Waiting anxiously for their names to be called signifying their accomplishment, hundreds of San Benito High School seniors participated in the school’s annual commencement ceremony on Friday, June 3. Very few would have realized that seated among them was a transgender male classmate.
Alyx Beltran’s decision to come out with the publication of this article is part of his ongoing transition from one who was born a female, but who has always felt male.
In an interview with BenitoLink, he explained that the process has often been full of trepidation, like the time last summer when Beltran told his best friend Zack that he was transgender. But more recently it has been full of liberation, as evident by his decision to get a tattoo.
Beltran’s self-assuredness was on full display when he walked towards the staging area to retrieve his diploma, even while alma mater — like many schools — struggles to find its footing in his wake.
Last month, the United States Department of Education and the Department of Justice issued a joint letter to all public schools regarding the rights of transgender students.
Citing protections guaranteed under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational settings and activities that receive federal funding, the “Dear Colleague” letter underscored a school’s responsibilities in providing a safe and welcoming environment for transgender students, including access to bathrooms and locker room facilities that correspond to a student’s gender identity.
The correspondence warned that violators would risk losing their funding and face possible litigation. Several states have since filed suit against the Obama administration’s directive, arguing that it’s a form of government overreach.
For California’s public schools, the letter served as a reminder.
In 2013, the state became the first in the nation to pass legislation protecting the rights of transgender students enrolled in its K-12 educational system.
Taking effect on Jan. 1, 2014, AB 1266, states that “a pupil be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”
Beltran’s arrival at SBHS coincided with the signing of the new law. He enrolled as a sophomore at the beginning of the 2013-14 academic year.
Following a suicide attempt that left him hospitalized, Beltran was kicked out of his father’s home in the Central Valley. The suicide rate among transgender youth hovers about 40 percent and the likelihood of an attempt increases more than ten-fold when parents reject their child’s gender identity, according to an article that appeared earlier this year on the Huffington Post’s website.
Fortunately, Beltran’s paternal grandparents, Ruben and Terrie Fortson of Hollister, took the teen in.
When Beltran entered the Fortsons' home, he was already transitioning, identifying himself as male and dressing as one.
Determined to provide a loving and nurturing environment for her grandson, Terrie began educating herself about all things transgender.
For example, she learned that transgender males—including Alyx at the time— often resort to wearing a binder, a undergarment that compresses the female breasts and makes a person appear flat-chested.
In an interview with BenitoLink, Fortson added that binders are extremely tight-fitting and potentially dangerous, as they don’t “allow the lungs to expand fully.”
Some members of Fortson’s family initially expressed reservations about Beltran’s presence. But Fortson remained steadfast in her support for him, telling her own sister that, if she couldn’t accept Beltran, she wouldn’t be welcomed in the Fortsons' home.
Stepping foot onto the SBHS campus with her grandson, Fortson was armed with her research, medical notes from Beltran’s gender therapist and doctors, as well as other documentation.
According to both Fortson and Beltran, school administrators were extremely welcoming and accommodating when Beltran enrolled. Fortson admitted that because the school "was so new" to having a transgender student on campus it simply relied on her recommendations and suggestions.
With regards to restroom use, administrators presented with Beltran with three options: a unisex restroom; one located in the nurse's office; or the boys' restroom. He elected the third option.
Because transgender youth are often victims harassment and bullying in schools, Fortson was worried about her grandson’s safety, especially during these private moments.
Beltran, too, was uneasy, but not for the same reasons.
Because he had enrolled as a male and had begun taking costly beta-blockers injections to halt the onset of puberty, Beltran was socially accepted as a male, he explained.
But despite outward appearances, a dissonance raged inside of him.
Afflicting most transgender people is condition called gender dysphoria—a mental disorder that stems from a conflict between a person’s birth gender and his or her gender identity.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), gender dysphoria “is manifested in a variety of ways, including strong desires to be treated as the other gender or to be rid of one’s sex characteristics, or a strong conviction that one has feelings and reactions typical of the other gender.”
For Beltran, these feelings persisted until he had his (female) breasts removed in 2014. “Things got better after top surgery,” he said.
As Beltran’s body began melding with his gender identity, he gained more confidence.
Part of Beltran’s transition has also included advocacy for transgender youth.
Within months of his enrollment at SBHS, he began attending lunch meetings for the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a decade-old club on campus that “brings together LGBTQI+ and straight students to support each other, provide a safe place to socialize, and create a platform to fight for racial, gender, LGBTQ, and economic justice,” according to the GSA Network’s website.
The club’s advisor, English teacher Becky Conklin, explained in an interview with BenitoLink that though GSA is “not very visible on campus” its presence is very much needed.
“The reality is that people don’t understand what these kids go through,” she said.
And though Conklin has seen a decrease in the harassment and stigmatization associated with being a member of the LGBT community on campus, SBHS is “still behind as a school.”
Beltran’s membership in GSA has provided him the opportunity to let others know what life was like for a transgender student and to help the school get caught up to speed.
It also prepared him for a long-dreaded conversation with Zack, his cisgender (non-transgender) friend.
One night last summer, the two left work and drove to a park near Beltran’s home. When the teens sat down on a bench, Beltran said, “I gotta tell you something,” his voice cracking as tears lined his cheeks. Zack, who asked that his last name not be used in this article citing privacy concerns, started guessing when Beltran’s sobbing left him mute.
Sensing that the friendship forged over several months was strong enough to withstand the most intimate of secrets, Beltran regained his composure and began to explain his plans for the upcoming school year, including his decision to serve as GSA co-president.
