Thursday, April 19, 2018

Blog Posts on LGBTQ Matters in Montgomery County

Monday, April 16, 2018

Thank you note to the Montgomery County Board of Education

MoCo BOE Members Michael Durso, Shebra Evans, Jeanette Dixon, Judith Docca,
Patricia O'Neill, Jill Ortman-Fouse, Matthew Post, and Rebecca Smondrowski

Below is the thank you letter sent today to the Montgomery County Board of Education.  It is always useful to let public officials know when they have made good decisions.  

Montgomery County Board of Education
Carver Educational Center
850 Hungerford Drive
Rockville, MD 20850
RE: Naming of Richard Montgomery Cluster Elementary School # 5 after Bayard Rustin
Dear President Durso, Vice President Evans, and Members O'Neill, Docca, Smondrowski, Ortman-Fouse, Dixon, and Post:
I want to thank you not just for the decision to name the new Richard Montgomery Cluster elementary school after Bayard Rustin, but for your thoughtful discussion of the matter. It is heartwarming to know that every member of the Board is so supportive of LGBTQ inclusion and embrace, regardless of their final vote. The choice was not between a good choice and a bad choice, but rather between good choices.
Thank you for making the choice that so many of us in Montgomery County believe will do the most good.
I have written and posted on Facebook what I hope is a comprehensive discussion of the April 12 discussion and vote.…/new-elementary-school-i… This blog post includes the link to the Board's discussion, which I commend to readers. As I write at the beginning of the piece, "I have said this often, and I have a great occasion to say it again: I love my hometown, Montgomery County."
Best wishes,
David S. Fishback, Maryland Advocacy Chair
Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG

Saturday, April 14, 2018

New Elementary School in Montgomery County (MD) named after Bayard Rustin

Poster thanking President Obama for posthumously awarding Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom 

I have said this often, and I have a great occasion to say it again:  I love my hometown, Montgomery County.

On April 12, 2018, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted to name the new elementary school in the Richard Montgomery Cluster after openly gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.  The Board made that decision after hearing an outpouring of support for the Rustin name from people all over Montgomery County, not just on April 12, but over the last several weeks. See here.

Earlier in the year, the Board passed along four names, including Rustin's, to a 13-member advisory committee made up of residents of the area that the new school will serve.  The local advisory committee recommended a different name, Lillian Brown, a late teacher and principal in the school system who grew up in then-segregated Montgomery County.  But, as Board member Patricia O'Neill noted at the April 12 meeting, the Board heard virtually no support for Brown from other people in the County (including in the Richard Montgomery Cluster) -- in contrast to the enormous support for Rustin.

Perhaps the most persuasive Public Comments testimony for Rustin came from Jamie Griffith, a student at Montgomery Blair High School, which may be heard here.  Other students and graduates, as well as parents, spoke movingly of the importance of recognition of LGBTQ leaders among those after whom schools are named. Symbols matter. The written testimony of seven of these speakers may be found here.  Their, and others', expressions of support clearly moved members of the Board.  Member O'Neill, who has been, for the last decade and a half, the leader on the Board advancing LGBTQ inclusion and embrace, supported the arguments by Rustin proponents that choosing that name would send an important signal to students.  Members Jill Ortman-Fouse and Rebecca Smondrowski clearly displayed great emotion in expressing their well-reasoned support.  Student Board Member Matt Post -- who was so eloquent as one of the speakers at the March 24 March for Our Lives on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown DC -- was equally eloquent in speaking of classmates who felt that they had be ashamed and closeted because, even in progressive Montgomery County, they did not feel that they would be accepted for who they are. Also voting in favor of Rustin were Members Shebra Evans and Judy Docca.

As Maryland Advocacy Chair for the Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG, I want to thank and congratulate the entire Board, which had a thoughtful and insightful discussion leading up to the vote.  This is true of everyone on the Board, including Michael Durso and Jeanette Dixon, who would have preferred a different name (but also expressed their admiration for Bayard Rustin).  I want to note that both Mr. Durso and Ms. Dixon have been strong supporters of LGBTQ inclusion.  Supporters of the cause do not have to agree on everything.

