Former Client, Parent Sheds Light on Fight for Son’s Trans Rights in School,

Spells Out Culturally-Competent Legal Assistance

“The absolute joy on my son’s face when he got the news was one of the best moments of my life…. I don’t want him to be focused on defending his trans-ness.”

– Angela Donovan (she/ her)

As told by Angela Donovan and edited for clarity

Three years ago, Max, our transgender son was disallowed from using the bathroom and locker room that align with his gender in a Carroll County School District’s school. The one bathroom the school told him to use was so far away from the majority of his classrooms that he would have accidents on occasion. This experience of being othered caused him significant distress

While we were trying to navigate this hurdle with the school district on our own, they advised us that he would not be permitted to go on the school’s science camping trip with his classmates unless he slept either in the girls’ room or the teachers’. Their “compromise” after weeks of negotiations was to let us pick him up every night from the camp. No sixth-grade kid wants to be singled out in that fashion, especially one who is not out to his peers

At the end of our rope, frankly fed up with the school, we started reaching out to the LGBTQ+ community. We were soon routed to FreeState Justice (FSJ). And we were so lucky to have found them! 

The first thing FSJ did was make us not feel so alone in this fight. FSJ listened to our son and made sure he knew that the school’s treatment of him was not okay and they were there to help him. Over the course of several months, FSJ fought and eventually won our son the right to go on his school’s science trip, sleep in a boys’ cabin during this field learning experience and the right to use the boys’ bathroom.

Scroll down for a video interview and the transcript

on the details of what Angela Donovan’s son endured 

and what FSJ did to help.

When the FSJ lawyer called us with the good news, It was close to the end of business day on Friday. All sixth graders would gather at school at 6 am on the coming Monday for the camping trip. The absolute joy on my son’s face was one of the best moments of my life.  

FSJ also connected us with an affordable lawyer to help with our son’s legal name change. My son was able to claim his right to have his real name, not his birth name, on his school records.  

I have wanted to find a way to express my gratitude from the beginning. Last year, during the height of the pandemic, my wife and I started Donovan WaterWorks, a woman-and-queer-owned, full-service residential plumbing company. Thanks to the  community that supports us, we are in a position to be able to repay the favor by sponsoring FSJ. We love the work that FSJ does! We hope to be able to continue to support them in the years to come.  

Angela Donovan says the experience with Carroll County School District was traumatic enough for her family to move out of Carroll County, Md.  

Interviewed, transcribed and written by Seth Canada, Communications and Development Intern, Spring 2021
Seth is the founder of TRANS and a junior in the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. He returned to his undergraduate studies in 2020, after working in food service for several years _ as a vegan chef in recent years _ and in marketing. He is an individualized major, taking courses in journalism, communications, business and theater. (He believes trans characters should be played only by trans actors to tell trans stories accurately). Having had many personal adventures, he can talk his head off about his cycling journey across 10 states (4,262+ miles) in 2016 as a 98-pound person primarily eating plant-based foods.
His experiences in the last 10 years also include advocacy, outreach, grassroots organizing, public relations, small business startup, branding, social media marketing and blogging, etc.  He interned as a paralegal at the Law Office of Irena Karpinski in summer 2019 and gained experience in the areas of immigration and family laws. Having fought personal battles in immigration and family courts, he recognizes LGBTQ+ clients’ need for legal representation by culturally-competent attorneys. He is thrilled about the opportunity as an intern with FSJ, developing skills transferable to the legal profession that he aspires to enter as a civil rights and immigration lawyer someday. He plans to start law school in 2022.

Other Post:

I lost almost everything, met a FreeState Justice lawyer; then my life changed for the better

Transcript of FSJ’s interview with Angela Donovan:

Seth Canada: Angela, Can you tell me what the issue was with the school district?

Angela Donovan: Yeah, absolutely! So the school district in Carroll County schools was refusing to allow our sixth-grade son to use the bathroom that coordinated with his gender and change in the boys’ locker rooms, as well as go on a week-long school sponsored camping trip that all of sixth grade went to.

Seth Canada: What action did you take?

Angela Donovan: We started off trying to talk to the principal, parent to parent, and the principal of the outdoors school ……tried to work with us, she butted up against the school district…there wasn’t a whole lot she could do. Then, we reached out to our local PFLAG and some other resources. Carroll County doesn’t have a lot of resources but they do have a great PFLAG out there and so [we] got in touch with them and they recommended FreeState, and we were able to connect with FreeState.

