Local teenagers discuss anti-trans bias, attacks at school

Bingo Valentin, a Saranac Lake student, speaks on a panel on transphobia and gender bias at the Saranac Lake Free Library on Monday, June 3. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

SARANAC LAKE — A panel of five local teens spoke on Monday, June 3 about facing repeated bullying, sexual harassment and physical attacks while at school during a community discussion at the Saranac Lake Free Library, co-hosted by the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance and Saranac Lake Youth Center.

Some of the students shared hurtful comments made by their teachers, family members or adults around them and pointed to what they saw as some teachers’ reluctance to take Diversity, Equity and Inclusion trainings. A few students described being outed by peers or trusted adults — meaning that their gender identity or sexual orientation was shared with others without their consent — or receiving death threats from other students. One teen spoke about students of color being targeted with slurs. One teen said they were harassed to the point of feeling suicidal.

The teens expressed frustration about what they see as a lack of action to protect them and a lack of real consequences for students who bully them.

“We don’t really have trusted adults in the high school or middle school, it seems. We’re kind of all on our own and we end up finding community in each other and safety in each other because all of the adults who were supposed to protect us have failed time and time again to protect us,” said Bingo Valentin, a transgender student athlete from Saranac Lake who uses they/them pronouns.

The panel included local teens Bella DaVide, Phoenix Yagy, Valentin, Lilly Branch and Jelley Taylor.

This community discussion follows a controversy that erupted last month after the parent of a Saranac Lake student athlete, Eric Wilson, mistook a student athlete on an opposing team as a transgender girl. While attending a flag football game between Saranac Lake and AuSable Valley, Wilson made derogatory comments on social media about that student, calling the student an “it” and a “thing with a penis.” Some responses to his post encouraged violence against the student. Wilson has since apologized, but the incident sparked responses from both Saranac Lake and AuSable Valley school officials; members of the public have since called for SLCSD to sever its contracts with the parent, who records the school’s graduation ceremonies; and the executive director of the ANCGA has called for a boycott of the parent’s business.

This event also follows multiple instances of anti-LGBTQIA-plus vandalism in Saranac Lake over the past few years, many of them targeting ANCGA Executive Director Kelly Metzgar specifically. Metzgar, who is arguably this region’s most vocal advocate for LGBTQIA-plus rights and a proud transgender woman, has had a Pride flag at her home repeatedly torn down.

Members of Monday’s panel and the forum’s co-hosts stressed multiple times throughout the event that their goal was not to speak about one specific incident but rather to bring attention to the broader picture of widespread discrimination and harassment of LGBTQIA-plus people around this region and New York state.

Their comments made clear that based on their experiences, and those shared with the ANCGA from other parts of the region, this one incident against an AuSable Valley student was not an isolated incident, but part of a broader culture of anti-LGBTQIA-plus sentiment.

“This is happening all across New York state,” Metzgar said. “We’re fighting this all across the state.”

School district

At the forum, the audience heard from Saranac Lake Central School District Director of Curriculum Melissa Butler, who read the Saranac Lake school board’s statement in response to Wilson’s social media posts and said it shows the district’s values.

“Discriminatory language and behavior in our schools and on our sports fields are categorically unacceptable,” the statement reads. “It is inappropriate for any adult, regardless of their role in the school community, to harass or belittle a student in any way in any medium.”

Butler said that by reading this statement, she hoped that “the sincerity isn’t lost.”

“I recognize that this is the community that we live in and we are evolving and we have a lot of growth that we need to do,” she said.

“You can preach that as much as you want, but from what I’ve seen, the DEI (committee) so far has done nothing to protect us and save us from things like this,” Valentin said.

Valentin added that they have reported discrimination in the school district and “nothing has been done.”

“You can say all you want that that is what you believe, but until you do it, that is not what you believe, that is what you say,” they said.

DaVide described harassment that she has personally experienced at school.

“I’ve been pushed down the stairs, shoved into lockers, called things I shouldn’t be called, people said things that they shouldn’t know to me,” she said.

“They turn our struggles into jokes,” DaVide added later. “They laugh at us when we speak our minds, when we’re ourselves.”

Butler spoke about her work as a Dignity for All Students Act coordinator at the district, which includes fielding complaints about potential DASA violations. She asked the teens how many instances of harassment and bullying they think aren’t being reported to the district.

“I’d say 95%,” Valentin said.

Butler asked if only 5% were being reported, what, beyond education, the district could do to address the harassment and bullying.

