From the Top: The Community School Models Respect for Transgender Staff and Students December 19, 2016

When Shana moved to New Hampshire twenty years ago, she was happy to find a community in a rural town in the Lakes Region.img_3263

A lifelong professional musician, Shana linked up with area musicians and quickly became a familiar face, known for playing with various ensembles concerts, festivals, contra dances, teaching private music lessons and workshops, and most recently as a church musician.

So in 2012, when Shana decided to start living every day openly as the transgender woman she had, for a long time, known she truly was—there was no chance she could transition quietly.

“Basically, this is a rural community. So everybody knew me,” she said. “They knew me before and they know me now.”

8c3eec09-8064-41c0-bb6e-6ab1b44afce4-1Lianne is Shana’s current employer at The Community School where she was hired as the music teacher in 2014.

Like most everyone else in the town, Lianne has also known Shana for years. But it wasn’t until after Shana transitioned that their relationship became professional. And when she was hired, Shana’s gender identity was not a topic of conversation. What mattered—to Lianne and to The Community School—was that Shana was a good musician, a good teacher, and a great fit for the job.

“Really when I was hired, it was the best thing: There was never any talk at all about [me being transgender],” Shana said. “They knew me as a musician. They had hired me to teach this stewardship for three weeks that went really well. The students liked me. I liked working with them. And during the summer they said, ‘Gee we’d like to offer you a job as a music teacher.’”

The Community School has had transgender-inclusive policies for 15+ years that explicitly prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity. But according to Lianne, the Director of the school, those policies are more a formality than anything.

“Don’t just put this as a policy on paper. My advice is overhaul your whole system and work on respect.” -Lianne Prentice, Director of The Community School

“It’s much more about the culture and the modeled expectations,” Lianne said. “I just think we so often show kindness and respect and acceptance that it’s almost a non-issue here because that’s just what we do.”

Kindness and respect are actually written into The Community School’s mission statement. And these values permeate the school body—from the administration down to the students.

For Shana, this type of working environment is a welcome refuge.

Earlier in her life, Shana had tried to transition once before, when she was living in Winchester, VA. But she found that afterward, work dried up. Musicians she had been regularly playing with stopped calling her for gigs, parents canceled lessons, and she was fired from a longtime job due to her new gender presentation. She ultimately de-transitioned due to many factors, including employment discrimination and issues brought on by the stress of making ends meet.

Now, Shana is living a fulfilling and happy life as a transgender woman. She’s grateful for Lianne’s support as her employer. But she’s been heartened by the openness and acceptance of the students at The Community School, too.

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Earlier this year, North Carolina was in the national news spotlight when Governor Pat McCrory signed one of the most egregiously anti-transgender laws in the country, specifically targeting transgender people for discrimination by effectively banning them from using public restrooms.

During this dark period, Shana said it was her students who lifted her spirits.

“When there was all this stuff about North Carolina, it actually brought up more anxiety than I had had about bathrooms,” she said. “And so I felt myself feeling heightened anxiety and one day I walked into school and obviously the kids had been hearing about this, and there are signs on the bathroom doors that say ‘This bathroom reserved for humans!’

Yea I about cried when I read that.”

For the students at The Community School, Shana’s gender identity is a non-issue. Lianne considers this a positive result of the culture of respect that the school seeks to foster. But she says non-discrimination protections—both at the micro level in schools, but also at the macro level statewide and federally—are essential to ensuring that there is a baseline of respect and equality in places that don’t have the same explicit commitment to these values that The Community School does.

img_1025-1Her advice to other schools working to implement transgender inclusive policies: Teach respect.

“Don’t just put this as a policy on paper. Really work on integrating learning about people and about what people have to offer. And make that part of what everybody is expected to do in your school.

My advice is overhaul your whole system and work on respect. And if you have a respectful culture then the policies are just extraneous.”