Amid all of the heated, often vitriolic political discussions about the rights of transgender people dominating cultural rhetoric as of late, it's sometimes easy to forget that there are real people at the center of it all. One Pennsylvania seventh grader — one who likes soccer and video games, and who once won a school geography bee — is here to courageously and eloquently remind people that trans people are not only people, but people with thoughts and feelings and passions. In response to another student's refusal to use school locker rooms in case a trans kid might be there as well, Ari Bowman, a transgender boy, gave a speech at a school board meeting that everybody should hear.
In the speech, delivered on Sept. 12, Bowman beautifully humanizes a major issue that really, in all honesty, should not be an issue at all. He started by telling his school community — and the world, via a Facebook video his mother posted afterwards — how he came out as trans to his friends over the summer, has been using male pronouns since fifth grade, and regularly changes in the boys locker room without any problems. "The hate that the transgender community has been receiving lately is terrible," he said. "People say things without an open mind, as if we’re not human beings like they are."
For Bowman, this feeling was likely heightened when it manifested very, very close to home. In August, a popular ninth grade girl in Bowman's school district told that same East Penn School Board that she would not use school locker rooms to change before gym class because of the Obama administration's recent guidelines that all schools must allow students to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identities, or risk the loss of federal funding. "I am a woman, and I identify as a woman, and you can't make me change in front of someone who I don't identify with — who is physically male," Sigourney Coyle said, according to The Morning Call, noting that doing so would be against her religious beliefs.
Although Bowman didn't mention Coyle in his own speech, her passionate position clearly baffled him, as he recounted a story from when he was in first grade and some of his girl classmates would try to block him from using the girl's bathroom. "They didn’t care that I have female genitalia, they cared that I looked masculine and was male at heart, and they didn’t care about my body parts," he said.
With this anecdote, Ari presented a crucial, heartbreaking truth about the all-around rejection transgender people encounter when their communities refuse to accept them for who they are. People are quick to "make a big deal" out of keeping transgender individuals from using bathrooms or locker rooms that feel the most natural for them to use, but those same people are also uncomfortable when someone who doesn't present as traditionally feminine, for example, enters a space arbitrarily designated for women or girls.
It's a lose-lose, and Bowman knows it. His mom knows it too, and wanted to do something along with her son to steer the conversation away from hate."There are many, many people who are scared right now," Alisa Bowman wrote in an email to Romper. "But this experience had taught me that the bullies are loud, but they are few and far between. The people who will support you are legion, but they are also often scared into silence."
They weren't scared into silence on Monday evening, though. Bowman wrote that not only did her friends drive from out-of-state to support her son, but some of his middle school and high school classmates even spoke on his behalf. "Some of them really had to fight off their fear of public speaking," Bowman wrote. "But they overcame it because they wanted to support the transgender students in the district."
Ari ended his speech by lauding his school for always accommodating him and supporting him, and recounting some of his favorite memories of his school years so far, like playing soccer with friends and being in an honors algebra class:
As my mom likes to say, people are afraid of the things that they don’t understand. I hope that you understand what being transgender means. It doesn’t make me any less or any more. It makes me me, and no one can change that.
For her part, Bowman is incredibly proud of her son, and grateful for those who have supported him. She knows, though, that this is not all about her son and his own rights, nor is it confined to his school district:
But this work is not finished. This isn’t about an awesome video of my amazing son. This is about a vulnerable population of people that is being discriminated against and harassed at every turn. Those of us who have privilege, we must find our bravery and we must stand up and we must fight for equality. We cannot remain silent any longer.
In world in which people are quick to judge and sometimes much less ready to listen, more people should watch Ari Bowman's powerful speech and hear his moving story. It's a story about equality, fairness, and compassion; it's a story about being transgender and about a seventh grader having the strength to stick up for himself. Most of all, though, it's a story of a kid just being a kid, and having the space and joy and love in his life to be beautifully, unapologetically, nothing else.