Identity Evolving: Sharing the Genderqueer Experience
According to the school’s official website, “St. Teresa's molds students into confident, skilled, and caring young women through a challenging curriculum, an all-female environment, a diverse student body, Christian values, and personal responsibility.” However, there are members of the STA community who do not identify with being female, in which concerns have arisen from these genderqueer and transgender students to administration about their place in the STA mission. These concerns have pushed conversations that have led to policy changes to create a more gender-inclusive environment while abiding by the institution’s core values.
April 15, 2021
“I really was planning on not coming out to the school at all,” senior Will Dodderidge said. “I was planning on just toughing out senior year. I would go to school and they would always be like, ‘Ok girls, ladies, let’s do this next. Ladies on virtual.’ And I was like, ‘Oh this is terrible.’… For me, personally, I feel very dysphoric in certain things, which basically just means that I feel uncomfortable presenting as a woman.”
Will Dodderidge is a senior who uses he/they pronouns. Specifically, he is nonbinary and trans-masculine, meaning that in the future he hopes to formally transition masculinely through testosterone supplements and top surgery.
“I started thinking about [different gender identities] years ago because to me gender has always been a construct — like it doesn’t really make that much sense to me,” Dodderidge said. “I originally started using she/they pronouns, and then I was like, ‘mmm, this isn’t a vibe.’ Then I moved on to using they/them and then, where I am now, he/they. [Gender] was always a construct to me, and I just felt more comfortable breaking that stereotype because for such a long time, I was very much stereotypically what people view a woman as. Dresses and skirts and all of that. And the only reason I was doing it is because I felt like that was what I was supposed to do. And then I started realizing I don’t have to do that anymore. And, you know, I shaved my head. And I stopped doing all of that stuff and stopped performing femininity.”
When he came out as transmasculine to administration around winter break, Dodderidge was asked to use a less masculine name and told that they would have to consider him using he/him pronouns.
“The amount of people who I’ve come out to and asked if I could change my name [to something less masculine] has been alarming,” Dodderidge said. “So they asked if I could change my name, said that going by [he/him] pronouns wasn’t going to work, that they could maybe do they/them pronouns, and I was just like, ‘oh this is really terrible.’ So basically the whole meeting was just very much invalidating of the main part of my identity.”
Dodderidge has had other negative interactions while trying to ensure that faculty and staff are referring to him by his preferred name and pronouns.
“You called me Ms. Will?” Dodderidge said, describing an interaction with a member of the administration. “Don’t know why you did that. You got the name and then just decided to add on Ms.?”
However, Dodderidge has also had positive experiences with his teachers. After emailing them to ask to be referred to by his preferred name and pronouns, Dodderidge received a mostly positive response.
“Some teachers didn’t email me back,” Dodderidge said. “But they still use Will, which is good. But for the most part my teachers were all like, ‘Yeah just correct me if I get it wrong. Always going to be here to support you. I want people to feel comfortable in my classroom.’ So that was really nice because I don’t really know what I was expecting with that.”
“The first time I started questioning my gender identity was sophomore year,” senior Jude Patenaude said. “I came across some websites with just lists of identities, including gender identities. I discovered demigirl, which is where you partially identify as a woman and partially identify as agender, or not having a gender. And I was like, ‘That’s so cool! That totally sounds like me.’”
Patenaude is the president of the Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) who now identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.
“So I started identifying as [demigirl] for a while, but over the summer I figured out that I have gender dysphoria, which is where you feel that certain aspects of yourself, like your body or your hair or your clothes, don’t match the gender you perceive yourself as,” Patenaude said. “That pushed me to go further and explore more ways I might like to identify myself.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, gender dysphoria is “the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people might experience gender dysphoria at some point in their lives.” One aspect of combating gender dysphoria is dressing as the gender that causes the most personal inner peace. Dodderidge notes that the STA uniform — specifically the skirt — can perpetuate feelings of gender dysphoria.
“We wear skirts — you’re very much kind of forced into the gendered box of how you’re supposed to present yourself, even if you are gender conforming, you’re cisgender, there’s not a lot of creativity you can put into the way you look at St. Teresa’s,” Dodderidge said. “Which makes sense, I mean, it’s a uniform. But there’s only one option for pants and you can’t even get them through the Star Shop, you have to go and get them yourself. The idea that everyone at St. Teresa’s is a woman is constantly being reinforced, even though that’s definitely not the case. I think it’s hard for some people to explore their gender identity while attending an all-girls school, when it being all-girls is constantly being forced down people’s throats. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a bad thing, but constantly gendering every single thing that we do ever gets annoying.”