Realizing that Zack hadn’t bee-lined for his car, Beltran steered the conversation back to what he wanted desperately to share with his friend. “I’m transgender,” Beltran said. Zack, who was unsure of what that meant, asked a few questions. Beltran quickly answered, relived that his instincts had been right. “Alright…cool. It doesn’t bother me,” Zack responded.
Beltran admitted that coming out to other friends hasn’t always been an easy as it was with Zack.
“There’s usually a cool-down period,” he said. A few days or weeks when phone calls, text messages, and emails aren’t returned.
Last November, Beltran and GSA’s other co-president made a presentation to district and school administrators, school counselors, and support managers on GSA’s mission, current legislation, including 1266, the differences between gender identity and sexual orientation, as well as insight into their personal experiences as LGBTQ students.
“It went over very well," Conklin said of the presentation. “Every person who was there complimented” the co-presidents, she noted.
For SBHS Principal Adrian Ramirez, who was in attendance, it was eye-opening and extremely beneficial.
In an interview with BenitoLink, Ramirez explained that he hadn’t realized the importance of correct pronoun usage when referring to transgender students. Beltran, for example, identifies with male pronouns, “he, him, and his.”
Conklin had hoped to extend her student’s reach to staff at a teacher workshop held on Jan. 4, 2016.
Organized by the district, the workshop featured a presentation by its legal team, Dannis, Woliver, and Kelly (DWK).
Certificated staff, including this reporter, was walked through a PowerPoint addressing terminology and California Educational Code regarding transgender students, their rights, and a school’s responsibilities in serving this “protected class.” (The district later provided staff with printed resources, including a copy of, "Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools," a document published by multiple organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Association.)
Conklin volunteered GSA and its members as participants in the workshop, but she said her offer was never responded to by the district.
SBHSD Superintendent John Perales did not respond to requests for comment about why the district did not reply to GSA’s suggestion to participate.
At the presentation’s conclusion, Perales stated that a Title IX coordinator would be selected to spearhead district policies, regulations, etc. regarding transgender students, as well as others protected under the federal law.
Last month that decision was announced on the school's website and on posters displayed throughout campus.
Director of Human Resources, Shawn Tennenbaum, now has that title.
In an interview with BenitoLink, Tennenbaum explained that his responsibilities as Title IX coordinator include, “educating the staff and community through” a variety of platforms, ranging from the district website to forums held on campus. The Title IX and Non-Discrimination Statement is posted in both English and Spanish on the district's website.
Tennenbaum added that when he began his stint as HR director a decade ago, transgender issues weren’t something with which his office was confronted. Recent legislation, like AB 1266, has changed that.
Tennenbaum also foresees a Title IX coordinator-of-sorts at the school site level, possibly a position held by an assistant principal or a counselor. In essence, a “front-line” person for students, staff, and parents.
Ramirez said that a staff member has agreed to take on this position, but declined to publicly name that person until his or her role and responsibilities were clearly defined.
He added “that one-shot workshops” are often ineffective and admitted that “administratively…the school can do a better job” addressing the needs of its transgender students.
The principal also explained that whichever direction the school decides to move, it must do so slowly and cautiously. "This is a new realm and will be a challenge for the staff," he said.
However, he was quick to point out that SBHS has done a “good job” of ensuring a level of trust between office staff and and transgender students.
Beltran sees things differently.
For months, he said, he heard administrators say, “we’re working on it [the transgender issue].”
At times, he said he had felt patronized by administrators and others who knew of his transgender status and who seemed too eager to say, “Hi Alyx, how are you doing?”
He added, that “if they were really interested, they would have attended a GSA meeting.” All of those in attendance at the November presentation were invited to visit Conklin’s room on Tuesdays at 12:40 p.m., the weekly day and time of GSA lunchtime meetings.
Conklin feels that "there's a false narrative" that district and school administrators "are perpetuating" with regards to their service to transgender students — an illusion that's detrimental to the students' well-being, especially in communities, like San Benito County, where "there's a lot of outdated attitudes and sensiblities."
When asked what grade would he give the school in terms of its job in meeting the needs of its transgender students, Beltran responded, “D minus…barely passing. There are policies, but they’re not enforced.”
How can the school improve that mark?
“Educate the staff and make an effort to reach out and listen to the LGBT students,” Beltran said.
His grandmother, Terrie Fortson, agrees.
“The school should offer a course to teachers and administrators on transgender youth,” she said.
More importantly, it should provide resources and support for parents, Fortson said. “Help the parent to help the student,” she emphatically stated.
Having walked down that lonely road, she offered to speak at a future workshop held at the school.
Fortson's unconditional support for her grandson is not lost on Beltran. "She's very supportive. She's taken me to doctors' appointments and arranged for my testosterone medication and surgeries," Beltran said of Fortson.
Two weeks ago Beltran decided to get a shaded tattoo.
Etched on the inside of his left forearm is a compass—a reminder of his past and a place of orientation for his future.
“I was lost for so long,” he said. “The compass is to remind me that no matter where I’m at I’ll find my way."
Exiting the commencement ceremony on Friday afternoon, Beltran continued on the path toward his true north—a journey that will one day include sex reassignment surgery, a life-changing procedure to alleviate his gender dysphoria by giving him the body he's always felt he should have.
Meanwhile, SBHS will grapple with Beltran's legacy as it strives to make its campus a more tolerant and understanding environment for all of its students.