In the post-COVID times, the number of students coming out as gay, lesbian, non-binary, and trans has been on the rise, and a pair of siblings has been actively promoting awareness and seeking rights for members of LGBTQ+ in the Watertown Public Schools.
Vivian and Ashe Flan are presidents of the Genders Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at Watertown High School and Watertown Middle School, respectively. While just four years apart in age, they have seen the difference in attitudes, and willingness for students to come out at an earlier age.
Vivian, a WHS junior, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them. While at the Middle School, Vivian helped restart the GSA after the Pandemic.
Vivian got involved with Greater Boston PFLAG as an intern in the summer of 2021, and will be working with the group again this summer. Now Vivian and their mother, Alison Coleman-Hardy are part of the PFLAG speakers program, and appear at online and in-person corporate trainings and events for LGBTQ+ families.
“We are involved with PFLAG as speakers,” Coleman-Hardy said. “We do a couple of them a month. They think it’s adorable when we do it together because it’s a mother-kid combo. We talk about (Vivian’s) experience, my experience — I guess they don’t have a lot of those (combos).”
Vivian has also been part of regional and statewide LGBTQ+ youth advocacy groups. They are on the student leadership council for the Boston Region of the Safe Schools program, and also take part in the Safe Schools statewide leadership events, including a weekend summit at UMass-Amherst last fall for Safe Schools leadership members.
Any member of GSAs can attend the regional Safe Schools meetings, so Ashe and others from Watertown Middle School have attended some meetings.
Both Flans will be at Watertown’s Pride Extravaganza on June 3 representing their schools’ GSAs. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., starting with a parade from the Watertown Library over to Saltonstall Park, where the events will be held.
Ashe, now a seventh-grader, is co-president of the WMS GSA, and said the group has more members than when Vivian was there.
“The difference is they have a lot more out-kids at school,” Vivian said. “There weren’t all that many at my school. There were like a couple small friend groups and a few others.”
Now, about 15-17 students participate in the Middle School’s GSA, said Ashe, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them. Ashe said the GSA is a safe space for LGBTQ+ students, and the group has also taken on some projects.
Last year, the Watertown Middle School GSA applied for the City to light the trees on the Delta in rainbow colors during June for Pride Month. This will happen again this year, Ashe said, and the GSA is also preparing slideshows for teachers to show in homerooms.
“Me and my co-president, we are doing two slide shows,” Ashe said. “I’m doing terms and stuff, and she is doing pronouns because we decided that could be an entire lesson.”
Vivian changed their name last year, and said most teachers at Watertown High School have been conscientious about using students’ name and pronoun preferences. About 75 percent of teachers give students forms to fill out that include preferred name and pronouns, and whether that is OK to use those when contacting parents.
Both Watertown Middle School and Watertown High School have gender neutral bathrooms and locker rooms available for trans and nonbinary students. Vivian said there is only one at the current high school, but the new one will have one on each floor. Ashe noted that they had to ask a teacher or custodian to open the bathroom and locker rooms at the middle school, which makes it more difficult. Ashe ends up using the facilities for girls.
This year, Vivian ran into a grey area in the school’s and district’s policies for LGBTQ+ students. As a member of the chorus, they went on the trip to New York with the WHS music groups. When filling out the form, there were only options for male or female and when Vivian asked the teacher about what that was for, they were told it was for who to room with.
“I decided, oh, I have friends who are girls who I would feel most comfortable rooming with. I (said) OK, I guess that’s fine,” Vivian said.
A short time later, Vivian found out that it was possible to room with female friends, but it would require going through a process to get permission from the school administration.
“Basically, (the teacher) was saying it’s not within the system to be able to do that,” Vivian said. “Which is odd considering that the policy at the time was always to go by the student’s gender identity.”
As the time for the trip approached and Vivian still had not heard about who they would be able to room with, Coleman-Hardy inquired about what was happening. She was told by the teacher that she would have to go to the district level.
“I said, ‘Oh, boy. I‘m going to have to speak to the Superintendent.’ Basically, they didn’t have a precedent for this, so as frustrating as that was, of course I am a huge advocate for you guys,” Coleman-Hardy said, looking at her children.
The rooming situation was sorted out, but by that time the friends Vivian had hoped to room with had already made other arrangements. Vivian roomed with another girl whom they did not know before, but it ended up working out well.
Vivian and their mother have approached the School Committee about changing the policy to deal with similar issues in the future.
“I don’t want this to get excused as an exception. I want it to just be part of the new rules,” Vivian said. “I don’t want everyone else to have to jump through the same hoops that I did.”
With the number of out nonbinary and trans students at the middle school, Coleman-Hardy said she believes it is not a case of if it will happen again, but when.
School Committee member Lily Rayman-Read said the policy subcommittee is reviewing and working changes to the LGBTQ+ policy but nothing has been finalized.
Vivian’s decision to change their name at school was part of a process of coming out that started years before. They had gone by Vivian at home and with friends before officially changing the name at school.
Vivian said as long as they can remember, they never lined up with expectations for boys of their age. And from an early age liked to dress in princess dresses and was interested in Disney princesses.
“I was like, ‘Hmm, it would be kind of cool if I could sometimes be a girl and sometimes be a boy, but I know that’s not a thing so I’m just going to sit here and think about it,'” Vivian recalled. “When I was older I started hearing about nonbinary as a concept and I’m like, wait I think that tracks with what I’ve been thinking about.”
In ninth grade, Vivian came out as gay, but still identified as male.
“I was still figuring it out,” Vivian said.
Coleman-Hardy added, “(My husband and I) were not surprised either way. We were paying attention and watching to see.”
Ashe said they believes their coming out was more of a surprise to their parents.
“I had always grown up being girly girl,” they said.
Ashe came out as bisexual and then as nonbinary. They recalled how they would make an effort to dress masculine.
“I just forced myself to be masculine, because I was like, I can’t be feminine because then people would think that I am a girl and there was no way I could not be a girl if I was feminine,” Ashe said to their mother. “Which is why you would say wear this cute dress and I ‘d be like OK, and in the morning it I would be like, I don’t want to wear that dress.”
Ashe came out with their name this school year.
“I’ve been a lot more comfortable after I came out in school,” Ashe said. “I got my email changed and everything, and I think even throughout the year I have been a lot more comfortable being feminine and stuff because I at this point where I like wearing makeup and dresses.”
They also take the time to explain to people about their identity and pronouns.
“I was tired of correcting people, explaining it to people,” Ashe said. “But, it wasn’t worth it to not express myself how I wanted, just because I didn’t want to explain it to someone.”