Sophomore Ava Martinez — who uses they/them pronouns — does not personally feel restricted in their identity through the school’s uniform.
“I don’t really have an issue with it,” Martinez said. “I’ve been wearing uniforms my whole life, so I’m really used t
o the skirts, and they don’t really make me feel dysphoric at all. And there’s the option for pants too sometimes, which is cool for days when I don’t feel like wearing a skirt. But it doesn’t really bother me that much.”
Martinez began questioning their identity in middle school, and began seriously reflecting on it during quarantine. They were uncomfortable expressing themselves as completely feminine through their appearance.
“I always had an issue with my body and body confidence,” Martinez said. “In middle school I started to go on the internet more, and I was exposed to influencers who were transgender or queer in general. That exposed me to different types of identities and put the language to how I felt… I feel like I just kind of express [gender] in the way I dress. I don’t really dress too feminine, too masculine — I’m kind of just pretty in between. I feel like my hair, I cut it really short, helped me look a lot more androgynous, which is what I like. It’s just like, subtle things like that. I don’t really do anything big.”
Senior Ange Dickson identifies as genderfluid, and they are the vice president of GSA. Although they were raised Catholic, they no longer identify with the religion after recent events at STA.
“I am genderfluid, which means that my gender identity sort of feels like it changes every day,” Dickson said. “I used to describe it that it didn’t feel like my gender changed, but my pronouns would. I suppose that description still stands to a certain extent, but there are definitely some days when I do sometimes feel it a little more physically or emotionally. I’m usually on the more masculine side. I have days when I do feel more feminine, but those are generally more few and far between, and I’ve been experimenting a little bit with neopronouns on those days, but nothing solid.”
Dickson came out to the senior class through the class GroupMe in January. They are grateful to have their gender identity more widely-known at school.
“In the past couple months, hearing people use my preferred name of Ange has just been really nice at school,” Dickson said. “For a while, I didn’t really realize how much the other name bothered me, and there are days when it bothers me less. But, overall, being called Ange is just so much of a better feeling so far.”
The Dart intended to release coverage on gender identity in their fifth issue — distributed on Feb. 12. When collecting sources via a poll on the Dart’s Instagram — @dartnewsonline — the story was brought to president Siabhan May-Washington’s attention by a community member. As the president of STA, it is her responsibility to ensure that the article was falling in line with the school’s current educational and journalistic guidelines.
“The Dart story was originally brought to my attention by some concerned STA community stakeholders who saw a Dart Instagram story polling students about their gender identity,” May-Washington said in an email. “When I talked to the Dart sponsor about the poll, she was unaware that the Dart staff was conducting such research. My thought process in pausing the article was to ensure that journalistic protocols were being followed, and also to ensure greater education about gender identity could take place within the STA community before the article’s publication.”
On Jan. 25, administration asked the Dart to pause the release of the story.
“When the story was postponed, and I didn’t have an explanation as to why, I was definitely very angry and upset,” Patenaude said. “I did feel like we were being silenced as a community, and the Dart was being silenced and all that. My initial reaction, I made some educational flyers, that I now have hanging around the school, that are just about the basics of terminology and what you should do and how you should act when it comes to allyship.”
Administration sent an email Jan. 29 to Dart staff members and GSA members, as well as their parents, addressing the rising grievances surrounding the pause on the Dart’s story. The email states that, while the administration supports the Dart and GSA, they had private information that meant the timing of the article to be published in the fifth issue would be “ill-advised.” The main concern from the GSA recipients of the email was the violation of privacy, as it revealed their GSA membership to their parents, who might otherwise be unaware of their involvement.
“Words don’t describe how horrified and devastated and terrified I was in that moment,” Patenaude said. “And for several days after that. That obviously wasn’t the administration’s intention, but it doesn’t change the fact that it happened and that it did out students to their parents. Yeah, I just remember shaking in my bed and not being able to sleep, just thinking about these kids and what was going to happen to them if their parents knew. Because the reality of [being outed] to homophobic and transphobic parents is incredibly brutal.”
Dickson had a similar reaction to the email being sent. According to Dickson, GSA had promised a safe space for students where they could participate without parental knowledge. However, they felt like the email broke this promise and put members in danger.
“My mom can tell you that I just kind of sat there crying for a while,” Dickson said. “It was running through my brain, I’ve heard so many stories about how people have gotten hurt because of being outed to their parents and the damage that could and has been done to them. The fear that I felt for people in our community, who we had assured it was a safe space, it was just very harmful and made me angry and made me want to fight more than anything else… It just didn’t feel like it hit administration that not everyone’s parents love them unconditionally.”
