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Thursday 10 November 2016

Behind the scenes of changemaking

Posted in: People
By - 14th July 2016

As the only openly transgender student at all-girls school Malborough College, 16-year-old Stefani Muollo-Gray was recently denied the right to use the female bathrooms. After fighting for her rights she had the decision reversed. Transgender advocate, Lexie Matheson was called in to support Stefani and sheds light on the process to make change.

Stefani Muollo-Gray
After reading about the issue and signing the petition, Lexie was contacted by the school principal Jo Chamberlain, something she never quite expected.

“I was recommended to the Ministry of Education as a support person for the student because I ticked both transgender and education boxes and I work a lot with young people,” says Lexie.

“We spoke and Jo asked if I would be able to come down to Blenheim. I said I would and she was at pains to say it was to ensure the student had an advocate.”
Lexie says it was clear the Principal wanted the best for her student first and foremost, but also for the school and community, “that’s always the hardest circle to square”.

Picked up at the airport by Jo and taken to dinner to be briefed on the situation, Lexie says “At this point I was impressed – but Blenheim is a small town and what the school had done in enrolling a transgender student in an all-girls school was breaking new ground so there were always going to be issues of some sort to deal with.”
She says at the end of the evening she was in no doubt that the principal was seriously looking after the student.

The next day Lexie met with Stefani and her family and “was hugely impressed with both”. Lexie says Stefani’s mum is right behind her daughter but was a bit conflicted about also wanting to support the school, “She’s a thoughtful and passionate Mum doing her best.

“We discussed hormones, finding a doctor, an endocrinologist and the future and talked a bit about the petition. It was already clear that what was written in the text of the petition and what I knew of the situation at the school didn’t exactly line up and the text of the petition was where some of the hurt at the school lay.”

Back at the school Jo took Lexie to meet a number of staff groups and was given the opportunity to educate them about being transgender and how this can be integrated into school life.

“By this time I had become even more impressed by the staff I’d met and their love for the student and desire to make things right for her.”

Lexie Matheson
Lexie says she also met with the school’s Spectrum group which was a great experience. “I’d arrived at Marlborough Girl’s College with a seriously negative attitude to secondary schools – my own experience as a kid and as a teacher were both awful – but by lunchtime on the first day the kids and the staff had turned that right around. The Spectrum group is really well led, has safe processes and the girls are mature in their outlook – true Mana Wahine.

“I managed to meet with all the main people involved in the student’s wellbeing and it came as something of a surprise to find that the student hadn’t written what was stated on the petition. It was great that so many people signed it, terrifically affirming for her, and when the reality of how it had come into being and the inaccuracies in the text were sorted out on a personal level the damaged relationships were all repaired.

“I think that’s what impressed me most. There will always be issues around bathrooms for transgender people especially when new ground is being broken as was the case here. Communities need to get their head around the fact that transwomen use bathrooms for the same things cisgender women do and that there hasn’t ever been a case of a transwoman assaulting anyone or behaving in a pervy way in a woman’s bathroom. It’s a simple fact that we’re not wired that way. Providing bathrooms labelled ‘gender diverse was a help and any of the students can use these or the ‘girls’ bathrooms. I went into the situation all ready and primed to be strong on the fact that the student is female and enrolled and as such has all the rights of a cisgender young woman but I didn’t need to say any of that. The school was way ahead of me and well on the way to rationalising a complex situation before I arrived.”

Stefani is “impressive beyond words” says Lexie.

“She’s smart, savvy and forthright which is exactly what was needed at the time – and the school listened. The only hold up was the principal’s responsibility to all the girls and to her community and I believe she managed the situation superbly.”

Impressed by how the situation was handled by all parites, Lexie says the support of Education Minister Hekia Parata and her department was “top notch” and the student support at the school is “superb”.

“There’s now a model for other schools to use should they need in the experience of Marlborough Girl’s College,” she says. “Toilets are important to all of us and the health of transwomen – both mental and physical – is affected by society’s attitude to this issue. My workplace – AUT - has a great set of policies around gender neutral bathrooms and the Auckland Council is working hard, thanks to the work of the Rainbow Communities Advisory Panel, to follow suit.

“I don’t expect 100% support for a non-binary bathroom focus in my lifetime but small steps make a big journey as long as we keep moving.”

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- 14th July 2016