Photo Credit to Lane Turner, Boston Globe
At Heath School, in Brookline, Massachusetts, we work hard to send the message that all are welcome in our school. Indeed, there are signs throughout our school building that define exactly who is welcome and why (it’s a robust list). If you ring the buzzer on our front door, you’ll have a wee bit of time to read our missive on inclusion and welcome, and should know right away where we stand. Signage in our hallways continues to send a powerful message of allegiance to the people in our community, whether represented in our school or not. Muslim? We’ve got your back. Undocumented? We’ve got your back. LGBTQ? We’ve got your back.
I put these signs up. I made them, ripped them off Tumblr and Pinterest, laminated them, and hung them up. And I monitor them, making sure they are intact. Every day, there they are, everywhere, safe and messaging safety. Visit classrooms and you’ll see that teachers have brought in these same messages, making our beliefs abundantly visible to our students.
Two years ago, when I took over the principalship at Heath, two teachers came to me asking to launch affinity groups in the school. Both groups (a Young Scholars group for our Black and Latina/o students and a Gay-Straight-Trans Alliance for our LGBTQ+ students and allies) received immediate support from me.
Our faculty meetings focus on anti-racist education. Our staff, as a whole, is getting better at confronting inequity. My weekly messages to families spotlights our commitment to an LGBTQ-inclusive community and our efforts to be true accomplices in confronting bias, explicitly naming the ways we are promoting equity.
These collective efforts have been transformative for our school, planting the seeds for real and lasting change. We are imperfect in our efforts, AND we recognize we are a work in progress, striving to meet complex, long-term, valuable goals.
If anyone asks me what I am most proud of, I share this story of our school.
But there was something else. I needed to build a community in which I was also welcome.
When I joined the community, folks understood and accepted me as lesbian. Being an out school leader in the United States, while not rare in Brookline any longer, is still pretty special. Early in my tenure, an out lesbian teacher came to me and told me how glad she was that I was here. Ten years earlier, when she joined the staff, she was told to keep her personal life to herself and not talk about “gay stuff” in class. Now she felt she could be herself and celebrate her growing family openly. My school counselor, on the verge of retirement, told me that at the age of 71 and with over 30 years in the school system he could finally come out in his final year because I was at the helm. These stories, and the countless allies I found at Heath, buoyed me – buoyed me enough that I was finally able to consider coming out as my authentic self, as transgender.
For one whole year I planned my professional coming out. It was very private work, until it wasn’t. Then it became collaborative, but still known only in very small, very hush-hush circles. I began to medically transition so that my body could begin to match my heart and mind. I dressed as I wanted to, legally changed my name, and set a date to tell my story. Along the way, I found allies, and I felt loved. Feelings of safety began to replace feelings of fear.
On June 7 at noon, I sent an email to my school community announcing that I was transgender. By 12:01 my inbox began to fill with messages of love and support. The avalanche of warm wishes was ceaseless, for days and days as my story reached larger and larger circles of folks. I was overwhelmed. I was ecstatic. I was relieved.
Our GSTA meets every other week. Sometimes I join; sometimes I don’t. I mean, what middle schooler wants The Principal in their business all the time? The day after my announcement, June 8, was a regularly scheduled GSTA meeting. I joined. I was nervous. Would they accept me? Did they hear my news? I pulled my stool into the circle, joining the crew. The facilitator asked everyone to say their name, their favorite kind of ice cream, and state their pronouns. When my turn came, I said: Dr. Sevelius, peanut butter and chocolate, he/him/his. Looking across the circle, I saw our lone, proud non-binary student beaming at me. There it was. I had introduced myself – my actual self – and finally believed that I, too, was welcome in this school.
Asa Sevelius, Ed.D, is the principal of the Heath School in Brookline, Massachusetts. He is the first out transgender principal in his state and amongst the very few out trans school leaders nationwide.