May-Washington sent the email in an effort to inform necessary figures surrounding the article that there was no intention to silence the voice of the community.
“After making the decision to pause the article, some students, parents and other STA community stakeholders wrongly misinterpreted the article pause to be the administration’s effort to silence voices and squash the gender identity story,” May-Washington said. “As President of STA, part of my responsibility is to keep our community informed. I sent a blindcopy email to students and parents of the Dart and [GSA] to provide accurate information. The STA faculty sponsors of both groups provided me with student roster names for the email.”
She continued: “Membership in GSA is open to all, so many allies are also part of this group. Parents are entitled to information about the classes, clubs and extracurricular groups their children participate in. It was definitely necessary to send direct communication to clear up the falsehoods that were mounting. Looking back if I were to handle it differently, I would have engaged in more dialogue with the GSA moderator to advise students of the forthcoming information.”
Feb. 4 the Board released a working statement, recognizing she/her or they/them pronouns. Dodderidge was upset by this announcement, which was delivered virtually during advisory.
“A lot of the responses at the school have made me upset,” Dodderidge said. “Because while they are trying to validate people’s identities, they are invalidating them at the same time. Like when they sent out the video about allowing they/them pronouns, they used she/her pronouns for the student body the whole video and called everyone girls… what happened should have never happened, and admin should really take responsibility for their actions because they basically outed a bunch of kids who were under the impression that that would not happen to them and were under the impression that they had some privacy and security.”
Dickson was also upset by the announcement, as the GSA officers had asked administration for more open communication on issues, and they felt like this request was not fulfilled.
“Well, I remember, in the moment, watching that announcement, [incorrect language] wasn’t the only thing that bothered me about that announcement,” Dickson said. “One thing that hit me in particular is that, literally the day before,
the day before that announcement, I remember meeting with administration and basically saying that we just want you to come to us about this kind of thing first. Because if they had come to us about the email that was sent out by Dr. May-Wash, then that wouldn’t have happened the way it did. And so we were literally just like, whatever you’re doing, come to us before you release something about it. And in that week, they didn’t come to us before releasing that statement. And it just, I don’t know, it sort of reaffirmed the feeling that I had that we weren’t being listened to enough.”
Senior Juliet Barnett created a Change.org petition Feb. 3 calling the administration to address growing concerns surrounding the email to GSA as well as the paused story. The petition quickly gained traction on social media platforms such as Snapchat, receiving almost 2,000 signatures. The following day, Barnett was asked to meet with administration to update and remove the petition.
“Originally, I started it after, [in] the senior class GroupMe, we were talking about some of the issues [the] administration had and people were kind of upset with that,” Barnett said. “Someone — I’m not even sure who — said we should start a petition, and I was like ‘Oh, I know how to do that.’ I set one up and it took maybe 10 minutes on my phone to do, and then I sent the link. It went a lot further than I thought it would.”
After speaking with the administration, the description of the petition was changed Feb. 4 to state: “I was fast acting in starting the petition before talking with the administration and understanding the changes they were planning on making. Part of STA’s mission is to love the dear neighbor without distinction… I am in agreement with administration that the petition needs to be taken down, it has served its purpose.”
Liz Baker was called on specifically to handle the petition due to her role as the principal for student affairs. She felt that the petition did not adequately express the actions the administration was taking to assess the current situation, rather it took an accusatory stance.
“I would say my opinion of it was I didn’t like the accusation that came out through the petition, because it made me sad,” Baker said. “That was not the point or the whole reasoning around [administrative steps]. So that’s really where I was coming from, from it. But I knew that from there, that there was going to have to be big conversations… That’s [what] my biggest conversations were about: how are we going to come together to speak about this and then create a solution from it.”
In Barnett’s perspective, part of that solution is addressing the faith aspect of LGBTQ+ conversations. As a Catholic institution, she believes that the convergence of those communities is extremely important.
“There definitely should be [a faith aspect in education regarding LGBTQ+ students] because we are a faith-based school, even though personally I don’t associate with that,” Barnett said. “But there are teachers that come to the school to be part of a faith-based community, so having even just a perspective of someone who is tied to both LGBTQ+ people and faith come in and speak about how they connect the two would be super interesting.”
Monday, March 8, faculty and staff were asked to attend an optional professional development program conducted by Children’s Mercy to obtain a greater understanding of gender pronouns and LGBTQ+ communities. The program — “Creating an Inclusive Environment for LGBTQ+ Youth” — facilitated conversations around mental health, proper terminology and community resources.
