How One Student Brought LGBTQIA Protections to SAISD

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Young Women's Leadership Academy Senior Ruby Polanco.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Ruby Polanco is a Young Women's Leadership Academy senior who pushed SAISD to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination policies.

San Antonio Independent School District has become Bexar County’s first district to add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to its nondiscrimination policies. On Monday night the SAISD board of trustees made the changes official following the efforts of high school senior Ruby Polanco.

Growing up in SAISD, Polanco had seen the standard nondiscrimination statement on emails, parent letters, and other district communication. “It’s everywhere,” she said.

The statement uses standard language prohibiting discrimination against students on the basis of “race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, or any other basis prohibited by law.” A similar policy is in place for employees.

The new policy, effective immediately, will add gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation to that list. District officials explained that it will take some time for the online policy manual to reflect the updates.

It was not until the summer of 2016 that Polanco noticed that sexual orientation and gender identity were missing from the statement. “I wondered if it was a Texas thing,” she said. Upon further research, she found that while none of the districts in Bexar County included LGBTQIA identities in their nondiscrimination language, other urban districts did, including Austin, Houston, Dallas, Corpus Christi ISDs, and many more.

At Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA), “not straight” identities are not a problem, Polanco said. She sees her classmates and teachers as progressive and open-minded. A few of her schoolmates have been open about their identity journeys.

However, she knows this is not the case for everyone. She works at Bill Miller B-B-Q with students from her neighborhood who attend Lanier High School. Her coworkers and neighbors have a different school experience.

“At traditional high schools it’s harder to be non-conformative because they are afraid of the consequences,” Polanco said.

Young Women's Leadership Academy Senior Ruby Polanco.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Young Women’s Leadership Academy student Ruby Polanco in front of the senior loft at YWLA.

Students often face bullying for their LGBTQIA identities, said Robert Salcido Jr., statewide field coordinator with Equality Texas. While the bullying may continue, SAISD students can now know that they have codified support from the district.

Polanco saw the same thing as she began to research the topic more thoroughly. The data showed that a majority of LGBTQIA teens face some sort of discrimination in their community, including school. “I think everyone kind of unconsciously knows that,” Polanco said. Still, having that hunch confirmed by data was powerful for her.

Once Polanco had taken up the cause, she was a young woman on a mission. She started with her psychology teacher and worked her way up to conversations with Superintendent Pedro Martinez, SAISD Board President Patti Radle, State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), and others. “I talked to literally anyone I could get my hands on,” she said.

She started an online petition, and her classmates helped spread the word. Her peers at Lanier also were supportive.

Polanco followed the procedure for changing policy, tenaciously working her way through the bureaucracy, demonstrating an appreciation for the process, YWLA Principal Delia McLerran said. Polanco has an understanding and appreciation for protocol, McLerran added, “but when things need to be changed she advocates for it.”  

Ruby Palanco at the SAISD Board Meeting on Monday evening.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Ruby Palanco listens at the SAISD board meeting on Monday evening.

Speaking to the SAISD Board on Monday night, Polanco was respectful but conveyed urgency. It reflected the confidence McLerran had observed, as well as the 17-year-old’s ability to challenge an institution.

“[SAISD] has failed to keep abreast with the social and political advancements of today,” Polanco said. “SAISD has to advance with the times.” She challenged the district to lead the county toward equal protection for all students.

Polanco said she hopes SAISD schools can become safer places for teens as they work through issues and become confident in their identities. For many of her peers, their Hispanic homes and Catholic churches are not as supportive as they would hope. Things are changing, she said, but many are slow to understand the less visible non-conformities.

“It’s prevalent within the traditional Mexican community [to believe] that gay is bad, and it’s not real unless you’ve been that way since you were little,” she said. 

Polanco is not sure how much the nondiscrimination policy will change student culture, but she hopes that those affected will feel the support of the district and those who came together to change the policy.

On Monday, Radle pulled the item from the consent agenda in order to offer public comment and to commend Polanco for her leadership.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

(from left) SAISD Board Vice President Arthur Valdez, Board President Patti Radle, and Superintendent Pedro Martinez  listen at the SAISD board meeting on Monday evening.

“I just wanted to have an opportunity to say how proud we are of our student Ruby Polanco for bringing this forward,” Radle said. “Your leadership on this has been remarkable.”

