Recent events in Achille, Oklahoma, have been a study in contrasts.
We saw adults promoting violence against a transgender child named Maddie. Some encouraged other youth to harm her. Some threatened to harm her themselves. Even the threats themselves are a form of violence toward Maddie and her family that will take time and healing to live down.
It would be easy for some of us to blame those adults’ attitudes on where they live. They are too rural, too country, too backwoods, too Red State, and so on.
But having been born not far from Achille, I know those adults are not alone. Like many people, they too are uneducated on a new subject, and are uncomfortable with gender norms shifting around them.
Because change is afoot even in that so-called country, backwoods, Red State of Oklahoma. Last week, 20 people marched in the rain, wearing matching red shirts and with duct tape over their mouths, protesting the violent rhetoric and letting their actions in support of Maddie speak louder than any words could.
District Leaders Can Be the Change, But They Must Be Proactive
We saw that change when the Rick Beene, the superintendent of Achille Public Schools, made a statement in support of Maddie and declared that every student should receive a safe education.
Beene also convened a meeting with all school staff to talk about getting more training on being inclusive of Maddie and any other LGBTQ students in their schools. In recognizing that they all had things to learn, he said it was “not so much for anything that we did as a staff but for what we didn’t do.”
Unfortunately, the district’s support comes too late to keep Maddie and her family in Achille. After two years in the community, they’re moving. Perhaps Superintendent Beene now also recognizes ways the district could have been proactive earlier and will share those proactive strategies with his colleagues across Oklahoma.
Two years ago, Achille Public Schools could have updated school policies to specify equal access to facilities for trans students. The district could have invested in training, not just for teachers but for all school staff. They could even have held community educational events to let adults know the real truth about bathrooms: that early evidence shows trans kids are the ones most at risk of harm in school bathrooms.
Had the school and district led the way earlier in fully affirming Maddie as the girl she is, the recent events might never have happened.
It Takes Many Forms of Courage to Stand Up for Trans Young People
It takes courage to admit that we may not always have the answers, or that we need to unlearn something in order to learn something else. It takes another form of courage to look hard at past actions and make proactive changes to prevent problems from recurring.
Only time will tell what will happen in the Achille community. Will people start having more open and honest conversations, ask questions to genuinely learn about those who are different rather than fear what they don’t know or understand? Will other students feel safer to come out as LGBTQ because of the outpouring of support Maddie has received, to stand by her, and with her? Or will they be further pushed into the closet because of the shameful words and actions of a few hateful adults?
Fear can drive actions, but so can courage. My hope is that the courage shown by Maddie herself, her mother, the school, and other students will outweigh the fear caused by those hateful remarks and lead others to take a stand against discrimination and bullying. Change can happen anywhere, and Achille is one step closer to proving that.