The first thing we did with FreeState was they connected us with a parent volunteer who tried to help, by providing some…  documentation  ….we could give the school district and say, ‘Hey, you’re in violation of Maryland [law], and this is how we interpret this law, and …. judges have upheld it.’ We provided them that documentation, and we still weren’t getting anywhere so it was going back and forth. 

And so the lawyer at FreeState then was able to send a Letter of Intent to the school district, basically saying, ‘You have to do these things, or we’re going to have to take you to court.’ And all of a sudden then, their lawyers – the school district’s lawyers, got very motivated to work out a deal with us and they were able to work with the FreeState Justice legal team to get everything we asked for.

Seth Canada: What was your son’s experience like?

Angela Donovan: Traumatic enough that we moved, that we sold our house and moved to a whole new school district. You know, he had a lot of anxiety around which bathroom he was allowed to use, whether his peers would see him going into the teachers’ bathroom, what would they think and what they wondered. You know, sometimes, he would go there and the bathroom would be locked. On more than one occasion, that resulted in him having to come home for the day. Because, you know, if you wait until the absolute last minute to go to the bathroom because you have so much anxiety around the bathroom and then it’s all the way on the other side of the building, and you get there and it’s locked. You know, accidents happen.

He also, you know, because he was not able to change for the gym…. It caused him to have a failing grade in gym class because they were saying he had to go all the way to the nurse’s office to change and then come back to gym class. And so yeah…. but at that point he was late every day and it cost him a lot of stress and anxiety so he just started refusing to do it because …you know, it was worse then….He was getting in trouble anyway so I think he would rather get in trouble and not have to do gym class. 

It also, you know, i caused him a lot of….the idea of missing the sixth grade field trip…. the kids started talking about this outdoor school week pretty much [on] the first day of school. There was a parent-teacher meeting about it in September, and from the very beginning, you know they were like, ‘Oh …we’ll talk about that when the time comes,’ and we were already having so much trouble with them…. we knew that ….’We’ll talk about it later’ was just a way of kind of shooing it under the rug, and ….you know, there were a lot of tears, there was a lot of stress, it’s a lot of anxiety. 

And the day that the lawyer from FreeState called us to tell us he could go on this trip….it was a Friday at like 3:45 [pm], almost four o’clock, and…. his class was going Monday, they had to be at the school like 6 am so it was pretty much the last minute that we found out he could go, and there were lots of tears that day too but he was so excited, so relieved to be able to go with his friends, you know, it’s a really big kind of defining moment for the sixth graders so i’m glad we were able….well, FreeState was able to get it worked out.

Seth Canada: So before FreeState helped you, were you trying to resolve the problem?

Angela Donovan: We spent six months. Six months of going back and forth, and…. I don’t think that the principal of the school was unkind but he was just unwilling to bend. And I don’t think that he saw….he saw it as it was his job to uphold how he perceived the rules of the school district to be, and we saw it as – it was his job to uphold every student’s right, you know, to be there, to be affirmed in who they are, and to, you know, go to class, go to the bathroom, go on school trips…. the things that I think cisgender students don’t even think about. 

You know, it caused an issue from being tardy to class, the anxiety causing him to not be able to focus on his schoolwork, him, you know, getting so many bad demerits in gym class, In fact, there were two semesters that the only reason he didn’t get honor roll was because of gym class. And he couldn’t get good grades in gym even when he was trying because he never could make it on time, having to go from where he was all the way to the front of the building on a different floor to change and then all the way back to gym…. he just couldn’t.

Max: And you’re not allowed to run in the hallway so I couldn’t run.

Angela Donovan: Yes, and you’re not allowed to run in the hallways, um…. you know, he couldn’t even do that, and so it was a significant school year for him. I think it was a difficult year….we’re lucky to have some really great teachers but just the school district overall was difficult to deal with.

Seth Canada: So was this the outdoor school away from home or did it involve sleeping overnight?

Angela Donovan: Yeah, outdoor school is a big thing in Carroll County. All of the sixth graders go. It’s like a you’re-growing-up kind of trip. They talk about it even before sixth grade. Everybody gets excited. It’s at the end of the school year. And so I think it’s like a month before school gets out or pretty close to the end of the school year. And it’s a week long trip so they leave Monday morning, they don’t come back until Friday afternoon, and they’re just out in the woods, being kids and exploring, and they learn a lot of really cool stuff. But it’s also just like a very big event socially, right? Like everybody’s excited, ‘what cabin are you going to be in?’ and ‘who’s your counselor going to be?’ 

