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Exceptional kids, real change, the GenderCool Champions

The GenderCool Champions are leaders in their community. They are articulate, poised, intelligent, talented and ambitious young people

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GenderCool Parents and their kids (Photo courtesy of GenderCool)

NORTHBROOK, Il. – Imagine being a ‘Mom’ running a frenetic household of four kids juggling all of the tasks one associates with parenting in the modern age. Then add a twist when the youngest begins to emerge from the chrysalis of what appeared as an early traditional childhood gender path transforming over time into a butterfly of the opposite gender.

That sort of metamorphosis presents a myriad of challenges for parents least of which is the emotional acceptance of a reality apart from that envisioned as their child is born. Then comes the added burdens of fear created by a societal and cultural non-acceptance and oft time discriminatory bullying treatment of trans and non-binary identifying youth and the overwhelming need to protect their child from that level of cruelty.

Jen Grosshandler and her husband John faced these challenges as their youngest child, their daughter Chazzie, unfurled her butterfly’s wings for the first time as a proud and out trans youth.

Searching for positive stories and reaching out to their immediate community in suburban Chicago, the Grosshandlers were introduced to Gearah Goldstein. Goldstein is nationally recognized LGBTQ+ Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, a speaker, educator, and trainer on LGBTQ+ issues. But for the Grosshandlers, the key factor was that Goldstein identifies as a fully empowered trans female and best of all- a parent herself.

At about the time the three met and started conversing about offering a path to cast a spotlight on just how amazing transgender and non-binary kids are, the Trump Administration commenced a series of attacks on the Trans community. These attacks included trying to eliminate trans healthcare, the ban on military service by trans Americans, and backing efforts by certain school districts to prevent trans youth from being able to use bathrooms according to their chosen gender.

For the Grosshandlers and Goldstein, greater impetus was placed on the critical need to accentuate the positive of trans and non-binary youth against the backdrop of the attacks by the Trump administration and the unkind attacks by a plethora of rightwing extremist anti-LGBTQ groups. The genesis of what became the GenderCool project was born and the stated goal was to take and redirect the negative into a positive by creating systemic change that will improve the lives of transgender and non-binary young people.

GenderCool co-founders Gearah Goldstein & Jen Grosshandler
(Not pictured; John Grosshandler. Photo courtesy of GenderCool)

“The strategy we employ is to evolve opinions of decision makers and the general public by showing them that transgender and non-binary young people are remarkable. The GenderCool Champions —  youth ages 12-17 — are leaders in their community. They are articulate, poised, intelligent, talented and ambitious young people. 

Most importantly, they are thriving, and their ability to connect with the public and key influencers in an exclusively positive way is translating into support and change at every level,” a mission statement from GenderCool reads.

In a phone interview this past weekend with the Blade, Jen Grosshandler chuckled, recalling that “We didn’t have a business plan- no revenue stream, but we did have the motivation and more importantly we had these amazing kids.”

She pointed out that the GenderCool adults felt that there wasn’t enough focus or even concentration on Gender Queer spaces. “It just seemed to me that with of all the negative stories and things said about these kids, one thing stood out and that was 70 to 80% of those being negative had never met a non-binary or Trans kid,” Grosshandler said. “There was fear, awful opinions, but mostly there was just inaccurate information,” she added.

After being handed the phone, Goldstein continued telling the Blade that the fortuitous email exchange between neighbors about kids and transitions had led to a dynamic partnership that was breaking through many barriers, particularly for youth in understanding Gender Identity versus sexual identify and orientation. “It was a five page long emailed response to Jen’s neighborhood inquiry,” Goldstein remembered.

“There’s a need to not conflate those two and we need to help these young people out by creating awareness of that,” she said and added, “Mostly we are focused on telling their stories, letting people see how amazing they are- they are inspiring and are filled with hope and strength.”

In three and a half years, a “kitchen-table project” has turned GenderCool into a worldwide movement, the idea evolved into concrete actions utilizing data from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP).  According to an internal memorandum shared with the Blade by GenderCool, MAP’s data revealed that one of the best ways to build support among the large majority of people in the U.S. for the LGBTQ+ community is to communicate shared values and beliefs.  In essence, to show them that transgender and non-binary people and their families are normal and just like theirs.

The best focal point? The positive stories of the amazing youth and their families.

Incorporating a well thought-out and designed website coupled with multi-media and social media campaigns the momentum propelled GenderCool and the Champions into a formidable group with national exposure, which included a 23 minute live launch on TODAY with veteran NBC News weatherman and anchor Al Roker; NYT, Rolling Stone, ABC News, USA Today, CNN, Forbes, NBC News, Washington Post, MSNBC and other media outlets.

The GenderCool founders managed to create an environment that fostered advocacy and support from corporate America: GenderCool partners include Nike, Dell Technologies, General Mills, NBCUniversal, Intuit, Intel, Indeed, and Bank of America.

All that hard work parlayed into a special invitation from President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden for the GenderCool Project to attend the first White House celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month since the Obama administration.

Although scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic, the highlight of the event held in the East Room of the White House was the GenderCool Project’s own Champion Ashton Mota, who was asked to speak about his life and work with GenderCool and then personally introduce the President.