We have made wise choices over the years in electing the current members of the Board. The video of the April 12 discussion is now up on the Board's website  (Items 5 (Public Comments), 6 (Board member comments on many issues) and 7 (Board discussion and vote on the naming of the new school).  I suggest that it should be viewed by anyone interested in seeing how civil discourse should proceed (in contrast to what we see from federal officials these days).  The Public Comments testimony and the Board's discussion should make us proud to be Montgomery Countians.  (I am glad that I had the opportunity to tell that to President Durso shortly after the vote on April 12.)

Finally, I want to commend Mark Eckstein Bernardo, a parent whose children will attend the new Bayard Rustin Elementary School this autumn, for his excellent work in educating people about Bayard Rustin and encouraging the submission of expressions of support.  Mark is the newly-minted Metro DC PFLAG Maryland Advocacy Vice-Chair.


Here is the letter I sent to the Board on behalf of the Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG.  I made a similar presentation in person at Public Comments  on April 12.

April 8, 2018

Michael A. Durso, President
Montgomery County Board of Education
850 Hungerford Drive, Room 123
Rockville, MD 20850
via e-mail:

RE:  Naming of Richard Montgomery Cluster Elementary School No. 5

Dear President Durso:

As we reflect on the half-century since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  the opportunity to name the new Richard Montgomery Cluster elementary school after one of his chief mentors and supporters, Bayard Rustin, is a blessing.

While the other proposed names are, indeed, worthy, it is important to note that only Bayard Rustin is major figure in the contemporary struggle for human rights, including his mentorship of Dr. King at the beginning of Dr. King's career.  As noted on the Stanford University King Institute website ( ), Rustin, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, was the American who introduced Dr. King to the depth of Gandhi's philosophy of creative non-violence, and was instrumental in helping Dr. King implement it.   

As the King Institute biography teaches us:
"Rustin provided King with a deep understanding of nonviolent ideas and tactics at a time when King had only an academic familiarity with Gandhi. Rustin later recalled: 'The glorious thing is that he came to a profoundly deep understanding of nonviolence through the struggle itself, and through reading and discussions which he had in the process of carrying on the protest."  King recognized the advantages of Rustin’s knowledge, contacts, and organizational abilities, and invited him to serve as his advisor, well aware that Rustin’s background would be controversial to other civil rights leaders. As King’s special assistant, Rustin assumed a variety of roles, including proofreader, ghostwriter, philosophy teacher, and nonviolence strategist.
"Rustin was also instrumental in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), proposing to King in December 1956 that he create a group that would unite black leaders in the South who possess 'ties to masses of people so that their action projects are backed by broad participation of people.'  Rustin developed the guidelines for discussion for the founding meeting of SCLC in January 1957."

Bayard Rustin's selflessness in helping the effort is reflected in his determination to stay in the background, due, in part, to the homophobia of the time.  The King Institute biography notes that

 "[a]lthough Rustin helped draft much of King’s [1958] memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, Rustin would not allow his name to be credited in the book, telling an associate: 'I did not feel that he should bear this kind of burden.'” 

As important as Bayard Rustin's contributions were in the 1950s, perhaps even more significant was his brilliant stage managing of the 1963 March on Washington, which gave Dr. King the platform for his "I Have a Dream" Speech which galvanized the nation.  Again, from the King Institute:  

"In 1963 [the elderly Civil Rights Leader A. Phillip] Randolph began organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Despite the concerns of many civil rights leaders, Rustin was appointed deputy director of the march. In less than two months Rustin guided the organization of an event that would bring over 200,000 participants to the nation’s capital."

This is why the Life Magazine cover following the March on Washington pictured Randolph and Rustin.

