gender identity
Superintendent Kendra Johnson addresses an audience at Hillside School on Monday, Oct. 29. The talk covered gender identity issues among school-aged children. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Gender pronouns, the concept of gender fluidity and the need for inclusive spaces. Those were some of the topics covered at a special talk, held Monday night at Hillside School, for parents on how to discuss gender identity issues with their children.

The Oct. 29 program is the first of several such talks to be held over the course of the school year, Superintendent Kendra Johnson said.

Audience members in attendance on Monday were most likely familiar with issues facing LGBTQ+ students and their families, said Johnson, as a significant number of parents choose to opt their children out of discussions related to sex and sexuality in health class.

The problem isn’t just with reaching parents, she said. “We have staff who don’t understand why we have all-gender restrooms.”

Parent Celeste Argentino suggested that the school make a video or interactive presentation that people could watch in the privacy of their homes, because many people might not feel comfortable with talking about their family’s experiences in a public venue.

The district opened the school year with one gender-neutral bathroom in each school building. There has been little pushback from parents about the restrooms, said Johnson. But said there was still some uncomfortableness among parents.

“We’re not going to refrain from doing right by children because adults are uncomfortable,” Johnson said.

Sex education curriculum requires a discussion of reproductive anatomy and the reproductive process, Johnson said. “But [the subject matter] is very lean.”

However, Johnson said, several Montclair High School students hold after-school talks on sexuality and self-protection, including for LGBTQ+ students.

“I tell people all the time, we’re not as progressive as we think we are,” Johnson said. “But one thing we’re doing that no one else in Essex County is doing, is we’re talking about it.”

About 40 people turned out for Monday’s talk. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

The evening included a talk from Tyree Oredein, the safe schools coordinator for Garden State Equality, who discussed biological sex versus gender identity and sexual orientation.

Under New Jersey state law, and Montclair’s policy, a student no longer needs a parent’s permission before asking the schools to change their name or gender pronoun in their student records.

Glenfield sixth grader Emerson Wodnick, who goes by the pronouns they/them, spoke about the importance of gender neutral paperwork for parents and bringing gender discussions beyond the health classroom.

“I thought it was really important for students and parents to know how important transgender [issues] and gender fluidity is,” Emerson said afterwards.

“I think it was a really important community gathering, to just start the dialogue that’s intergenerational,” said Jill Wodnick, Emerson’s mother.

Roger Apollon spoke briefly about the family’s realization that their son was transgender, and his struggles to come to terms with it. “I had to decide whether I wanted a healthy son or a dead daughter,” he told the audience.

After the talk ended, Apollon said he thought the evening had gone well. “But the real test is the follow through.” His son, Jax, is now a freshman in college, and doing well.

Deb Comeau, a Glenfield teacher, founded the school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance 10 years ago. Today, there are similar groups in place at all three of the middle schools. But Comeau said that work still needs to be done regarding some of the school staff.

“Getting teachers of a certain mindset to where we are in understanding, it’s incredibly difficult,” she said.

Parent Jodi Argentino-Fiore said she is happy to see the district making movement toward more inclusive policy.