GIFFORD, Ill. (WCIA) – Emotions ran high in Gifford Grade School’s gymnasium Tuesday night. The school board held a special meeting to vote on a policy change that could restrict transgender students’ athletic opportunities.
The issue hit close to home for one family. In the beginning of the night, Stefanie Williams did not want us to share her identity.
“Everyone wants to fit in and be part of something. To not know where you fit in is an internal struggle that children are already dealing with,” she said.
Like many middle schoolers, Williams’ daughter was afraid of getting bullied. For a while, she held herself back from pursuing her passion for cheerleading. Now, she’s the only transgender student on the team. While her coach and teammates support her, some members of the community want things to change.
“I think that this year, the drive was strong enough that she was willing to put up with whatever she needed to so she could cheer,” Williams said.
Williams’ daughter has to put up with being the center of a district-wide conversation – one that’s being had in schools across the country. While she would have preferred to remain anonymous, she felt it was time to speak up.
“The luxury of privacy has gone right out the window for us,” she said during public comment.
The Gifford School Board has been questioning whether to amend its current policy. During the meeting, Vice President Chad Hesterberg read: “Equal education and extracurricular opportunities shall be available to all students without regard to color, race, nationality, religion, sex, sexual orientation…” He went on to explain the proposed change: “Although, a student will only be eligible to participate in athletics consistent with their biological sex assigned at birth.”
Board members heard comments from supportive parents, including one who says her daughter is friends with Williams’.
“The only thing that’s been hard for them is this issue – is watching their little hearts break over the fear and hatred and the struggles of this cheerleader,” she said.
But, a handful of speakers didn’t support her.
“Extracurricular activities should be based on biological sex,” one speaker said.
“It’s not against how a person feels. It’s that physically, they’re different,” another speaker said.
Williams defended her daughter, and other kids who just want to fit in.
“I followed up with both the administration and the coaches. To date, zero safety issues,” Williams said.
When it came time to vote, five of the seven board members chose to keep the policy as is. Hesterberg and Secretary Candy Franzen voted to amend the policy.
Williams’ daughter will continue to cheer.
Among those who spoke in support of Williams’ daughter were members of Uniting Pride of Champaign County. We spoke with President Martha Mills, who said this issue can have a big impact on transgender students’ mental health.
“The risk of depression, the risk of suicidal ideation, all drop dramatically when trans students are allowed to live as their true genders,” Mills said. “Letting students compete in their correct gender does more for the mental health of the student who’s competing than it might take away from anyone else.”