As Maryland Advocacy Chair for the Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG, I agree with so many of my fellow Montgomery Countians that selecting the name of Bayard Rustin would sent an important  signal that this community honors a great American who happened to be openly gay at a time when it was dangerous to be open.  

As a VISTA Volunteer in Memphis (1969-70), Co-President of the Rosemary Hills Magnet Primary School (1984-86), a member of the Montgomery County's Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Committee (1986-92), and a member of the Richard Montgomery High School PTSA Executive Committee (1996-99), I relate in this letter the history of his principal accomplishments to show that, in my opinion, even were Rustin not gay, honoring his memory by naming the new Richard Montgomery Cluster elementary school after him would be the best choice. 


David S. Fishback, Maryland Advocacy Chair
Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG
Olney MD 


One of the joys of being a career attorney at the U. S. Department of Justice was having the opportunity to work with people who shared my commitment to quality public service.

A decade ago, I met Bridget Bailey Lipscomb, who was then an attorney in the FTCA Section of the DOJ Civil Division, where I served as an Assistant Director in the Environmental Torts Section.  When I retired nearly five years ago, I was pleased that Bridget was appointed to succeed me.  Her reputation as a top-notch attorney and colleague was fully justified. 

I urge members of the D.C. Bar to vote for Bridget to be D.C. Bar President-Elect.  Electronic voting at opens on April 23 and closes on May 18.  The information on her website ( ) demonstrates her effectiveness as a 15-year public servant with  a long history of dedicated service to the Bar and the community.  Bridget plans to focus on making the Bar more welcoming to and inclusive of all members, and supporting and enhancing the Bar's commitment to access to justice through innovation and collaboration with additional groups.  So far, Bridget has been endorsed by Katherine Mazzaferri, Cynthia Hill, and Maureen Syracuse, nine past presidents, current and former members of the Board of Governors, the Washington Bar Association, and many other bar leaders. 

My endorsement is also based on my assessment of her character and wisdom.  On her website, Bridget lists her 2009 presentation at Temple Emanuel’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Shabbat Service, on the eve of the first Obama Inaugural.  As a member of  Temple Emanuel, I invited her to speak on The Joshua Generation in the Promised Land.  What she conveyed that evening is reflective of the person I have come to know.  Her text may be found at   I have also pasted it here:

I. Introduction – The Promise of This Land

Good evening. Cantor Boxt, my brothers and my sisters in faith – Shabbat Shalom. I would like to personally thank David Fishback, my colleague at the United States Department of Justice, for inviting me to spend this special evening with you.
My topic tonight is "The Joshua Generation In the Promised Land." David informed you that I am a member of what President-elect Obama calls "The Joshua Generation" – the descendants of those who wandered in the desert of injustice for centuries, and who now enter the promised land. And, as I hope to explain this evening, you, too, are a part of the Joshua Generation.

But what is that Promised Land? It is not a special location. Rather, the place is right where we've been – here in America, what some have called the New Jerusalem. But what's important is not the place, but the promise. We do not enter a new land, but the land we have long dwelt in is now transformed by the fulfillment of a very old promise.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." When those words were first made the foundation of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, they clearly were not universally applied. Millions of Americans at that time were held in perpetual bondage. And the author of the phrase, Thomas Jefferson, was himself a slaveowner. The statement was an aspiration, a promise, made by a few brave citizens of a British colony. It was a promise to be fulfilled, hopefully, in the future of that nation.

For African Americans, that promise remained hidden for almost 100 years, until Abraham Lincoln made it the foundation of his Gettysburg Address in 1863. Lincoln ennobled both our nation and its Civil War by explicitly stating that fulfilling this promise was the goal for which all citizens – Black and White – had suffered so much in his time. "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Progress toward that goal was halting over the next century, until Dr. Martin Luther King made that same idea the foundation of his life's work and his "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1963, at the foot of the great civic temple to Lincoln in Washington, DC, Dr. King restated the founding promise of America for all the world to hear when he said, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

In 1963, it was still a dream that our nation would "live out the true meaning of its creed." But the promise of equality in the Declaration, the Gettysburg Address and the I Have A Dream speech was that some day Americans would really know that truth. And act on it, and live our lives by it. And even VOTE on it. On November 4, 2008, we all lived it. Racial equality is no longer a REMOTE dream. Praise God! And Lincoln and King! And the Electoral College! The dream of racial equality NOW has a stronger promise of being realized in short order.

