- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Shanna Ott sits in a silent room, watching the front doorway from her plush armchair, waiting.

The winter is warm and the door open, letting the late sunlight stretch across the laminate floor. Scar, the family’s pit bull, curls on the couch, perking up when he hears who’s coming.

A 9-year-old girl walks in, giving her mother the usual greeting on the way to her bedroom. But a smile wraps her face as she walks from doorway to doorway.

“Cee Cee,” says Ott, beckoning her daughter back, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal (https://on.rgj.com/19UdIxV). “So, what happened today?”

Squeezing into the armchair, Cee Cee picks at the jelly beans in her mother’s hand and gushes over a boy she found out waited for her at the school dance.

“Shut. Up,” replies Ott, asking about the boy as they gossip, giggling.

Ott pauses.

“Easy with the boys now, you hear,” adds Ott, repeating what any mother would say to her fourth-grader.

But the words weigh heavier on Ott, as they often do. She can’t escape the fear of what faces her daughter.

“OK,” replies Cee Cee, smiling behind fingertips pressed against her lips, the purple polish starting to chip away.

Cee Cee may be a girl, but her body is that of a boy’s.

It’s simple enough to say, but the family’s six-year struggle to this realization - and acceptance - was anything but. And it has come at great costs to the family.

“Transgender. I didn’t even know that word six years ago,” Ott says.

The family has guarded Cee Cee’s transgender identity all these years. But there’s only one way to end fear of the unknown, which has led to the segregation and discrimination of transgender students in Washoe County public schools, violating federal law and putting schools at risk of costly lawsuits.

And that’s to share Cee Cee’s story, says Ott, explaining her family’s reason for coming forward as the Washoe County School District attempts to quash longstanding practices.

“People are just scared,” says Ott, thinking of what’s resulted for Cee Cee and all the transgender children she’s come to know. “They’re just people.”

Ott has since become a self-taught expert on transgender, a condition only recognized three years ago as “gender dysphoria” by the American Psychiatric Association. The organization previously labeled it a disorder for people to adamantly believe they are the opposite gender of their anatomy.

The stats are always on Ott’s mind.

Forty-one percent of transgender people attempt suicide, according to a national survey by the University of California, Los Angeles and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in 2014. The rate rises to 50 percent for transgender people harassed in school or openly known to be transgender.

At Cee Cee’s Washoe County elementary school, only the principal knows she’s anatomically a boy. All of the students and staff know her as a girl and nothing else. She’s careful to keep it that way.

“She keeps everyone at an arm’s length,” says Ott, well aware Cee Cee has no close friends.

The principal’s compliance was a coincidence, a luck of the draw.

Other transgender students in Washoe County School District haven’t been so lucky. Neither was Cee Cee at her previous school.

Washoe students have been forced to use private bathrooms, interrogated for proof of their identified gender and not addressed by their name aligned with that gender.

The inconsistency results from the district leaving principals to their own devices when faced with transgender students. Principals’ resulting choices have put the district at risk for litigation and loss of funding for breaking the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools.

The district already paid out a $451,000 settlement in a federal lawsuit alleging it broke that law, setting a national precedent.

But practices are changing, officials contend. The Washoe School Board adopted a regulation in February telling staff how they must treat transgender students, which probably number about 200 in a district of 63,000 students. National statistics estimate that 0.3 percent of the general population is transgender.

Washoe’s regulation is the first of its kind among Nevada school districts, extending the treatment granted to Cee Cee at her school to all of Washoe’s transgender students.

The district’s progress prompted Cee Cee and her family to reveal what’s long been kept quiet, shared with only a few friends and family.

“You can have a very bad backlash,” Ott said of the harassment, homelessness and alienation that leads to a transgender suicide rate nine times the national average. “I think that people are scared.”

“If you just say ‘I’m transgender,’ and get it out there, then people can come to you with the questions,” said Ott. “And that’s what we hope to accomplish, just take the worry away.”

Still sitting in the chair together, Ott asks Cee Cee what to remember if someone finds out she’s transgender and tries to harm her.

“The principal’s on my side,” answers Cee Cee, legs curled beneath a teal skirt dotted with butterflies.

“And what do you say?”

“Talk to the palm,” says Cee Cee, raising her right hand as if someone’s face was there.

But Ott knows it’s more serious than that, remembering the scars of what is still a recent memory.


Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, https://www.rgj.com

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