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Hillsborough school officials push for staff training on the language of gender identification

Hillsborough district chief of staff Alberto Vazquez-Matos says LGBTQ students need safe zones and advocates.
Hillsborough district chief of staff Alberto Vazquez-Matos says LGBTQ students need safe zones and advocates.
Published Apr. 6, 2016

TAMPA — Do you know the difference between gender identity and gender expression?

Relax. Your child's principal probably doesn't know the difference either.

Hillsborough County school officials on Tuesday agreed to add "gender expression" to a list of circumstances in which students and staff are protected against harassment and discrimination — a list that already includes gender identity, along with race, religion, national origin and disability. But the change, which will require a board vote, is just one step in a much larger process of understanding how students see themselves in terms of sex and gender.

"What is ringing out and screaming at us is that staff at our school sites need definitions," member Cindy Stuart said during Tuesday's workshop. "They need acronyms. They need guidance in how to approach, protect students and keep them safe."

Chief of staff Alberto Vazquez-Matos, who returned recently from a statewide conference on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) students said young people who participated were clear in what they need at school.

They need school officials to be educated and learn correct terminology. They need safe zones and advocates. The right approach "engages all employees that deal with students in creating environments where all are welcomed," he said.

Obstacles might be a principal's attitude or simple logistics. Board member April Griffin used the example of a student who was transitioning from female to male, but could not run for homecoming king because the school computer insisted on coding the student as a female. Bringing school leadership up to speed will not be easy. It won't happen quickly. And board members want guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists to be covered by the training.

Broward County's school system, which is considered at the forefront of LGBTQ sensitivity, has published a 60-page guide for educators.

It explains, for example, that gender identity refers to "a person's internal, deeply felt sense of being male or female," although that list of options includes a blending of the two.

Gender expression, however, refers to physical characteristics or behavior traditionally linked to gender, such as dress, speech patterns and mannerisms. Neither term is synonymous with transgender, defined as "when someone feels as if he or she has been born into the wrong body."

No timetable was given for the staff training.

"Our principals are craving information," Griffin said.

The board also discussed the need for two separate reserve accounts to avoid the difficulties they had this year when they learned the general fund was diminishing at a rate that alarmed the investment community. One, amounting to between 5 and 10 percent of anticipated general fund revenues, would be strictly off-limits. The other, at least 3 percent of revenues, could be tapped for ongoing expenses with School Board permission.

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Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol

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