Two ETHS seniors lead the push to make school a safer place for trans, gender non-conforming students


Meher Yeda/Daily Senior Staffer

Two Evanston Township High School seniors said there are alternatives to requiring students to publicly share their pronouns in school settings.

Olivia Alexander, Senior Staffer

About a month ago, Evanston Township High School senior Maisy Kobernik-Pollack, who identifies as genderfluid, put together an anonymous survey to evaluate students of all gender identities’ experiences at the school.

They said they felt disheartened by the results from one simple question in particular: “Are you satisfied with the way things are?” The majority of cisgender students said they were satisfied. But the overwhelming majority of transgender students said they were not. 

“The biggest, resounding thing that was common in all answers was that there is no standard,” Kobernik-Pollack said. “One teacher can do one thing, and another teacher can do nothing, and there is no sort of system or regulation that makes each teacher do the same thing.” 

Kobernik-Pollack, along with ETHS senior Nova Horrell, are leading the push for Evanston Township High School/District 202 to create policies that make the school a safer place for trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming students.

Nova Horrell and Kobernik-Pollack said they’ve spent the time since the release of the survey advocating for a set of demands. These include the creation of a standardized approach to sharing and using students’ pronouns in the classroom, as well as increased advertisement of gender-neutral spaces and resources on campus.

In an October op-ed for student newspaper The Evanstonian, Horrell described some of her experiences as a trans woman at ETHS. She said when teachers call on trans students to share their pronouns, they leave students with two options: either outing or misgendering themselves. 

“The current trend among teachers (to do) introductory pronoun circles hurt me,” she wrote. “This classroom activity puts closeted trans and questioning students in a position that can cause potential psychological or physical harm.” 

While Horrell likes how some teachers ask students to privately share the pronouns they use at home and at school, she said other teachers disregard pronoun sharing entirely. 

She said she hopes the district can implement a standardized system allowing students to share their pronouns with teachers privately, while freely updating their pronouns throughout the school year. 

“What we really want is a measurable standard that teachers can take into account when they interact with introductions, specifically considering gender identity, have students express their identity, and (honor) the confidentiality that some students may require,” Horrell said. 

Taking into consideration the survey results, Horrell and Kobernik-Pollack drafted an open letter to district administrators. The letter included recommendations of centralized policies and practices that could be put in place to ensure a safer environment for trans and non-binary students.

Horrell said her goal is to create a classroom environment accepting of all pronouns and free from stigma even when students choose to not share their pronouns. 

“We want to do two things: avoid as many unsafe situations as possible and lower the cost of coming out at school as much as possible,” Horrell said. 

Horrell and Kobernik-Pollack said the school also has work to do in helping trans and non-binary students become aware of and gain access to valuable resources like gender-neutral bathrooms. They said the reason some resources aren’t being used is that people don’t know they exist.

Horrell said gender-neutral spaces at ETHS are “inherently non-inclusive.” While there are multiple gender-neutral bathrooms and a locker room on campus, students must often receive individualized codes to have access to them, and the process to do so is extensive.

While some students can access some bathrooms openly, Kobernick-Pollack said receiving an access code often requires filling out a form, meeting with administration and receiving parental permission — which is not possible for many students who are not out to their parents.  

While having a name change allowed Horrell to bypass parental permission for bathroom codes, she said she still waited weeks to receive access. 

The open letter calls on administrators to take a more active role in advertising gender neutral spaces to ensure students know they are available. It also raised the issue of requiring parental consent to access certain resources — which could be a barrier to queer students who are not out at home. 

Horrell and Kobernik-Pollack gave a public comment addressing their demands at the Nov. 8 District 202 Board of Education meeting. Student board member and ETHS junior Barbara Tomaradze said the comments were important, especially in helping teachers navigate the best ways to ask students to share pronouns. 

“Nova and Maisy (wrote the letter) to help out the adults at our school, as well as helping out the students at our school,” Tomaradze said. ”What they did was really great for assisting adults and putting more spotlight on how hard it can be as an adult dealing with something that you might have never dealt with before because pronouns have recently become very accepted at our school.” 

ETHS junior and Student Union leadership team member Sophie Brown said in the past, the school separated freshman gym classes by gender. Now, students can elect to be in the mixed gender class.

“This year, we’ve rolled out a program that is gender blind,” Brown said. “That’s one definitive action that I’ve seen from the school to become more gender inclusive, and to not alienate the trans or non-cis population.”

Since the November board meeting, Horrell and Kobernik-Pollack said they have been in the process of scheduling a time to meet with District 202 administrators, including Assistant Superintendent and Principal Marcus Campbell and Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. 

For the upcoming conversation, Kobernik-Pollack said they hope to start working on tangible policies together and get into discussions about concerns going beyond the open letter.

“We want a framework for change, that we can test out and that happens sooner rather than later,” Horrell said. “What we don’t want is what happens a lot at ETHS and other schools – where you talk and talk and talk until you’re drowned out by noise. We want action, not noise.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @oliviagalex

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