Sunday, May 20, 2007
Transgender Teen Free To Be Herself
By DEBRA DENNIS / The Dallas Morning News
photos by Ben Sklar / The Dallas Morning News
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, May 20, 2007
FORT WORTH – When Rochelle Evans chooses what she's going to wear to Eastern Hills High School each day, her choices aren't solely fashion statements. To Rochelle, her flats, makeup and women's jeans represent a hard-fought right to express herself.
And a subtle declaration about transgender teens everywhere.
The 15-year-old transgender sophomore, who started high school as Rodney Evans, recently fought a public battle against school administrators over wearing women's clothes and her reaction when confronted by school officials. As part of the deal, Rochelle is addressed as a female and gets to use the nurse's bathroom to avoid
any awkward scenes in the boys' or girls' restroom.
I just felt more comfortable being a girl," she said. "I'm not asking for any special treatment."
For a while, she attended classes wearing both male and female attire but said that felt like a compromise.
She got herself suspended when asked not to wear her wig, fake breasts and short skirt to school.
Her attorneys met with school officials this month and hammered out an agreement that got her back in school. And Rochelle must attend summer classes to make up for missed classes.
"There was never a day when I was Rochelle for the whole day," Rochelle said. "I love makeup. I started wearing makeup because it helped to complete me more. It made me feel more like a girl. With the help of makeup, you can create your own kind of life."
She has learned to make the six-block walk to school in high heels.
Her schoolwork is tucked inside a large book bag that doubles as a purse.
Rochelle says she willingly toned down to less flashy attire – going from skirts to jeans – but wants the dignity of her pronouns.
"I have earned them," she said.
Transgender teens are demanding acceptance in all facets of society including school, said Simon Aronoff, deputy director of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C.
"Ten years ago, a transgender teen would not even consider being true to their gender while at school," Mr. Aronoff said. "But now we have youths who are coming out to their parents and wanting to go to school in the gender they feel more comfortable in. Sometimes, the younger generations are more accepting."
Lenora Felipe, Rochelle's mother, sides with her, although her support was not easily won.
"I admit I was confused," Mrs. Felipe said. "She's always been very feminine. I thought, as long as I keep putting him in boys' clothes, he's a boy. Well, that didn't work."
With counseling, Mrs. Felipe said she was able to better understand that her son is a transgender male who cross-dresses.
"I had to accept that," said Mrs. Felipe, a barber who has two other children – an 11-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy. "I was still being educated, but when it all came to the surface, I didn't understand. Why fight it? I support and love my child and try to make her safe and happy."
But that did not mean acceptance by all.
Mrs. Felipe said she was bombarded with calls from school administrators who said Rochelle's dress was disruptive.
They also complained that she skipped classes and used curse words when confronted by adults.
Rochelle's attorneys, Jerry W. Simoneaux and Phyllis Randolph Frye of Houston, worked out an agreement with school officials.
"They were addressing her as 'Rodney' and as 'he,' " Ms. Frye said. "Transgender is nothing new. It's gone through the schools. If it helps her to be able to deal with all of the problems that teens go through, then she should be allowed to say how she wants to be addressed."
Fort Worth school officials say they are committed to ensuring the safety of all students.
"The district vigorously enforces the student code of conduct, especially when it comes to harassment and bullying," said Chuck Boyd, the district's director of secondary school leadership. "We assure that all students are going to be treated safely and fairly. Our mission is to afford anyone a fair and appropriate education."
Rochelle and her friends say that her transformation has caused only a few problems at school.
La'Star Hardwick, 16, has been friends with Rochelle since both were in seventh grade.
She still calls her "Rodney" – a habit she has yet to break.
"Most of the students are cool, but there are some boys who act like they're uncomfortable," said La'Star. "But it's just a few, and they are not bullies."
Rochelle said she hopes to promote an understanding about transgender issues. She said she felt bullied mostly by school officials, not by classmates. Her classmates are asking questions and seeking answers, she said.
"I look at the world now and everyone knows there are transgender teens in Fort Worth," Rochelle said. "Some students thought I was gay, and I would say I'm not gay, I'm transgendered. They had no knowledge what it meant.
"They are trying to understand what it means and understand how I feel," she said. "They are asking me questions, doing their own research. They're on the Internet. In some ways, I'm a teacher."