Radle will be part of a panel discussion on transgender youth with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center on Saturday. In preparing for the event, she has been learning more about how these issues touch local students’ lives. That preparation, she said, has shed new light on the nondiscrimination policy.

“It’s been really beautiful to collect stories, to hear stories, to reflect on what this [policy] item is all about,” Radle said. 

Trustee James Howard (D2) told Polanco she had a promising future in law, should she choose that path.

The item passed unanimously with all seven trustees in attendance.

The fact that the district added the protections for teachers as well is especially encouraging, Salcido said. LGBTQIA teachers have long faced overt discrimination, and have been targeted by anti-homosexual policies such as California’s Proposition 6 in 1978.

The current political climate reinforces the need for LGBTQIA protections in schools, Salcido said, “especially considering the laws and bills that were presented during our legislative session and the special session.”

So-called “bathroom bills” dominated much of the discussion throughout Texas’ 85th Legislature and subsequent special session. Championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the bills sought to limit bathroom use in public facilities to the gender on individuals’ birth certificates. The bill died in both regular and special sessions, but will likely surface again if Patrick remains in office.

San Antonio business leaders, school districts, law enforcement, and elected officials spoke against the bathroom bill.

Equality Texas, which has been working with SAISD for years, encourages all school districts to add gender identities to their nondiscrimination policies.

Salcido said that Polanco had succeeded where his organization had not. Over the years Equality Texas has met with SAISD board members, including Radle, making the case for such language to be added to the district’s nondiscrimination ordinance. Those meetings did not see results, he said. 

“The fact that [this time] it was a student-led initiative speaks volumes, because it comes from someone directly affected,” Salcido said.

12 thoughts on “How One Student Brought LGBTQIA Protections to SAISD

  1. I applaud Ruby for her tenacity but what a misguided cause. I honestly cannot believe we encourage teens now to go on “identity journeys” to figure out their gender preference. You can’t make that stuff up.

    Where did all the adults in the room go?

    • Matt, I respectfully disagree that Ms. Polanco’s cause is “misguided”. It is critical that if a transgender student or teacher has experienced discrimination, or perhaps bullying, that there is a specific policy which has been violated. The rate of suicide among transgender people is much higher than in the general population and they are often bullied. I applaud Ms. Polanco’s efforts to recognize that discrimination is rampant and that it will not be tolerated.

      • Teresa, thank you for your response. We probably agree on many issues but for this one I’m sure it comes down to vastly different world views between the two of us. While you see it as critical to implement policies to prevent discrimination against transgender students I would argue it’s critical to not encourage kids to question if they are transgender. Being a teenager is a confusing enough time, I’m sure glad that 25 years ago I didn’t also have to wonder whether or not I should be a boy or girl, or like boys vs. girls for that matter.

        That’s what I meant by “where did all the adults go?”. I sure hope when my 4 kids are old enough to face some sort of identity issues that they have positive role models at school. Role models teaching them what it means to be a man or woman (I have sons and daughters) instead of asking them whether they would like to be a man OR a woman.

        I suppose if I thought that teenage kids choosing their gender was a good idea then I would agree with you, and we should focus our efforts on stopping discrimination against them. However, the last thing I think we should do is validate and encourage confused children by helping them question their gender. Instead these kids need loving guidance from older, hopefully wiser, adults who can affirm them for who they are.

        • Mr. Johnson,

          Most of the time, people who identify as transgender are not “choosing their gender”. If you have ever met an openly trans person, they will tell you that the confusion happened when their parents, teachers, and communities told them that they ARE one gender and questioning that is wrong or bad.

          Gender and sex are different. My sex is male. I was born male and will continue to identify as male. Gender is how I present myself to the world. I do stereotypically masculine things like buy clothes in the men’s section and watch football, but I also enjoy more stereotypically feminine things fashion and manicures. I am also gay. So, what does that make me? I’m a person who is living my own best life without regard for what Matt Johnson or Dan Patrick or Ruby Polanco think. It sounds like you are very comfortable and assured of your own identity, which is wonderful for you. And that is all that trans people want, too. They don’t want their government or their families or strangers on the internet telling them that how they feel is wrong. I cannot imagine dealing with that cognitive dissonance. Just because trans people have to face different struggles than you or me does not mean their struggles are invalid.