“I think that was clear that that’s one arena [in professional development] that we need to definitely keep our eye on is LGBTQIA because we are generationally different, ” Baker said. “If you look at our faculty and staff, we have people in their 60s, and we have people in their 20s. That’s huge. And so what people may know about LGBTQIA, issues, concerns, mental health, all of that needs to be on our radar. It really all stems out of diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s that I feel like we should always be more proactive than reactive, right?”
Senior vice president and chief equity and inclusion officer at Children’s Mercy Michelle Wimes was one of three presenters from Children’s Mercy at the March 8 program. The program began with an acknowledgement of the difficulty and discomfort surrounding conversations regarding LGBTQ+ issues.
“We also said to staff that there’s no magical solution,” Wimes said. “Sometimes, we are in a situation where we have to sit with discomfort but also give people grace and understand that different people are coming from different perspectives. We also acknowledge that there are other components to this conversation about being inclusive — there are religious implications, political implications, emotional implications.”
The program had three main objectives — to create a common language around gender identity and expression, to provide pastoral care and mental health resources for LGBTQ+ students and to increase cultural competency and fluency surrounding LGBTQ+ issues. Wimes and the other presenters defined the meanings of LGBTQ+ identities, then gave data and statistics regarding mental health and other issues LGBTQ+ students may be facing.
“[We] gave a lot of data on the types of issues that our LGBTQ students face — the bullying that happens, the anxiety, the stress, the depression that happens with those students and we went over the mental health statistics,” Wimes said. “We talked about pronouns and watched a video on pronouns. Then, we just opened it up and asked for feedback and asked the staff what resonated with them and any questions that they might have. We just really emphasized that LGBTQ people and students deserve and need to be treated with equitable respect, and that their lived experience may be different than someone who’s not LGBTQIA.”
The program also included examples of ways to dialogue about LGBTQ issues.
“One example that we gave was appreciating the student’s courage, because sometimes it’s really hard for students to come forward and to have those kinds of conversations with us and with adults, and certainly with faculty and staff,” Wimes said. “So, thanking the student for the gift of their story…We also talked about honoring the student, and that it’s okay to ask the student how the student wants to be referred to.”
The overarching theme of the program was compassion for LGBTQ+ students.
“I think that the staff at St. Teresa’s generally wants to be compassionate and understanding, and wants to be supportive, but in many respects they just didn’t know how to do that,” Wimes said. “So we gave them a forum to kind of share how they could go about doing that.”
In the Board of Directors meeting March 10, they reviewed school policies and tackled how to move forward with the conversation of genderqueer identities. Representatives from the Board did not respond to requests for comment — administration leaders were asked to speak on behalf of the Board.
“I feel like the Board is very open to hearing lots of perspectives, I really do,” Baker said. “The final perspective of that is that we created a subcommittee to talk about either — not necessarily policy because the Board doesn’t really write policy — but protocol and policy, kind of what we’ve been talking about in our meetings because it is simple. It really seems big and complex, but it’s pretty simple… Not simple in the sense of one of our policies, but simple in the sense of here are the things that we need to address.”
May-Washington is proud of the progress being made through various conversations with students, faculty and the Board of how policies can shift in the future.
“Meaningful conversations are always beneficial,” May-Washington said. “In accordance with our mission and core beliefs, we work hard to foster a community built on respect and dignity for all. There have been many ongoing conversations with student leaders of GSA, the Dart, faculty and staff members, the Sisters of St. Joseph, parents and the Board of Directors. I am very proud to announce that the STA Board of Directors has formed a special advisory committee to discuss LGBTQ issues. The underlying narrative will always be to recognize and respect all people. We will continue to listen and make changes in accordance with our mission and charism to love the dear neighbor without distinction and core values.”
Although Baker is enthusiastic about creating inclusive policies for trans students, she also has wrestled with contradictions with STA’s Catholic and female identity.
“The hardest part about this is being able to be there for students who may not feel accepted at STA when we are Catholic, and we’re called to love the dear neighbor without distinction,” Baker said. “I take great care in that because I’m Catholic and Catholic to the core. Catholic is also Christian and Christian means following Christ, and so that’s an examination that I have to do constantly to say ‘where am I’ or ‘where are we with the word of Christ?’ Because that is where we’re coming from: we’re all-Catholic and all-girls… You know that’s the hard part: how do you accept and love and be there for somebody and also have a mission that says we’re female… There’s not an easy answer to it because the easy answer would be, you know, we accept everybody for who they are, and that’s easy — is it who we are as an institution? That’s not so easy.”