Enriching that moment was Mota himself being introduced by the first openly gay member of a presidential cabinet confirmed by the United States Senate, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg introduces Ashton Mota as President Joe Biden looks on during the White House Pride event 2021. (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)

The focus now is embracing the future and expanding the foundations of the Project while placing the organization on a firm financial footing and a strategic plan for expansion and continuing the mission. GenderCool now has a seat at the table, collaborating with the nation’s leading advocacy organizations including Out & Equal, HRC, NCTE, PFLAG, GLAAD, Lambda Legal and others associated with advancing LGBTQ Equality rights.

Recently though came a boost that will immeasurably assist the GenderCool Project.

The Denver, Colorado based Gill Foundation, one of the largest funders of efforts to secure full equality for LGBTQ people, which has thus far invested more than $390 million in programs and nonprofits across the country working to advance equal rights for LGBTQ people, has bestowed a $500,000 contribution to the GenderCool Project.

“We’re honored to receive this grant from the Gill Foundation. It is a game-changing vote of confidence in our mission to help people understand how talented, driven, and kind transgender and nonbinary youth are, showcasing who they are as remarkable young people,” said the Grosshandlers, and Goldstein. “We’re thrilled that these resources will help us do just that so GenderCool — led by the incredible young people we call Champions — can continue to make an impact changing hearts and minds.”

The stories, the exceptional kids, real change, these are the GenderCool Champions, and now a future for them that looks brighter and more inclusive.

GenderCool Champion, college student, musician, artist, & Texas-based LGBTQ activist Landon Richie.
(Photo courtesy of Landon Richie)
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Florida

Florida’s Duval County Public Schools censors LGBTQ visibility

Duval County Public Schools slammed for removing ‘Safe Space’ stickers by Equality Florida as schools across state return to classes

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Screenshot/WJCT PBS Jacksonville, Florida

JACKSONVILLE – As Duval County Public School’s K-12 students begin their first day of school Monday, they are returning to classrooms that have been stripped bare of visible support for LGBTQ students.

Last week, Duval County Public School’s leadership held an emergency meeting with all of the school district’s principals in which they were directed to remove all posters, wall decorations, and stickers that support and affirm LGBTQ students, the latest in a wave of what LGBTQ+ advocates say are censorship efforts in the wake of the Don’t Say LGBTQ Law (HB 1557) taking effect across the state.

Equality Florida — a statewide civil rights organization focused on the LGBTQ community — published a statement criticizing Duval County Public Schools officials for putting out guidance to principals that advised the removal of the rainbow signage.

“The district’s censorship of LGBTQ-inclusive classroom environments sends a dangerous message to young people,” said Joe Saunders, Equality Florida Senior Political Director.

“In tearing down rainbow Safe Space stickers and tossing inclusive posters into the trash, Duval County Public Schools is telling students that there is something inherently wrong with LGBTQ people — and telegraphing to LGBTQ youth that they should remain hidden. Despite false assurances from Republican proponents of the Don’t Say LGBTQ Law that its scope would be narrow and its impacts limited to grades K-3, we are witnessing sweeping effects of this intentionally-vague policy across the state, with broad censorship of LGBTQ people being applied to every grade level.”

The Florida Times-Union newspaper reported Duval Schools officials say the removal is one facet of a district-wide rebrand of its existing “All In For Safe Schools” campaign that will better comply with the new Parental Rights in Education Act, which became law in July. Equality Florida calls the gesture “censorship.”

The move from Duval County Public Schools comes as schools across the state grapple with implementing the Don’t Say LGBTQ law. Already, the law has resulted in the banning of books and stigmatizing of families in counties across the state. Exactly what advocates say they warned about since the law’s inception. This decision by Duval County Public Schools to censor LGBTQ inclusion across the district has angered the community.

It also comes as LGBTQ youth, the very students now seeing their identities scrubbed from Duval classrooms, continue facing higher risks of depression, anxiety, bullying, discrimination, and suicidality than their peers.

A recent study by the Trevor Project showed a staggering majority of LGBTQ youth sharing that recent policy battles like that over HB 1557 and the subsequent impacts have had a negative impact on their mental health.

“We are in the process of rebranding the ‘All In for Safe Schools’ program,” district spokesman Tracy Pierce told the Times-Union. “The purpose of the rebranding is to send a clear message to all students that the support available through the program is open to them and not limited to any specific student population.”

“School districts are charged with doing everything in their power to mitigate the harms of HB 1557 and ensure that every student is protected in school and every family is respected. Duval County Public Schools should reverse course and recommit to cultivating an environment that is inclusive of and celebrates all students,” said Equality Florida’s Saunders.

In another circumstance of Florida’s newly minted ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law’s negative impact, last month a 12-min training video aimed at teaching middle and high school students how to prevent bullying and support their LGBTQ+ peers in Duval County Public Schools has been removed from student access.

Jacksonville Today journalist Claire Heddles reported at the time that besides the video, the district planned to dramatically reduce a LGBTQ+ support guide.

