Mother in Ohio Fights For Her Transgender Son’s Freedom in Student Athletics

When her son Aidan came out as transgender a little over 18 months ago, Sheila Pogue-Krabacher had no question about how to react.

“We accepted him and told him we love him no matter what,” she said. “Now, we did also explain that there would be people out in the world who might not feel the same, but that he always has our family’s love and support.”

Because Aidan has a sleep disorder, he been been enrolled the last few years in online schooling. However, after his official name change went through, Sheila enrolled her son in public school. Before the first day, Sheila and Aidan sat down with the high school principal, a counselor, and the pupil service director. Sheila said she felt comfortable with the principal, who had made known she was open and affirming to all students, including respecting Aidan’s gender identity for the purpose of using the restroom.

Aidan made the announcement that he was interested in wrestling. To help her son, Sheila had a meeting with the local high school’s assistant principal as well as an intervention specialist to talk through how everything would work.

“They told us the best bet would be for him to do online schooling again, so that he could be in the best shape possible to make matches and practices.”

Wrestling practice was held at the local middle school, where Aidan used the boys’ bathroom and locker room and continued to do so for the next three months, never having an issue.

When conditioning started, the wrestling coach contacted the school’s athletic director and asked what Aidan would need to wear for weekly weigh-ins; traditionally, wrestlers are weighed only in their underwear. Aidan was wearing a binder every day, and Sheila assumed this was the information that would be passed on to the coach; however, she soon learned that this was far from the case, sparking a situation that still causes discussion in her community even now, months later.

* * *

One day during practice, Sheila received a call from Aidan.

“He was hysterical. He kept saying, ‘You have to come pick me up.’ I had no idea what was going on, so I raced over there as fast as I could.”

When she arrived, Aidan told her what had made him so upset: The wrestling coach had effectively outed Aidan as transgender to the entire wrestling team, called him by the wrong pronouns, and insisted he was not allowed to use the boys’ facilities.

After learning this, Sheila marched right into the office of the athletic director, furious and looking for answers.

“I told him there was no way this should have ever happened. Even though Aidan might be out to some people, he’s not out to everyone, and the actions of this coach put a target on his back, because now everyone in that locker room knew Aidan was transgender.”

Despite all this, Aidan still wished to return to practice. Although Sheila agreed, she waited directly outside, and once practice was finished, she approached the coach with information.

“I told him that I was going to have this conversation just one time. I gave him information from GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network —  an LGBTQ school support organization) and the relevant information on Aidan’s situation. He refused to take any of it, and essentially doubled down on what he’d said previously — that Aidan wasn’t welcome in the boys’ locker room. The athletic director said they would have a chat after I contacted him.”

Within the next few days, Sheila and Aidan’s father Mike were called in for a meeting with the athletic director; he had reached out to the OHSAA (Ohio High School Athletic Association) regarding best practices for transgender students. The group told the school that their recommendation was to go with whatever district policy was in place for those students — the only issue was that Wilmington School District does not have a comprehensive policy.

There are also no protections at the statewide level for LGBTQ people in Ohio, meaning that Sheila and Aidan had no legal recourse to fight the actions of the coach or the school district. Furthermore, the current Trump administration has also made it more difficult for transgender students to feel supported in their own schools. In February 2018 Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded guidance given to schools by the Obama administration on how best to support and respect transgender students. More recently, Secretary DeVos stated that her department would not interpret Title IX, which prevents sex discrimination, to apply to transgender students who are barred from using bathrooms or locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity.

The school district came back, saying that until they could formally address the issue, Aidan would not be able to use the boys’ bathroom or locker room.

“I just want to wrestle,” Aidan told his mother. “I’ll change at home, I don’t care, I just want to be a part of something.”

* * *

After further exclusionary behavior from the coach, Sheila demanded the district conduct an investigation into his behavior, and unfortunately, Aidan decided to quit the team after the stress of everything that had transpired.

“I emailed them on December 3, then December 14, then December 19. Eventually they told me they would have a final response by January 6which became January 16. Finally, on February 7, they came down with their findings.”

In its report, the district found two things to be substantiated: the the coach had indeed outed Aidan to his team by telling him he couldn’t use the boys’ bathroom or locker room, and that a special soap the wrestlers use should have been provided to Aidan upon the coach’s decision to prevent him from using the boys’ facilities.

SInce then, the coach has been issued a written warning, and the district has said everything else is fine. This does not sit well with Sheila, who wants real change in order to protect her son and other LGBTQ students.

“I’ve filed an appeal,” she said. “I want the coach terminated if he can’t treat all athletes equally and wants to discriminate, and I want a space for Aidan to feel comfortable, and that seems to be the boys’ facilities for him. The school board told me about a new multipurpose room that had been built, but when I went to look at it, not only was it at the middle school and not the high school, but it was a girls’ facility, which is absolutely no solution whatsoever.”

In the meantime, Sheila and Aidan have gone public with their story, and she continues to be an advocate for those students who are underrepresented.

“I’ve provided the district with resources on how to treat LGBTQ students. They need help and training on how to support these students. Since we’ve gone public, we’re getting attention from both sides — some people are behind us 100%, and others are saying I’m ruining my child and trying to indoctrinate him into a lifestyle. Aidan doesn’t necessarily want this attention, but we’ve both talked, and we feel it’s important to share his story so that we can make it better for other people in this situation.”

Ultimately, Sheila wants and expects the district to fulfill their promises in order to make the district a more welcoming and safe place for LGBTQ students. On March 23, the Wilmington School District made an on the record commitment to address gender identity

“The school should do what they said they would do, which is to provide all staff, parents, and students education on transgender and LGBTQ students. They must support these students and give them ability to succeed. People fear what they don’t understand. Everyone wants to feel accepted in their own skin; the most important thing we could get out of this is to have policies put in place that protect students. If we can help other students, this is all worth it. I’m a mama bear, and when you bully my kid, that’s unacceptable.”

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