In her article, "Standing Up for Tocarra," Tina Owen paints a poignant picture of a transgender student, Tocarra, who was a prominent member of the Alliance School of Milwaukee, a small school created by a group of teachers, including the author, where it was "OK to be black, white, gay, straight, gothic, Buddhist, Christian, or just plain unique."
Owen, a high school teacher, founded Alliance with her colleagues after years of working in the public school system and witnessing bulling, particularly toward LBGTQ (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and questioning) students. The subject of her article, Tocarra, followed Owen from the public school district to the Alliance School in the first year of its inception in 2005. Owen describes Tocarra as a beautiful, bold, flamboyant, but classy girl whose vivacious spirit touched everyone around her. Back in the public school when Tocarra was going through her transformation, she was harassed and ridiculed by some classmates. But at Alliance, whose population was diverse but whose mission was that of acceptance, Tocarra was revered. Owen describes Tocarra's desire to be adored, and just how adored she was by the community at Alliance. Owen also describes the horrific moment of learning about Tocarra's untimely death from a heart attack at 18-years-old.
This story in and of itself would be somewhat inspirational; a message that students, when provided the right nurturing and healthy environment, can feel free to learn without the societal pressures of "fitting the mold;" being white, middle class, male, and straight. In spite of Tocarra's loving and supportive family, Tocarra was still harassed in the public school, after all. But this is the story of what happened after Tocarra's death and what really made me question humanity as a whole.
Tocarra died in 2005, and because most of her family lived in Chicago, the funeral took place there. After a crisis intervention team descended on the Alliance school for grief counseling, it was determined that a bus would be chartered for students and faculty alike to attend Tocarra's funeral about two hours away. At the funeral, Tocarra's teachers and dearest friends, including another transgender female, Jade, were horrified to find Tocarra lying in the casket in a man's suit and tie, looking like someone they had never met. Even worse and to the horror of everyone at the mass, the preacher "was a traditional, homophobic, Baptist minister who preached a sermon that condemned Tocarra to an eternity in hell rather than raising her up for her family and friends." He did not know Tocarra personally, and he referred to her in her "boy name" the whole time.
The take-away message from this article, the message that I will relay to my own students should the occasion arise, is that the author, Tina Owen, raised her hand in the middle of this mass and asked to speak on behalf of Tocarra. At the family's nodding approval, Owen got up and relayed the story of the spirited, kind, and classy young women she knew who was a star in her school. This one act of bravery prompted other friends and family to stand up for Tocarra, to the point where the minister advised everyone to continue to share their memories at the convocation afterwards. I was personally struck by the spirit of Tocarra, the bravery of her teacher, Tina Owen to stand up for what was right, and her strength to tell Tocarra's story in this article.
We have one trans-gendered male who graduated from Norton High School last year, and who, like Tocarra, had the love and support of his family, closest friends, and faculty. He, like Tocarra, was brave and open about his identity. He stood up at a professional development day in front of the entire town of teachers and administrators, flanked by his LBGTQ friends, and explained just how hard his transition from a girl to a boy was. Ironically, on that professional day last year, I was publicly praised by the students and also by the coordinator, Dr. Richard Grenell of Harvard University, for creating safe and open classroom environment. That shout-out was a shock to me, because I had only ever had two of the six students on the stage in class. It would have been easy to forget about that accolade, but in reading about Tocarra, it strikes me again as to just how important it is for people to feel and BE accepted for who they are. This message of kindness and openness cannot ever be forgotten, and I am certain that Tocarra, had she been listening, and certainly her family, appreciated the actions of one woman, Tina Owen, to stand up on her behalf.