“I would love to see real punishments. … The punishments that are given out aren’t punishments, they’re seen as rewards,” Valentin said, noting that in-school and out-of-school suspensions are seen by students as rewards. “I would love for people be educated and be told ‘that’s not OK and here’s why,’ because people kill themselves over this.”

Taylor said that she knows of instances where her classmates have reported bullying or harassment and seemingly no real consequences came about. She also described how students may fear retribution as a result of reporting the bullying.

Local pediatrician Dr. Tracey Henderson noted that sometimes students who report harassment may not be made aware of what punishments come as a result of their report because of confidentiality. She asked the students what consequences an accused student could face that would make them feel that something is being done about their reports.

“For me, I want the kid to know how it feels. Even if they weren’t gay, or lesbian or bisexual, I would want them to know how it felt,” Branch said.

Medicine behind transitions

This community discussion happened as LGBTQIA-plus rights, and specifically transgender rights, come under fire by Conservatives in state houses across the country and at the federal level. Transgender youth — who report experiencing “significantly increased rates of depression, suicidality and victimization compared to their cisgender peers,” according to a 2019 study by the Trevor Project — are the subject of many of the pieces of legislation being proposed. As lawmakers debate these bills, misconceptions about transitioning and gender affirming care have been circulating.

Henderson spoke about the science behind transitioning and gender affirming care, such as hormones and gender reassignment surgeries.

She pointed out that — despite some widely-publicized misconceptions about gender reassignment surgeries being performed on young people — it’s very unlikely that a person under the age of 18 would ever be approved for such a surgery.

Instead, young transgender people go through a process that involves their parents and doctors, who evaluate the best way to support that child.

As long as a young person, their parents and their medical providers are all in agreement, some young people could be prescribed puberty blockers, which would temporarily pause a child’s body from developing physical characteristics that don’t align with their gender identity.

“This is not a new medication. It’s been used forever for lots of other things. Sometimes there are children who going through puberty too early, who are cisgender, but their puberty is starting at age 7 or something and they’re not supposed to be going through puberty that early,” Henderson said.

Puberty blockers have also been used to help transgender youth for decades, too, she added.

“The nice thing about them is that they’re completely reversible,” Henderson said of puberty blockers.

After being on puberty blockers for a few years, a person could be evaluated for possible hormone therapy, then as an adult, they may pursue gender affirming surgeries.

Lark Jensen, of Tupper Lake, said that he was able to get surgery as an adult only after being on hormone therapy for one year and after receiving letters of support from both his doctor and his therapist.

Taylor said that gender-affirming care made her “10 times happier.” Metzgar said she was suicidal before starting hormone therapy, and after receiving that gender-affirming care, it changed her life.

“It can be a safe-saving treatment for a lot of kids — and adults,” Henderson said.

Transgender athletes

As the number of anti-LGBTQIA-plus bills proposed across the country rises, some bills center on transgender athletes, specifically.

Despite the small minority of transgender athletes who participate in high school sports, at least one third of U.S. states have banned transgender students from playing school sports. At the federal level, North Country Rep. Elise Stefanik has backed a bill that would ban transgender athletes from playing on teams in line with their gender identities. The bill passed the House but has not seen any movement in the Senate since it arrived there a year ago.

Henderson spoke about misconceptions about transgender athletes.

Young people on puberty blockers tend to be smaller and thinner than other children, with less bone density, according to Henderson. This means that they could be more susceptible to getting injured.

“Certainly doesn’t put athletes at an advantage,” she said. “If anything, they’re going to be smaller, thinner and more prone to injury than their peers. It’s something that … if a kid was on a puberty blocker, it would be an important conversation with them, their parents, their doctor, their coach to make sure that whatever sport they’re playing, it’s going to be safe for them and they’re not going to end up getting hurt.”

Henderson noted that this same sort of conversation would happen if any seventh or eighth grader wants to play on a varsity team.

“They have to come to me, and I have to say they’re far enough along in puberty to not get clobbered by the 12th graders on the varsity football team,” she said.

Metzgar also noted that estrogen, typically taken when one is transitioning from male to female, does not help a person develop muscle mass. A transgender woman on estrogen would lose muscle mass and begin to lose some strength.

“In general, if a person is on cross-sex hormones, their body and their athletic ability … not 100%, but it’s definitely going to move toward the gender they’re affirming themselves towards,” Henderson said.

“You could make the argument that … physiologically, it’s more appropriate for them to play on their affirmed team because their body composition is going to be more similar to the players on that team,” she added.

Anti-discrimination laws

Metzgar spoke about state and federal laws that protect LGBTQIA-plus students and adults, including Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex; New York’s Dignity for All Students Act, which aims to ensure all students have access to education and school activities without discrimination or harassment by imposing a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination, harassment, bullying and intimidation; the state Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which added gender identity and expression as a protected category under the Human Rights Law; and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission anti-discrimination laws.

