More and more transgender and gender nonconforming youth are finding the courage to express their authentic identity. They deserve the same access to education as every other child in Hawaii’s schools. But as Jennea’s story in the video below and many others like it clearly show, they are instead being singled out for harassment and discrimination — not by other students, but by the very school officials who are supposed to serve and protect them.

The central problem is the Hawaii Department of Education, which has failed to establish a transgender policy, neglected training and education on this subject and ignored existing civil rights law.

It’s not for lack of knowledge of the issue. According to the DOE’s own documents, numerous principals have requested guidance on addressing the needs of transgender students. Just last week, both the local and national news spotlighted the mother of a transgender child in a Hawaii elementary school who suffered unnecessary heartache and chaos due to the lack of any DOE guidance.

Jennea, a transgender graduate of Kahuku Intermediate and High School on Oahu's North Shore, was denied the right to participate in 2015 commencement ceremonies as a girl, despite having been previously accepted at school after she transitioned several years ago.
Jennea, a transgender graduate of Kahuku Intermediate and High School on Oahu’s North Shore, was denied the right to participate in 2015 commencement ceremonies as a girl, despite having been previously accepted at school after she transitioned several years ago. Via Vimeo

The DOE’s response to the story was “we’re working on it,” which — given that it issued precisely the same claim five months ago, one year ago, two years before that, and so on ad infinitum — is about as believable as “we had a policy, but the dog ate it.”

Nor can DOE’s negligence be attributed to lack of suitable models. School districts around the country have developed reputable, field-tested policies and best practices around gender diversity that could be immediately provided to educators and administrators. And Hawaii is fortunate to have culturally-based curriculum materials for anti-bias education developed by local projects such as Growing Pono Schools and A Place in the Middle.

With graduation just around the corner, it’s time for the Hawaii DOE to promulgate a policy to ensure that all students are safe, included and respected in school, regardless of their gender identity or expression. The DOE should also conduct training, professional development and educational activities to ensure that this policy is known and implemented and to provide an environment in which students have the opportunity to express themselves and live authentically.

Kahuku High and Intermediate School — the institution that forbade Jennea to graduate as her true self — could act as a model school by publicly declaring that it will never again deny a student this right, and that in the future, students may participate in graduation and other school activities consistent with their gender identity.

None of this will give back Jennea the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk at graduation, or the joy of appearing with her friends in a viral video in which she was supposed to have a starring role. That is gone forever.

But Jennea hopes that going public with her story will help the next generation of students avoid the trauma and discrimination she faced, and build confidence in their own abilities and worth. You can help by sharing Jennea’s video and signing this petition.

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About the Authors

  • Dean Hamer
    Dean Hamer is an Emmy Award winning filmmaker, New York Times Book of the Year author and NIH scientist emeritus. He formed Qwaves with partner Joe Wilson to produce insightful and provocative documentaries about often overlooked social issues. Their films have been supported by Sundance, ITVS and Pacific Islanders in Communications, won awards at over 100 film festivals across the world, and used as outreach and educational tools by a wide range of community and educational organizations.
  • Joe Wilson
    Award-winning documentary director/producer Joe Wilson got involved in documentary filmmaking through his social activism on human rights issues. Frustrated by the limitations of traditional organizing and advocacy, he picked up a camera with hopes of reaching broader audiences with stories that would inform and compel people to act. In addition to Kumu Hina, Wilson's filmmaking work include Otros Amores and Out in the Silence.
  • Hina Wong-Kalu
    Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu is a Native Hawaiian teacher, cultural practitioner and community leader and recipient of the 2016 National Education Association Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award for her impact on education and the achievement of equal opportunity for Asians and Pacific Islanders. She is the subject of the award-winning 2014 documentary, Kumu Hina.