Originially published to the Houston Chronicle on October 7th, 2022
As his senior year neared, Keith Harrelson grew anxious about returning to high school with new clothes, new pronouns, and a new name.
It would be uncomfortable and awkward, he thought, because classmates and teachers at Dickinson High School had known him for years by a different name and gender.
Harrelson's fears were only exacerbated when his mother met with school administrators to discuss options. The school could not change the name or gender on his permanent academic record without a court order, officials said, and he would have to trek across school to the nurse's office each time he had to use the bathroom.
"I was really not on board with that," Harrelson said, now a 20-year-old community college student. "It's just ridiculous."
Instead, the teen made a PowerPoint presentation to convince his parents to enroll him at Texas Online Preparatory School, a virtual public school for students in third grade through high school.
As legislators and school boards across Texas and the nation pull LGBTQ books from library shelves and introduce laws excluding transgender youth from sport teams and bathrooms that match their gender identity, Harrelson and a hard-to-count number of other students are instead finding refuge outside the public school system.
Instead of anxiously navigating crowded hallways, Harrelson began that fall semester at home by logging onto a computer that displayed his preferred name on the screen. On the first day, when another student shared that he was transgender, Harrelson came out to his classmates too.
Other students filled the chat with positive reactions.
"I immediately knew I was going to like it," he said.
Transgender students face different social, emotional, and mental health challenges in traditional school settings, said Austin Davis Ruiz, communications director at the Montrose Center, an organization that empowers LGBTQ community in Houston.
Research shows that they experience higher rates of discrimination, harassment and bullying in schools. In addition, Ruiz said, transgender youth must cope with an onslaught of identity attacks from rhetoric, policies and legislation.
"You have a lot of societal factors in which trans youth at every juncture see they're not valued, they're not worthy, they're not welcome, especially in the state of Texas," Ruiz said.
Gov. Greg Abbott last year signed into law a bill that prevents children from playing on a sports team that does not match the gender on their birth certificate.
Earlier this year, the governor ordered the state to launch abuse investigations into families who allowed their kids to access gender-affirming health care, creating environment ripe with fear that pushed some families to leave Texas.
Some local districts have banned books and websites that affirm the LGBTQ+ experience.
"It's heartbreaking to watch politicians and adults who are responsible for young people's safety choose to use these students as political pawns as a way to stir up ignorance and fear," said Jonah DeChants, a research scientist at the Trevor Project.
Meanwhile, there is little research that examines how these negative experiences impact the choices that LGBTQ students and their families make about schooling options.
One small study conducted by pediatric doctors and published last year in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that significantly more transgender and gender diverse youth attended online school or homeschool than their peers.
Transgender children surveyed they transferred schools or opted for a non-traditional school due to bullying, a negative school environment, lack of school support and concerns for safety, according to the study.
Safety is among the top reasons for enrollment at Texas Online Preparatory School, said Teri Holamon, a crisis counselor for the school, though it's unclear whether LGBTQ+ student enrollment is rising because the school does not track that information.
Transgender students struggling with mental health issues or negative school experiences may benefit from online school, said Holamon, who previously counseled students at a brick-and-mortar high school in Texas.
In one case, the counselor said, she referred a transgender student to online school, because the student refused to eat or drink during the day in order to avoid using the bathroom at school. Other transgender students skip school to avoid bullies, Holamon said.
Texas Online Preparatory School strives for a safe, inclusive environment for all students to focus on their education, Holamon said. Middle school students and teachers recently formed an LGBTQ+ Pride club and Holamon hosts a mental health group geared toward LGBTQ+ students, she said.
Non-traditional schools, including homeschool or online school, might not be available, however, to LGBTQ+ students with unsafe or unsupportive home environments, DeChants said.
Traditional public schools could better serve LGBTQ students by training faculty and staff to understand the basics surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity, providing access to LGBTQ literature and resources and hosting a GSA, or gay-straight alliance club, Ruiz said.
Although federal guidance under the Biden administration protects transgender students from discrimination, Ruiz said schools and districts should create nondiscrimination policies that explicitly address sexual orientation and gender identity.
Without such policies, it could leave transgender students vulnerable to abuse, he said.
"They might be harassed by their peers for using a different bathroom," he said. "It really restricts a child's ability to focus on their education."
Houston ISD, for example, states in a handbook that the district does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Meanwhile, Dickinson ISD, the district Harrelson attended, does not explicitly cover sexual orientation and gender identity in its nondiscrimination statement, according to the district's high school handbook.
Tammy Dowdy, communications director for the district, said in an email that the district works closely with transgender students and their families to accommodate requests for gender-affirming facilities.
State law requires that a student must be identified in their permanent academic record by their legal name and gender as it appears on their birth certificate, Dowdy said, but the district will note name and pronoun preferences "in an unofficial area of our student data system."
Regardless of school policies and state policies, advocates and researchers say that affirmation from a single person can make a positive impact on LGBTQ youth and their mental health. LGBTQ youth who have at least one accepting adult who affirms their identity were roughly 40% less likely to attempt suicide, DeChants said.
"Being an ally works," he said. "That shows young people they are cared for and that makes them feel more safe."
Harrelson always felt more comfortable with himself, but said it wasn't until middle and early high school that he began to understand why.
Teachers and family members had never introduced him to LGBTQ concepts, but curiosity led him online where he researched new terms and chatted with people in the community about their experiences.
Things began to click and Harrelson realized: "Well, that's me, too."
Still, for several years before coming out to his family, the teen lived in constant discomfort as he straddled two worlds and identities.
His friends from online and a different school called him by his preferred name and pronouns. Meanwhile, his family and schoolmates used the name and gender pronouns assigned to him at birth.
Harrelson said he saw some students and teachers at Dickinson High School making a subtle effort to respect or support other LGBTQ students, but there were no clubs or outward demonstrations at his school.
He watched classmates and substitute teachers regularly misgender and misname a transgender student at his school.
"I already was afraid that that would happen to me," he said.
In his junior year, Harrelson said, nothing happened when he asked a teacher to call him by his new name, making him feel like teachers did not care about him or his preferences.
"They did not remember it all," he said.
His grades suffered as he struggled with his anxiety, discomfort, and distractions.
After switching to online schooling, Harrelson said he earned straight As for the first time in high school.
It was during his senior year that Harrelson began to transition, a process that looks different for each person, but for Harrelson included a legal name change and gender-affirming surgery.
His new name appeared on his high school diploma at graduation.
It was by no means an easy process, Harrelson said, but transitioning into his authentic self was worth it.
Harrelson can see the sadness in his eyes when he looks at old photos. His family members say he looks happier now.
"Life has just been way easier after transitioning, like so much better," he said. "I would have never imagined I would even have gotten here, especially this quickly."
Harrelson is now working towards his associate's degree in communication at San Jacinto Community College. He watches his Spanish, biology, and government classes online while sitting at the desk in his room decorated with Japanese manga posters and a transgender pride flag.
He likes the flexibility of taking classes online, too, because it gives him the freedom to visit his grandma or play with Cherry and Sugar, his pitbull dogs.
"I'm just like any of my family members," he said. "I just want to do my school work and graduate and get a job and move out and all that stuff. I want to do basic stuff that other people want to do - transitioning was just an added journey for me."
To learn more about Texas Online Preparatory School, visit https://tops.k12.com/