Of course, racial bigotry still rests in the hearts of many Americans, but they are a small minority and dying out fast. And the effects of centuries of racial bigotry remain with us today and will for some time. Fulfilling the founding promise does not change that. But it does mean that we, the Joshua Generation, get to start actually living what used to be only a dream.

II. The Journey of the Joshua Generation

To me, there are two core obligations on those of us in the Joshua Generation – Remembrance and Perseverance. Those of us who descend from historically-oppressed people, particularly those of us who attain some measure of success, must always remember and honor the sacrifice of those who came before. Their efforts live on in us and remembering them brings them forth to our present, where they share in our bounty. And they spur us on in the great work of expanding the divine gifts of freedom, justice and love.

I know that I was only permitted to achieve my goals because of the those in the Moses Generation of Dr. King. Their memory pushes me to smooth the road for those who come after me, and I am tasked with the duty and have the responsibility to do all things well. When I speak to young children, I emphasize "EXCELLENCE." Excellence is always my goal. I may not attain the goal every time, but I must try. In other words, as a member of the Joshua Generation, I have an obligation to be fully-prepared and then some for every court hearing. I have an obligation to make sure that every legal brief I file, is exceptional. You see, I realize that even in 2009, many African American lawyers who appear before the judges whom I have practiced before may be unconsciously judged by my performance. I realize that even in 2009, when I appear in a courtroom, some of my colleagues and/or some judges perceive me as an average or maybe even less than average lawyer because of the color of my skin. So, I must show "excellence" to dispel the image, so that someday there will not be even unconscious negative preconceptions.

As a member of the Joshua Generation, I have an obligation to be responsible, ethical and compassionate.

As a member of the Joshua Generation, I have an obligation to give back to the community. For me, that means meeting, mentoring, helping, and never forgetting those less fortunate. Showing them what the results of hard work and dedication look like.

You here at Temple Emanuel know this – you are heavily involved in charitable projects on, among other things, environmental, economic and medical interests. You take seriously the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam  – repairing the world. The work of the members of this Congregation demonstrates that you are living up to the responsibilities of the Joshua Generation. We all have those responsibilities, whatever our race or religion.

As a member of the Joshua Generation, I believe, as this Temple exemplifies, that I should work toward something bigger than myself or my own self interests. One of the ways I did this recently was to work in the presidential campaign.

       III.  Trinity United Church of Christ

I began working on the campaign in January 2008. President-elect Obama got on my radar screen several years earlier, when my mom would call me and talk about this intelligent, confident and compassionate young man who was running for the United States Senate from Illinois. Obama captured the interest of most Chicagoans. My family and friends were no different. My connection to Senator Obama was more than political; it was also spiritual because he and his wife were members of my Chicago church, Trinity United Church of Christ.

So, after I learned that Obama was a member of Trinity, I felt a bond with him. While I never met Obama at Trinity, I met him one day with my mother in his U.S. Senate office without an appointment. Notwithstanding his busy schedule, he met with us and treated us as if we were his only appointment for the day. This was an early indication of the type of person he is. When the rumors swirled that Obama was contemplating a run for the presidency, I made up my mind that if he decided to run, I was going to do everything I could for his campaign. And I did.

