hit during elementary,” he said. “I was just starting to understand everything and how everything works. I’m not going to just wake up one day and think, ‘I’m who I am!’”

He’d like to go into welding or automobiles, and is weighing whether to take either automotive technology at Whiteside Area Career Center or welding at Sauk Valley Community College in the fall.

Despite the solace many students find in the Gay Straight Alliance, Gatz said part of the group’s goal is to empower kids to fight their own fights - peacefully. When bullying occurs in her classroom, she gives the bullied student the first opportunity to deal with it.

“I want the student to have the first opportunity to make things right,” she said. “There is bullying, but a lot of our kids in GSA are very capable of standing up for themselves. It’s the kids who are quietly going through life without GSA or help who will get more damaged by bullying.”

Isaac said there are a “good handful” of transgender students at Sterling High - some open, some interested in coming out, and some staunchly private, for fear of their parents’ reaction.

For those on the fence, he has advice:

“If you know this is who you want to be, don’t hide it. Don’t let it all build up until you don’t know what to say or do. If you have the shot at the right moment, you should take that shot. You shouldn’t bite the bullet.

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Source: The (Sterling) Daily Gazette, http://bit.ly/1WeTJhn

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Information from: The Daily Gazette, http://www.saukvalley.com

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