They talk about it all year long, and for Max, I think instead of being able to enjoy that excitement leading up to it, he was scared. He was [like], ‘Am I going to be outed because they make me sleep in the girls cabin?’, ‘Am I not going to get to go?’ There were a lot of tears leading up to it, because it really looked like he wasn’t, like our choice was going to be either he not go at all or he go and not be able to spend the night with his friends and have to come home every night, which would have been horrible for him but also the camp was 45 minutes away from us, and I work full time my partner, at the time, worked for a different company. We own our own company now but she worked for somebody else at the time, and so driving 45 minutes to drop him off, you know, 45 minutes one way, to drop him off in the morning and then to pick him up in the evening, you know, that would have had a big impact on our our work days as well, and so I think we were all really stressed out about it. It’s just… it was a lot. I can’t explain to somebody who’s not a sixth grader how exciting this was,  like this idea – you get to go away from your parents for a week and be with all your friends, and you know, and he almost didn’t get to do that.

Seth Canada: Yeah, you have to live through this to understand. What would you say to a parent who is going through the same thing?

Angela Donovan: There were more resources in the community than I thought there were. I originally tried to kind of tough it out and do it all on my own. And once I reached out to the LGBT community and in my community, I found just an immense amount of support that made everything easier. People that could validate the experience, ‘Oh yeah, you know, my trans child did this or that.’ There were people in the community who had adult trans children who, you know, were like, ‘Yeah, my kid didn’t get to go to outdoor school or my child, you know, had this struggle and this struggle. I’m so glad to see that your child is getting it.’ And it just felt very validating. I felt a lot less alone, and it gave me a lot of strength to keep pushing and fighting, and so another, any other parent, I think I would just say, ‘Don’t try to do it on your own, reach out to your community, even if it’s just so much as I’m saying, ‘I’m here, I’ve got your back, like I’m Team Max, too.’ It gives you the strength that you need to keep pushing.

Seth Canada: Can you elaborate on having a lawyer who is sensitive and competent to deal with this issue related to transness? 

Angela Donovan: Yeah, so the first time we came into FreeState, we went into the office to meet… this was pre-COVID, I’m sure everything’s a little different now but we went into the office to meet [the lawyer], and I was so guarded. It had been such a long, difficult experience of having to explain over and over again, like almost defend my decision to let my son transition at his age. And there was absolutely none of that with FreeState, right. So we’re really into Harry Potter in our family. My son and the lawyer at FreeState bonded over Harry Potter in the first 30 seconds. They spent 10 minutes talking about Harry Potter. 

And then, the lawyer and I spoke, an what came across to me was not just that they were going to help but she was just as upset as I was – she was like, ‘They can’t treat your son like that.’ She never misgendered; she never used the wrong name; she never made us feel like we had to be guarded. And it just was such a relief to just be able to relax into, ‘Oh this person is here to help me, I don’t have to force them, they’re not doing it because they have to or whatever – they care too,’ and that made a huge difference. 

In fact, my son is an artist. He draws all sorts of things. He’s an amazing artist, and when he, when we got the decision back and he could go to outdoor school, he drew this beautiful picture, Harry Potter picture, for the Attorney who helped us as a thank you and sent her a wonderful thank-you note on his own, and I didn’t ask him to do that. He just did that, and I think that that is a testament to how much she impacted us and impacted him so it was amazing! 

Also we were really struggling with his name at the time. If you have ever had to go through that where your insurance card or your driver’s license or your school records say one name but you clearly go by a different name, it was really difficult and we tried to hire a couple lawyers, and they didn’t want to take it on – they didn’t want to do a miner’s name change, and FreeState was able to connect us with somebody who did his legal name change as well. And you know, they were also very affirming and great so it’s just nice to have that resource in our community.

Seth Canada: Since the issues with Carroll County, has your son been experiencing any issues similar to these?

Angela Donovan: No. We moved out of Carroll County. There – it was a difficult school district – I have a friend who has a trans child in that school district still, who is still having issues with bathrooms and such. I would hope that almost getting sued by us was enough but apparently it wasn’t. So you know, moving to Baltimore County where the school district – they don’t care, they don’t care in a great way, they’re like, ‘We care more about what are their grades?, how can we support them?, do they need a 504 and IEP?, what classes do they want to take in high school?’ – which are the things I want my son to be focused on. I don’t want him to be focused on defending his trans-ness. 


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