       IV.  Working On The 2008 Presidential Campaign

My experiences with the Obama campaign changed my life – and not just because we won. I saw things that I never expected to see in my lifetime. I saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream. I lived his dream. I saw Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans -- Protestants, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhist, agnostics, atheists, and religious people who do not prescribe to a denomination -- young and old, gay and straight, rich and poor, and the disabled working together toward a common goal – CHANGE. Everyone was on equal footing in the campaign office. I saw LOVE in action. I saw respect in action. I saw rich people working with and assisting poor people. I saw people from red states and blue states traveling to different parts of the country to assist with the primary election. I saw Republicans, Democrats and Independents working together for the campaign and for the common good. And it was something to behold.

Then came the actual election – and that CHANGED MY LIFE EVEN MORE! This election taught me that America has become what it always said it was. It was apparent to me that the country had changed right before my eyes and I was oblivious to it. Pres-elect Obama often said during the election that only in America could his story be possible. Prior to this election, I thought America had not changed much from what it was 40 years ago. I have never been so happy to be so wrong.

I know I have been very fortunate in my life, but I often wondered whether I was an exception. I felt that the overwhelming majority of American people still held deep-seeded discriminatory views. I was of the belief that America would "let a few of us through" - Thurgood Marshall, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Senator Obama and, on a much smaller scale, Bridget Bailey Lipscomb - but I thought that was as far as we could go.

I knew there were many Americans who had moved past our history of racial bias, but I didn't think there were enough. I did not believe that a majority of American voters would judge a Black man running for the highest office in the land on the content of his character rather than by the color of his skin. During the presidential campaign, many African Americans awakened to the fact that they live in a different America. It was a transformation for me, and for many African Americans – a transformation I look forward to watching play out as we move forward together.

V. Commemorating the Dream

 It is fitting to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday this year by celebrating the leap forward that we, as Americans, took on November 4th – when we elected the first African American President of the United States of America. I love to say this, "The 44th President of the United States of America - Barack Obama."

Since ancient times the Jewish people have been known as "the people of the book" – the Torah. In the Catholic school I attended, it was called "the Pentateuch." It is said that these five books -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – were inspired by God and written by Moses. These books lay the foundation not only of the Jewish faith, but of the Christian and Muslim creeds as well. To me, two things stand out in these ancient writings – one, the emphasis on ritual to bind us to the past, to God, and to our community.

The other thing that stands out to me in these great books is the wide prevalence of different forms of slavery throughout the ancient world. Yes, slavery was widespread throughout the ancient Roman and Greek eras, and the great Egyptian civilizations before that. It likely existed for thousands of years before that. But one thing we do know for sure – from the time humans started writing about themselves, there was slavery and it continued unchecked into THIS country's old South. The prevalence of slavery in the ancient Holy books was often used to JUSTIFY the institution and perpetuate it in America long past the time that its moral repugnance was well known among the nations of the world. But the glory of our common scripture and religious heritage is that we have learned to capture its essence, WITHOUT being bound to practices which were of a time and place NOT OURS.

The "peculiar institution" of chattel slavery continued more than 200 long years in this troubled land, until ended by President Lincoln, and those citizens who elected him.

It is not surprising that an abomination like slavery, that persisted in human societies for thousands of years, and in America for more than 200 years, would leave us with a prolonged time in which its evil effects remained present. These eras are often subdivided and labeled – Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era – but to me it is all part of one era, the post-slavery era. And I believe we will see the BEGINNING of the end of this post-slavery era on Tuesday, January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama -- a man whose skin tone would have made him a SLAVE when Lincoln was elected, places his hand on a Bible – a Bible last used by Abraham Lincoln at his inaugural – and swears his oath to accept the position of leader of this land as freely chosen by its people. And when he does, a roar of jubilation will shoot through America like it has never known. That feeling, that sound, will be representative of the lifting of the burden of hundreds of years of oppression and suffering that will HOPEFULLY, HOPEFULLY soon be cast off by all.

