My letter to the trustees of the La Feria Schools on the handling of Jeydon Loredo’s yearbook photo

Note: This letter appeared on the Huffington Post on November 15, 2013.

Dear Trustees:

From a news report, I learned about the demand letter sent to you by the Southern Poverty Law Center concerning Jeydon Loredo’s yearbook photo. I want to share my perspective. Please make this letter a part of the official record.

I attended La Feria schools from kindergarten through high school and graduated in 1994. When I was growing up, we spoke virtually no English at home. There were no college graduates in my family. After school and on weekends, my brothers and I worked in the farm fields. My teachers in La Feria devoted their lives to helping kids like me. They helped us learn the language, like Mrs. Sealey, my kindergarten teacher. They taught us how to express ourselves in writing, like my high school English teacher, Ms. Gutierrez. They taught us math, like Mrs. Bates in 10th grade. They taught us computer programming, like Coach Sanchez in 12th grade.

La Feria teachers went beyond the call of duty. I once expressed an interest in marine biology to Mr. Sealey, my high school science teacher. Before I knew it, Mr. Sealey and I were in the middle of the Laguna Madre collecting specimens for a new salt-water tank. My government teacher, Mrs. Nicholson, knew about my fascination with law and politics. When she found out I didn’t have cable TV, Mrs. Nicholson started videotaping CNN and Headline News so I could watch them the next day at home. I qualified for the state debate tournament my sophomore year. The night before the competition, my coach, Mr. Zamora, took me on a trip to see the state capitol up close and lit up for inspiration.

I have the utmost gratitude and affection for La Feria schools, and I owe much of my success to its teachers and administrators. After high school, I went on to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin (1996) and from law school at the University of Notre Dame (2000). Today I am a partner with the law firm of Keller Rohrback L.L.P. in Seattle. I’m just one of countless La Feria success stories. Some of my friends are now teaching the next generation of La Feria kids. It is a tribute to La Feria schools that so many of my friends — and my brother — have chosen to have their children educated in the same schools we attended.

It pained me to read about the case of Jeydon Loredo. I hope you can tell from what I’ve written that I do not want to believe that La Feria is intolerant. But the manner in which Jeydon’s yearbook photo has been handled is a stain on La Feria’s reputation — a reputation that was hard-earned over many decades by generations of educators and students. I don’t know Jeydon. By all accounts, however, he is a fine young individual. He has never had any disciplinary issues. I applaud Jeydon because he has the courage to be who he is. Jeydon isn’t doing this for attention. Jeydon is a transgender male and is acknowledged as such by a mental health professional. As far as you and I are concerned, it is a scientific fact. It is not, and will never be, the place of a school administrator to overrule the judgment of a health professional.

Think of your own children. What if the principal told your child that he or she had to wear clothes associated with another gender? What psychological damage would that cause? How angry would you, as a parent, be? That’s the position in which Jeydon and his mom find themselves. Jeydon is, from the point of view of his family and his health provider, a young man. He needs to wear a young man’s clothes. But the school has presented Jeydon with a Hobson’s choice: If he agrees to dress as a woman, he will be untrue to himself and basically agree that there is something wrong with being who he is. If Jeydon doesn’t dress as a woman, then the yearbook will be printed without his photo. Years from now, Jeydon will look back and see an empty spot where his photo should appear. La Feria will, in effect, have wiped Jeydon from the history books.

It appears that Jeydon has a strong network of family and loved ones who support him. But the choice that the school has given him will inevitably cause him severe emotional harm.

If we begin from the premise that Jeydon is, as a scientific matter, a male, then requiring him to wear women’s clothing in the yearbook is like telling the quarterback of the football team that he can’t be in the yearbook unless he, too, wears a drape or a blouse. If a school administrator said that to the quarterback, the community would be right to question the administrator’s sanity and his competence for the job.

I’ve seen the photo. There isn’t anything scandalous about it. The community will be OK if it is published. When I was young, the high school sponsored an annual powderpuff game in which the boys dressed as cheerleaders and the girls dressed as football players. There was no community uproar. I ask: If the school traditionally sponsored an event in which boys were expected to dress up in girls’ clothing for nothing more than a frivolous night of fun, why would the school prohibit Jeydon from wearing clothes associated with his own gender when it is backed up by science and the opinion of his health provider? The only answer I can come up with is that the administrator has a preconceived, misguided attitude toward transgender people. If the administrator is truly afraid of how the community will react, then he is not giving the citizens of La Feria enough credit. Most are open-minded, caring people who aren’t interested in creating a national controversy.

Being transgender is not the same thing as being gay. But having grown up as a gay kid in La Feria might help me understand some of what Jeydon has gone through. From my teen years forward, I knew on some level that I am gay, but I didn’t have the guts to admit it to myself or anyone else. A couple of boys in the grade ahead of me taunted me because they somehow figured it out. One night I went to return a video at the Video Depot on Commercial Avenue when I heard a voice yelling at me from the darkness, “F——t, I’m going to f——-g kill you.” I had other similar experiences, which kept me up many nights, but I never told anyone about them because I was afraid.

There was another boy who moved to La Feria in the ninth grade. He was gay, but unlike me, he had the courage to tell the truth about who he was. For this he was mercilessly bullied and, one day, had the pulp beaten out of him by fellow students. Our Spanish teacher was Mrs. Escobar. When she found out what happened, she became enraged. The next day, Mrs. Escobar started each class period with an impassioned speech condemning violence and begging her students to be more tolerant. A few snickered and laughed. Someone broke into her classroom (she had a portable classroom outside the school building) and urinated on her desk. It was not easy for Mrs. Escobar to do the right thing, but she did it because she had the courage of a great educator. That’s the courage I want all of you to show now.

Your job is difficult and important. As I conclude my letter, I wonder what I’d be thinking if I were sitting in your chairs. I think I’d want to base my decision on science and medicine, not preconceived and inaccurate ideas about transgender people. I’d want my decision to promote an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance. I’d want to encourage, not discourage, students from expressing themselves in a safe and responsible manner consistent with the First Amendment. I’d want to show the community that the appeals process is fair and that the school board is not afraid to overturn an administrator’s decision when it is wrong. I’d want the decision to stand the test of time so that our descendants do not look back upon it with shame. I’d avoid harming Jeydon, particularly when his yearbook photo doesn’t interfere with the rights of other students. I’d avoid, at all costs, wiping Jeydon from the history books. I’d want to follow the La Feria schools’ nondiscrimination policy. And, finally, I’d want to move beyond this issue and turn attention back to the all-important business of classroom teaching.

All these considerations weigh in Jeydon’s favor. I have faith in La Feria and in the process. I ask that you, the Trustees, make the right and courageous decision.

My warmest regards,
Isaac Ruiz