As graduation approaches for local high school students, transgender advocates are pushing the Hawaii Department of Education for policies to prevent incidents such as one last year in which a transgender student at Kahuku High School said she wasn’t allowed to  participate in her graduation ceremony.

Transgender figures such as fashion designer Ari South, soccer and film star Jaiyah Saelua and educator and community leader Hina Wong-Kalu said they will deliver a petition Tuesday morning to the department asking it to establish clear policies protecting transgender students from discrimination, and guaranteeing all students respect and safety regardless of their gender identity of expression. The effort was organized by the Kumu Hina Project, a community educational campaign for gender diversity and inclusion based on Hawaiian values.

Jennea Purcell, a 2015 Kahuku High School graduate, said she wasn't allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony as a female.

Jennea Purcell, a 2015 Kahuku High School graduate, said she wasn’t allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony as a female.

Vimeo

The DOE didn’t immediately return calls Monday seeking comment on its policies.

To my understanding, I had to confirm if it was OK that I wear the female gown from my principal and she said it wasn’t OK.” — Jennea Purcell, transgender 2015 graduate of Kahuku High School

The Kumu Hina Project drafted the petition in the wake of several reported cases of transgender discrimination in Hawaii’s public schools. The petition calls on the DOE to conduct training, professional development and education activities that would assure awareness and compliance with the new policy. 

And, in specific support of Jennea Purcell, a transgender 2015 Kahuku High School graduate, the petition asks the DOE to declare publicly that students may participate in graduation and other activities with their gender identity.

Missed Opportunity

Last year, in a case that drew national media attention, Purcell said she was denied participation in the 2015 graduation ceremony as girl. At Kahuku High School’s graduation ceremonies, female students wear white gowns, and male students wear red gowns 

“To my understanding I had to confirm if it was okay that I wear the female gown from my principal and she said it wasn’t okay,” said Purcell.

Kahuku High School Principal Pauline Masaniai’s office referred questions to DOE spokesperson Donalyn Dela Cruz who had not returned a call before deadline. Dela Cruz previously has been quoted denying Purcell’s allegations.

Citing local projects such as Growing Pono, A Place in the Middle and the federal Title IX civil rights law that prohibits sexual discrimination, supporters are urging the DOE to look to previous policies such as the GLSEN Transgender Model District Policy as a guideline.

Wong-Kalu, one of 10 individuals to be honored this week at a White House event titled “Champions of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling,” said she feels so strongly about the need for change here that she will forgo the White House ceremony to confront the Department of Education.

Wong-Kalu said that for Purcell, not participating in her graduation was a “lost opportunity,” as those times are when students are honored for their hard work and accomplishments.

“People like this should be able to feel comfortable in how they articulate themselves.” — Hina Wong-Kalu, educator and community leader

Growing up in a school environment where she felt restricted from being herself, Wong-Kalu said that she wished she had the peer support that Purcell has received from her peers, and that the younger generation should be encouraged to be themselves.

“People like this should be able to feel comfortable in how they articulate themselves,” said Wong-Kalu.

She said that creating guidelines that would guarantee an environment where transgender people can be themselves would be a “step forward.”

“Basically, the petition is to push the DOE to push equity and fair treatment to all youth especially transgender youths, if they have arrived at a comfortable and confident place where they are aligned with their gender identity,” said Wong-Kalu.

The petition is scheduled to be delivered at 1 p.m. in front of the Queen Liliuokalani Building.

Purcell, reached by phone, said she wants a policy that treats all students fairly.

“I just want fairness and equality for all, especially for anyone who is ‘different’,” she said.

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

About the Author