I believe that Barack Obama's inauguration is a milestone in the realization of Dr. King's "Dream." In my heart, I believe that in his dream, Dr. King envisioned such a day: A day when a person elected based on the "content of his character" rather than the color of his skin would begin to lead our whole nation on a journey in which we all would try to fulfill the promise that could be America. Dr. King told a crowd, shortly before his death, "I may not get there with you. But . . . we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land." Like Moses, Dr. King, from the mountain top, saw into the Promised Land. As Dr. King's friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "To guide the pupil to the promised land, he must have been there himself." Dr. King was there. And we are all Dr. King's pupils.

Because Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel, Rosa Parks, Rep. John Lewis, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, Justice Thurgood Marshall and Phineas Indritz (a Temple member - now deceased - who wrote an amicus brief in Brown v. Board) worked and marched, because they sacrificed and prayed and endured – and sometimes died. Because they had to sit at the back of the bus, because they were beaten and had to endure the force of water hoses and dogs let loose, because they had to go through the era of Jim Crow -- President-elect Obama was able to attend Harvard Law School, and become a law professor, and a state senator, and a U.S. Senator. And he was able to be elected president of the United States of America. Because Pres-elect Obama is standing on these and other shoulders, he and his family are about to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

President-elect Obama has said that he is part of the "Joshua Generation.." In March, 2007, at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama (the cradle of the civil rights movement), Obama said, "I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation . . . . As great as Moses was, despite all he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn't cross over the river to see the Promised Land.. God told him your job is done. You'll see it. You'll see what I've promised. . . ..You will see that I've fulfilled that promise but you won't get there. We're going to leave it to the Joshua generation to make sure it happens."

We are now reaching the metaphorical Promised Land. And we, the Joshua Generation – not just African Americans, but all Americans – who have so benefitted from the struggle of our forebears, have the RESPONSIBILITY to truly make it, in the words of scripture, a "land flowing with milk and honey." A land where all of us can live in peace and freedom and abundance.

Finally, America has shown the world that it is fulfilling its unique promise – the binding up of the wounds from slavery, accomplished by the descendants of slaves working side by side with the descendants of slave-owners. This inauguration moves us toward a more perfect union where "all men (and women) are created equal." As Dr. King would say, let justice "roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Thank you for having me. SHALOM.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Transgender teen navigates a path to acceptance: Washington Jewish Week 4/12/18

Another reason why I am pleased to be a member of Temple Emanuel.

Transgender teen navigates a path to acceptance

Quinn Spence chose entering high school to live fully as a boy

Quinn Spence remembers the moment he began to question who he was. It was in 6th grade while talking to a friend.
“She was questioning her identity, and I realized that it wasn’t so binary, like ‘you’re gay or you’re straight or male or female,’” he says. “And it brought up vague feelings I had had in the past of looking up to people in the LGBT community and not knowing why I was so drawn to them.”
Quinn is now 15. When he entered Albert Einstein High School in Kensington as a freshman last fall, he went as a male. But becoming comfortable enough to abandon the female identity he had been raised with took a journey of three years and a few awkward moments, despite growing up in the environment of a liberal household, accepting synagogue and county school system known for its diversity.
Sitting in the living room of his Rockville home with his parents, Christopher and Melissa Spence, and dog Charlie, Quinn retraces the steps of that journey.
In 6th grade, besides his close friends, the only person at school Quinn discussed his gender identity with was a science teacher with a “safe space” sticker on her door. But at his synagogue, Temple Emanuel, he found a home away from home and a confidante in youth group adviser Lillian Feldman-Hill. He started participating in the youth group, part of the Reform movement’s NFTY movement, and Feldman-Hill helped him navigate the social and practical issues that come with transitioning to another gender as a teen, such as asking students to call him by his last name.
“She was really open to getting me into gender-neutral housing and helping me meet people who were similar to me and going through similar experiences,” he says.
The next year, Quinn decided it was time to tell his parents who he was. They had talked in the past about the importance of accepting people for who they were. But he was still nervous about their reaction.
Quinn was so nervous that he enlisted the help of a friend to put his announcement into the form of a letter, which he read to his parents.
“It was really scary, and at first no one [him and his parents] was sure how to talk about it, but over time we became a lot more open to discussing gender and identity and that kind of thing,” he says.
Quinn’s parents say it took at least six months after Quinn came out to them before they became used to the idea of their child as a boy.