          The rejection and shaming that you frame as “loving guidance from older, hopefully wiser, adults” is exactly the sort of mindset that leads to higher rates of suicide and self-harm in the trans community. Who benefits from telling a trans kid, “You need to fit what I think you should be.”?

          No one is going around asking teenagers “whether they would like to be a man OR a woman.” They are telling all people that repressing feelings generally does not make them go away. They are telling them that they have a choice between lying to themselves and dealing with the pain and confusion that leads to just to appease those around them OR living an open, honest life. This policy is a small step toward greater peace of mind for a small handful of people that has zero negative impact on the rest of us.

          • Hey Andy,

            Thanks for the heartfelt response. Sounds like you’ve thought a lot about these type of issues. There’s a lot in your comment I don’t agree with but I’m okay with disagreeing. I’ll just comment on your last sentence if you don’t mind. Regarding other people’s choices or lifestyles having “zero negative impact on the rest of us”.

            I would argue these issues have an ENORMOUS impact on all of society. The gay/transgender issues our country has been divided over the past decade or so definitely affect us all. (evidenced by the fact that we are both spending time debating on an article that chronicles a student who spends a huge amount of her own time b/c of trans people’s choices)

            I won’t get into debating those actual issues b/c neither one of us will change the others mind. It would be nice though if we could all agree that our decisions affect one another.

            If my kids see a man wearing a dress walking downtown, you bet that’s going to affect our day as I try to explain it to them. If I drive recklessly and almost run you off the road, it’s probably going to affect your day negatively. All of our choices affect other people.

            Individualism has it’s positives but I am always aware of the fact that ALL my choices in life, seen or unseen, will have consequences on those around me. It would serve us well to be more cognizant of that.

            Lastly, I realize now as I’m writing about it, that this may be the core of the disagreements. If I believe (and I do) that another child or adult choosing to express their gender contrary to how they were born is going to affect the other kids in the classroom, then I’m certainly going to want to stand against that.

            If someone else (maybe yourself) believes that each child’s choices are somehow isolated and only effect that child then they will want that child to have as much freedom as possible to feel good about themselves.

  2. So, what are the new criteria for boys who identify as girls to use a girls restroom or showers … or vice versa? What about the rights of modest children?

    • So now that this new policy is in effect, I wonder how that changes admissions to YWLA…can “boys” now be required admittance to a girls’ school? While I can appreciate her tenaciousness, there will be consequences (both good and bad) that haven’t crossed her mind. I wonder if she considered the fact that she attends an all girls school.

      • Hi Nik, Ruby actually did think about that very issue. We discussed it with her principal after the interview. It was not included because there is currently no conclusion on how such a situation would be handled. However, the consensus was that, yes, the district will have to figure out some tricky situations, but that those conversations will strengthen the district, as they care for their most vulnerable students. While almost every policy has unintended consequences, Ruby has been strikingly circumspect and data driven.

    • There are not “boys who identify as girls” or “girls who identify as boys.” There are girls and there are boys. Some of them may be trans, but they are still boys and girls. So what? How does that affect “modest children” in any way?

  3. What about the rights of the children not conforming to non-conformity? How are the schools going to handle the further decay as many more items of non-conformity that can/will develop such as I do not identify with doing homework. I see the languages as fluid and do not need to follow language grammar when writing. Making up my own characters in writing is a form of self expression and it is up to the school to decode my work. Math is so “stable”, I feel we need to shake things up for creativity sake and have 1+1= other things to prevent boredom in the classrooms. Facts are not need for we need to address “feeling” and “wants” and “dreams” regardless of FACTS.

    • It is very evident from your response to this article that you feel you “do not need to follow language grammar when writing.”

      Honestly though, how would allowing a transgender girl to attend YWLA change that 1+1=2? Why does they gender identity of the student next to you in class affect what is taught or how you learn? Would it matter if a gay kid sat next you? Or an Asian kid? Or a kid in a wheelchair? Or a kid who moved here from France? Or a deaf kid?

      As long as they are not cheating off of you or bullying you, who cares? Live and let live. And yes, that is a FEELING, not a FACT.

    • Congratulation on posing a question that is simultaneously a huge non-sequitur and totally irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

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