With this specific situation, Baker believes that her faith is guiding her and the institution into a period of change, specifically changes in policy.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, highly,” Baker said. “So I feel like always, when something creates some kind of conflict, or seems to be messy, it’s the Holy Spirit saying, ‘Let’s look at this.’ So that’s where I come from with it is like: okay, well, this is a good Holy Spirit time for us to create policy around this.”
The Congregation for Catholic Education — the organization responsible for universities, faculties and institutions under Ecclesiastical authority— published a 28-page long document discussing gender and sexuality June 10, 2019.
The document states, “Gender theory (especially in its most radical forms) speaks of a gradual process of denaturalisation, that is a move away from nature and towards an absolute option for the decision of the feelings of the human subject. In this understanding of things, the view of both sexuality identity and the family become subject to the same ‘liquidity’ and ‘fluidity’ that characterize other aspects of postmodern culture, often founded on nothing more than a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants, or momentary desires provoked by emotional impulses and the will of the individual, as opposed to anything based on the truths of existence.”
At the March 8 faculty and staff meeting, Sister Nancy Corcoran also presented a religious perspective. She is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet and served as the Catholic Chaplain at Wellesley College from 2007- 2015. While serving as Chaplain, she was introduced to transgender and nonbinary students and described these encounters as “eye-opening.”
“It was not until I arrived at Wellesley College in 2007 that I began an actual ministry with lesbian and transgender humans,” Corcoran said. “The students ‘played with’ gender in ways that had never crossed my mind. They reached out to my ignorance and gave me books to read and shared their life stories with me.”
Corcoran explored ministry with members of the LGBTQ+ community through her two year sabbatical from 2015-2017. This ministry involved attending Transgender Town Halls and simply being present.
“Presence means showing up,” Corcoran said. “When the Missouri State Assembly does its yearly attempt to pretend that LGBTQIA humans need to be controlled by new laws, I accompany LGBTQIA humans and their parents to hearings. So I show up and go with humans and their families. This is when being a nun is so very useful.”
Corcoran believes discrimination toward the LGBTQ+ community stems from ignorance, but this can be combatted by knowing LGBTQ+ people and acknowledging shared humanity.
“In 1969, when the patrons of the gay bar Stonewall revolted over police harassment, beginning the Gay Liberation Movement, the United States began to change,” Corcoran said. “Why? Because LGBTQ humans began to come out to their families and friends. Suddenly, ‘they’ became us! They were now my brother, my sister, my aunt, my uncle, my child. The police no longer raid such gathering places. Jesus understood this when he told us to love one another. Love causes change.”
Corcoran would encourage students to read books regarding the intersection of LGBTQ+ rights and the Catholic Church, research transgender issues and listen to transgender peoples’ experiences.
“I believe you all are, at least attempting like the rest of us, to do as Jesus did,” Corcoran said. “Stop the homophobic/transphobic language and jokes, read widely, acknowledge our differences, have fun together …stop seeing the other as other.”
Moving forward, Patenaude and Dickson are working to better educate the STA community, and are specifically planning events to give queer students a platform to share their stories. GSA is also hosting a LGBTQ+ poetry reading April 14.
“I think people are still a little bit awkward about asking questions, especially now that it’s been a couple months, and it’s sort of fading out a little bit, so people are more hesitant to ask questions, I guess,” Dickson said. “We’re actually hoping to have an event by the end of the year where students and faculty and staff will have the opportunity to sort of ask a panel of students questions about pretty much anything. And we’re hoping that that will sort of start up the conversations between students more.”
Patenaude understands the importance of creating a conversation at STA. Combating ignorance on terminology and sharing personal narratives, they believe, is essential to that conversation.
“I definitely think it’s good that we are talking about gender identity at school because we just haven’t before ever,” Patenaude said. “There hasn’t been a space to do that at an ‘all-girls school.’ So the fact that we’re talking about it at all is a good thing. And in general I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘Oh those terrible people.’ I do think we could do with some more education on terminology and experiences because I think people just aren’t informed, which makes sense because we haven’t been talking about it. So that’s the next step.”
STA students and administration will continue to take steps in policy, education and creating an environment where all student voices can be heard. Gender identity is a personal journey, and according to Dodderidge, that journey is interpretive.
“Gender is fake,” Dodderidge said. “Identify how you want to identify. It’s nobody else’s business. Pronouns don’t have to have a correlation with gender. You can be nonbinary use he/him pronouns and present as a woman. It does not matter. It is literally up to you. You can do whatever you want.”