“It was almost denial,” Christopher Spence says. “It wasn’t a negative reaction, like anger. It was more just, ‘There’s something else going on here.’”
Melissa Spence says that at first she suspected Quinn was going through a phase.
“Quinn’s always been very precocious and reads a lot,” she says. “We stopped being able to control or monitor everything he was reading. We thought, ‘Maybe it’s because he’s reading about kids who are going through these things, or there’s other things going on.’ Middle school was difficult and maybe that answered some questions.”
But denial eventually turned to acceptance, and the Spences gradually told family and friends about Quinn’s journey.
“Quinn is an amazing person, and I don’t care if you’re in a male body or female body,” Melissa Spence says, turning toward him. “The only thing you want for your kid is for them to be happy and safe.”
For the next two years, Quinn discussed his transition with close friends and family, at an art camp during the summer and at NFTY events during the school year. But there were only so many people at school Quinn could speak with about his gender. His health education teacher practically never referred to the LGBT community, using the word “gay” once all year long, despite teaching a curriculum that covered issues such as sex education, mental health and suicide prevention.
“We had a box where we could submit anonymous questions to the teacher, and a couple of times I would submit questions to the box saying, ‘You didn’t say how this affects people who aren’t heterosexual,’” he said. “And he never knew how to deal with it.”
Outside of the classroom, Quinn encountered students who were ignorant or transphobic. Quinn says some students knew he was transgender, and he would be asked personal questions such as, “What’s your birth name?” In some cases, he told the person it was “none of their business.” In others he chose not to respond.
Quinn officially changed his name in the summer of 2017 in preparation for starting high school, so that all of his records would be up to date, Melissa Spence says. The family met with a counselor to discuss practical issues such as using the appropriate restrooms and making sure students and teachers knew he would be using male pronouns.
“I went to a new school where people didn’t know anything about me, whereas at my middle school everyone kind of thought they knew these things about me, so I didn’t bother transitioning since I knew I was going to be leaving,” he says.
Quinn credits NFTY with helping him become more comfortable with his transgender identity, and says before becoming involved he had not known any other trans people his age.
“That definitely played a role in terms of increasing my confidence, because I saw all these people not too much older than me really being themselves,” he says. “And I’m still in touch with a lot of people I met at my first event.”
Quinn has also been involved a social group called Rockville Open House that meets monthly at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington for LGBT teens ages 13 to 18. He says the group frequently discusses LGBT representation in the media, political issues and life at school.
“Quinn came in confident, eager to make friends and with a strong and wonderful personality that showed a lot of self-confidence and pride,” says Rabbi Sarah Meytin, who started the group.
Meytin, who has a full time position at B’nai Shalom of Olney, says transgender students have a harder time fitting in at school than others in the LGBT community. She thinks now that same-sex marriage is legal in the United States, gender equality is “the next big frontier” that society must confront when it comes to LGBT rights.
“Just understanding gender as a spectrum is the next thing we [as a society] need to tackle,” she says.
In the Washington area, eight Reform congregations have made a commitment to design facilities and programs that are gender-inclusive — a recent mission of the Union for Reform Judaism, says David Fishback, a member of Temple Emanuel’s board of trustees.
The congregation’s Kulanu Committee, which works on LGBT inclusion, has recently been working to fill the needs of congregants with varying gender identities through accommodations such as non-gender-specific restrooms and the elimination of gendered language from the liturgy, Fishback says.
Quinn is still asked personal questions or called by the wrong pronoun from time-to-time, but he has come to appreciate the motivation behind the words.
“I don’t hold a grudge against people who are asking questions that they think are innocent,” he says. “It’s when people say things that they know are hurtful … I ignore them.”