Transgender Laramie Teen Running For School Board Amid School Policy Debate

May 20, 2016

Rihanna Kelver
Credit Jennifer Becker

At a recent school board meeting, Laramie High School senior Rihanna Kelver showed up to tonight’s school board meeting with a call to action.

“I am asking that the Board take initiative now to protect these students,” Kelver says. “As soon as we lose a student by the 50 percent rate suicide that transgender youth face, the blood will be on our hands.”

Eighteen-year-old Kelver is one of just a few openly transgender students in Laramie. She was part of the committee that came up with a proposed policy protecting transgender students. And she’s been a living, breathing rebuttal to those who’ve dismissed that policy as a solution in search of a problem.

“A couple of people opened with, ‘Who is this policy even helping?’ says Kelver. “So, it was kind of nice to be able to stand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m right here.”

Albany County School District was on its way to becoming the first in Wyoming to pass a policy protecting transgender students. Now, school officials are dragging their feet amid national debate, and Kelver is running for a seat on the school board to keep things moving.

Back in January, the school board came up with two drafts of the plan. They both do things like require teachers to use students’ preferred names and pronouns. But there’s one major difference between the two. One lets transgender students use bathrooms that match their gender identity. The other makes them use bathrooms that match their biological sex. But after a legal dustup over North Carolina’s HB-2, the school board decided it wasn’t the right time to move forward with either.

“They were worried about litigation on either side,” Kelver says.

Kelver’s petitioning the board to pass the one that would guarantee she could use the girls’ restroom—and says it can’t wait. That’s why she decided to run for a seat on the board herself. Kelver gets that some Laramie parents are worried about privacy.

“I understand people’s concerns, but it’s the transgender community who is being victimized here,” says Kelver. “There’s a bigger problem.”

Restrooms play a role in that victimization. For two years, Kelver was relegated to a single-stall bathroom in her school’s special education wing.

“Most of my classes were actually in the other wing,” says Kelver. “So, it was constantly having to travel there. Eventually I just stopped using it more and more—which brought up some serious health issues—like repeated bladder infections.”

Last month, after some negotiations, she started using girls’ bathrooms.

Every Tuesday, Kelver eats lunch with her high school’s ‘SALLY’ Club. That stands for ‘Safe Area for Laramie LGBT Youth.’ She’s club president—and says safety is a concern in this community. 

“I do wish I could just go out to just a concert or a party and not worry about my outward image and whether or not the person next to me is going to just outright beat me to death because I look too masculine.

Many club members are excited about Kelver’s school board candidacy—like sophomore Annika Pelkey.

“I’m so proud of her,” says Pelkey. “Like, she’s already been so active in it. She’s just like the most hardworking person I know, basically. And I think that she would be amazing for it.”

The club’s faculty sponsor, William Plumb, says he’s really seen the need for a policy at Laramie High School.  

“We’ve had students who chose not to transition, because there was nothing in place—or they felt like there was no support,” says Plumb. “They chose to wait until after they left our building to transition.”

Last week, the federal government issued guidance to schools—outlining civil rights protections for transgender students. State leaders condemned the directives as overreach. Superintendent Jillian Balow says her chief responsibility is making sure all Wyoming children can learn safely.

“Quite frankly, federal guidance doesn’t necessarily help that,” says Balow. “Those decisions rest best with our local schools.”

But Albany County One Superintendent Jubal Yennie says the guidance is helpful. To him, it means that Laramie no longer needs either of the proposed policies they’ve been talking about.

“We don’t need anything going forward,” says Yennie. “We needed the guidance. We now have the guidance. So, if we would have had this guidance a year ago, the policy conversation wouldn’t have come up.”

Yennie says a policy would be overkill, because the feds have made clear that gender identity should be protected under existing nondiscrimination laws known as Title IX.

“Which says that we cannot discriminate because of race, creed, age, religion, sex, national origin,” says Yennie. “Okay? We have no policy on any of those, yet we know how to deal with those.”

Yennie says until a court weighs in differently, he’ll address the needs of transgender students on a case-by-case basis, using that guidance. But transgender Laramie high school senior Rihanna Kelver says that’s not good enough.

“It would be a case-by-case for everything,” she says. “You have to file a title IX complaint, you have to have a hearing and all that. We could enact a policy that solves it then and there. This is against school policy and this has to stop.”

Kelver says an explicit policy about pronouns and restrooms could signal to the whole community that transgender students deserve respect. She hopes to continue that conversation from a seat on the school board.