“We’ve heard in the paper, ‘I don’t believe in this, I don’t agree with this’ … you have to. This is federal and state law,” Metzgar said.

“‘No student shall be subject to harassment or bullying by employees or students on school property or at a school function,’ and no student ‘shall be subjected to discrimination based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity,'” Metzgar added, quoting portions of New York’s Dignity for All Students Act. “If you’re at a sporting game, if you’re at a concert, if you’re on school property, if you’re on the school bus, if you’re going somewhere with your class, cyberbullying is included in this … whether you’re a student or a parent of a student.”

Saranac Lake Youth Center Director Alexandra Amell asked if the students were aware that they had all of these rights. The panel was unanimous: No.

Butler said that SLCSD gives every student a pamphlet with information about the district’s Code of Conduct and DASA coordinators at the start of each school year and noted that the district has a link to all of those materials on the homepage of its website. It also has an anonymous reporting tool.

Despite the state and federal protections, the students said that they are still experiencing bullying and harassment at school.

“We still get bullied either way. We still get pushed into the lockers. We still get hate-crimed. We still have kids calling us slurs,” Branch said.

“Because we weren’t aware of these laws, when we are subjected to bullying, hate crimes, all of that, we don’t know that we can’t do anything about it,” Yagy said.

Under DASA, a student can file a claim, Metzgar explained. Each district has a DASA coordinator, who investigates the claims. The state Division of Human Rights also fields reports of hate crimes or bias incidents and anyone can submit a report, according to Metzgar.

The high school also has a Gay-Straight Alliance, which includes a teacher who has provided support to students, according to Valentin.

Community response

Roughly two dozen members of the community were in the audience at the forum. Some attendees were parents, some concerned community members or former educators, others were LGBTQIA-plus people who shared their own experiences of facing similar harassment while growing up or living in the Tri-Lakes region.

One member of the crowd, a former New Jersey educator who identified himself as Mike, said he felt that the school district needs leaders who are not just tolerant, but affirmative.

He panned the SLCSD board’s response to the recent incident with Wilson as “status quo,” saying that district leaders need to be willing to “spend some political capital to get people upset.”

He criticized the SLCSD superintendent’s decision to not share details about what actions the district would be taking in response to the incident.

SLCSD Superintendent Diane Fox told the Enterprise last month that any actions by the district wouldn’t come from the school board, it would come from her, and that she had decided not to publicly share what actions will be taken, saying the district does not reveal disciplinary actions for conduct violations.

“That’s between the district and that person,” she said. “It’s just not how we do business here.”

Mike said he felt that other community members may read the superintendent’s statement and feel that there are no real consequences for those types of behaviors.

“This is an individual who has business relationships, potentially, with the school district. It should be a matter of public record,” he said.

Rich Shapiro, a former Saranac Lake village trustee, said these recent incidents are evidence of a broader societal issue and that elected officials need to step up and provide leadership.

Piper Mallach, who attended SLCSD and grew up in Saranac Lake, said that she now has no intention of raising her kids here.

“At this current moment, I don’t have a ton of desire to do that and I would really love that to change,” Mallach said.

“This is a beautiful area, there’s amazing people … but given the current climate, and given the fact that there our people who are involved in this community feel comfortable saying those things despite their involvements with the school district, makes me really uncomfortable putting my own kids in the school district someday,” she added, referencing the incident with Wilson.

Mallach said she hopes that things change.

Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Tiffany Rea-Fisher spoke directly to the teens on the panel.

“I want the panel to understand that your voice is important and that you’re important,” she said. “One of the things that helped me throughout everything was understanding, once I was older, that my community and the people who cared about me was greater than what I knew. … Everyone here is here because there’s care for you.

“It is disheartening when the people that are responsible for your care are very clear that they’re on the wrong side of history. That pain is very real,” she added. “I also want to flip that to say that … there are supporters there.”

“Belonging and safety are one in the same,” Rea-Fisher said. “They’re not inseparable.”


Audience members asked the panel what allies could do to help spur change.

“You speak against it. You speak with us, not against us. You speak up for us and our rights, especially when they’re being challenged,” Valentin said. “When we are not there, you respect our identities, our names, our pronouns. There’s many ways for those who are not in our community to support us. The only thing that’s holding them back is asking us. Most queer people are open to being asked, ‘How can I support you? How can I help you?’ People are scared to ask us.”

“Speaking with us is not speaking for us,” DaVide said.

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