The video is now inaccessible and, in response to questions from Jacksonville Today, Duval Schools District spokesperson Tracy Pierce said, “The materials you referenced have been removed for legal review to ensure the content complies with recent state legislation.” 

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Federal Government

CMS, HHS pledge ‘prevent anti-Trans policies taking effect’ in Florida

“Attempts to restrict, challenge, or falsely characterize this potentially lifesaving care as abuse is dangerous”

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Screenshot/YouTube Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, Administrator, U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

WASHINGTON – After Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) signaled its plans to stop Medicaid reimbursements for transgender related healthcare last week, U.S. federal health officials expressed concerns with the move in an exclusive statement to The Los Angeles Blade. 

The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) pledged they would “continue to do everything within our authority to protect Medicaid beneficiaries’ access to care and prevent discriminatory policies from taking effect.”

Pursuant to AHCA’s announcement of the new rules, coverage exemptions would be carved out of the state’s Medicaid plans for health treatments like puberty blockers, hormone therapies, or surgical procedures for gender dysphoria. 

Florida will join other conservative states that have moved in recent years to prohibit or restrict access to transgender healthcare, particularly for young people. In May, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state could weaponize its Child Protective Services to investigate parents for child abuse for giving their transgender children medically approved health treatments. 

In March, the HHS’s OCR issued a Notice and Guidance on Gender Affirming Care, Civil Rights, and Patient Privacy, writing: “Attempts to restrict, challenge, or falsely characterize this potentially lifesaving care as abuse is dangerous. Such attempts block parents from making critical health care decisions for their children, create a chilling effect on health care providers who are necessary to provide care for these youth, and ultimately negatively impact the health and well-being of transgender and gender nonconforming youth.

In May, OCR announced Title IX’s rules prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex includes sexual orientation and gender identity, with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra writing, ““Fear of discrimination can lead individuals to forgo care, which can have serious negative health consequences. It is the position of the Department of Health and Human Services that everyone – including LGBTQ people – should be able to access health care, free from discrimination or interference, period.”

Shortly after the news in Florida broke on Thursday, the LGBTQ+ legal advocacy organization Lambda Legal told The Blade, “We are exploring all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking.” 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and its Florida Chapter (FCAAP) also shared a statement with The Blade condemning the state’s “interference with the physician-patient relationship and its prohibition of this vital care.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Michigan AG Nessel joins coalition opposing Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

“Non-inclusive educational environments have severe negative health impacts on LGBTQ+ students, resulting in increased mental health issues”

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Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel speaking at the Michigan capitol building for Pride June 26, 2022 Lansing, MI (Photo Credit: Office of the Michigan Attorney General)

By Jon King | LANSING – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has joined a coalition of 16 attorneys general from across the country in filing an amicus brief opposing Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Act,” otherwise known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Nessel, a Democrat who is Michigan’s first openly gay top statewide official, says that the law, which prevents classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, poses a serious threat to LGBTQ+ students who she says are particularly vulnerable to discrimination.  

“This bill is an affront not just to educators, but also to LGBTQ+ students, especially those who may already be experiencing the stigmatizing effect of their identity at school,” Nessel said. “This bill is not motivated by the desire to limit inappropriate content in classrooms. It is meant to have a chilling effect on how educators do their jobs and may also violate the First Amendment rights of students and teachers alike. I gladly join my colleagues on this brief and hope it discourages other states, including Michigan, from considering similar legislation.” 

The law is being challenged in federal district court by a group of students, parents, teachers and organizations seeking to prevent its enforcement by alleging that it violates, among other things, the Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment.  

The law entirely bans “classroom instruction” on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through Grade 3 while also requiring the state education agency write new classroom instructions for standards that must be followed by grades four through 12. 

Opponents say that because the law does not define many of its key terms, like “classroom instruction,” it is forcing Florida teachers to censor themselves out of fear of prosecution. That fear is further compounded by the fact that the law also allows a parent to bring a civil claim against a school district to enforce its prohibitions.  

There are two main points in the brief.

“Florida’s law is extreme,” it states. “Although Florida claims the Act is intended to protect children and preserve parental choice, the attorneys general have curricula in place that allow for age-appropriate discussion of LGBTQ+ issues while respecting parental views on the topic.”

“The law is causing significant harms to students, parents, teachers, and other states,” claims the brief. “Non-inclusive educational environments have severe negative health impacts on LGBTQ+ students, resulting in increased rates of mental health disorders and suicide attempts. These harms extend to youth not just in Florida, but throughout the country.”

Nessel is joining the amicus brief alongside Attorneys General from New Jersey, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York and Oregon.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Michigan Advance and is republished with permission.

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Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.

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The Michigan Advance is a hard-hitting, nonprofit news site covering politics and policy across the state. We feature in-depth stories, briefs and social media updates, as well as top-notch progressive commentary. The Advance is free of advertising and free to our readers. We wholeheartedly believe that journalists have the biggest impact by reporting close to home, explaining what’s happening in our state and communities — and why. Michigan has hundreds fewer reporters than just a couple decades ago. The result is too many stories falling through the cracks.

The Advance is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Advance retains editorial independence.

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