On Thursday Sept. 24, Wakeland High School in Frisco released its weekly student-produced broadcast, WIN-TV. It’s only about 15 minutes, covering everything from dress code, to their COVID-19 numbers, and how to purchase tickets to varsity football games.
The moment that caused a stir among Frisco parents came about three minutes into the broadcast.
“You can’t always know what someone’s pronouns are by just looking at them,” the news anchor said in the video. “Asking and correctly using somebody’s pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity.” As many Frisco students may not yet realize, they can update their school profiles with the correct gender pronouns.
Immediately, parents began to respond, both on social media and some directly calling the school.
Reactions varied. Some parents applauded the news, calling it a sign of compassion and a simple way to make all students feel more comfortable. Other parents were concerned. They had not been consulted. Some wanted the right to vote on the issue and whether students should be allowed to display their gender identity.
A Frisco ISD representative confirmed that they had been receiving calls from parents regarding the broadcast. But she says that it’s all a misunderstanding and that there has been “some confusion among parents as to what has transpired.”
Frisco ISD’s decision to allow students to change their preferred pronouns on the district’s online system came at the behest of the students themselves.
“Earlier this fall, the District was contacted by students requesting that the District enable a function in Canvas, the online learning platform for middle and high school students, that would allow students to designate their preferred pronouns,” says Meghan Cone, Frisco ISD’s assistant communications director. “An online petition gathered hundreds of signatures.”
A nonbinary Wakeland High School sophomore — a person who doesn’t identify with either gender — started the petition over the summer. “I saw an Instagram post for how to enable your pronouns on Canvas, and when I went to try it myself, I saw that this setting was disabled,” the student wrote on the petition. “… Since we interact with each other on a regular daily basis, whether in person or virtually, being aware of our peers’ pronouns is crucial.”
Over 650 students signed the petition in about a week, and on August 31, the district turned on the setting allowing students the option of changing their pronouns.
One petitioner wrote, “I’m signing this because as someone who identifies as genderfluid using the correct pronouns and etc. helps with my dysphoria and it also makes me feel like the space I am in is safe.”
“I [may] not have other pronouns besides she/her but we should all be able to be who we truly are,” another posted.
Another signer simply wrote: “YES PLEASE.”
Cone says Frisco ISD was merely responding to student concerns, not making any kind of policy change. “Students are not required to list their pronouns, but the opportunity is available should students so choose. It is completely voluntary,” she says. “Frisco ISD has always worked to foster a safe and welcoming environment that is responsive to student needs.”
For almost a month, the change to Canvas wasn’t an issue. Then the broadcast class at Wakeland High School chose to highlight their classmate who had started the petition; the video spread like a wildfire through the Frisco parent community.
“Our student journalists have the ability to cover various topics of their own interest as part of the broadcast class,” Cone says. “The District seeks to limit the restriction of free student speech to the greatest extent possible.”
Cone confirms that while they have heard from parents and seen comments on social media reacting to the report this week, the students had appreciated the change.
Kisha Anderson is a therapist based in Prosper who specializes in LGBT matters. She sees many clients who have struggled with their gender identity and their families. Anderson says what’s most important for anyone struggling with gender identity is support and that for students who are are nonbinary or trans, correct pronouns can have a positive impact on their mental health and overall wellbeing.
“When I talk to parents, I tell them we have a choice, we can use their preferred pronouns or keep revisiting suicide attempts,” she says. “It seems like an extreme dichotomy, but that’s the way it is sometimes.”
Unfortunately, suicide rates in trans people are very high. “Adolescence is already so difficult without this,” Anderson points out.
Anderson suggests what is missed in the debate is a sad reality: struggling students who need support. A 2016 study found that 40 percent of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt and 92 percent of them attempted suicide before the age of 25.
A teenager struggling with their gender identity is not the only one who is under stress, Anderson adds. For parents, there is stress and pain too.
Anderson sits parents down and asks that they imagine what it would be like to walk through the world being addressed as the wrong gender. Every misplaced “sir” or “ma’am,” “he” or “she” would be like a paper cut. At the end of the day, those pricks of pain add up.
“I talk to kids who cry after school because they have been misgendered all day [or] who are traumatized and humiliated when teachers refuse to use pronouns in class.” Even something as simple as going to the bathroom becomes complicated because they don’t feel safe there. Then they don’t go to the bathroom all day.
Further, they are shamed for not fitting in. Many are terrified to tell their parents at all for fear of being rejected or kicked out. Anderson says that it’s pretty typical for parents to be resistant to trans experiences—until they realize their child is struggling with it.
“The way they act when it’s their kid is completely different. It’s no longer a protest, it’s curiosity. ‘What do I need to do?’ ‘Is my kid confused?’ ‘What’s going on?’ I urge my parents to get support from each other. They feel isolated too.”
Often parents feel that their child is losing the values they were raised with, or worry about who their child will be at the end of the day. “It’s hard on these kids,” she says. “If your kid affirms a gender, it doesn’t mean they’ll lose the values they were raised with.”
Anderson also points out that preferred pronouns are not necessarily permanent, but a simple way for a child to feel supported and at ease. When people are given the respect and freedom to be who they are, Anderson says, the transformation is wonderful to see.
“They’re thriving,” she says. “They come in to see me at first depressed, suicidal, often self-harming. When the parents jump on board, now that kid is now thriving. They’ve got self esteem, they’re completely comfortable in their own skin, affirmed at home, affirmed at school, not afraid to talk in class. It’s such a dramatic change.”
Anderson says that based on the petition, the students were asking for the change not simply on their own behalf but on behalf of the whole student body. The student author pointed out that Frisco ISD’s mission statement is “to know every student by name and need.”
“Our need is to be better allies to the LGBTQ+ community, and we can be better allies in school by using people’s pronouns,” the author wrote. “By enabling them on Canvas, it will significantly help LGBTQ+ people in FISD.”
Everyone’s path is different, Anderson adds. Some teenagers will use a pronoun, but later return to their assigned gender. Others find new life and confidence. “It’s important to note that trans kids need a lot of love, comfort, but parents do too.”