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Transgender teen will go to Boys State

He intends to show wavering board it 'isn't that big of a deal'

Halane Cummings says people have approached her son since he came out and told him they wished they had his courage when they were younger. “When the only other option, it feels to you, is death, it doesn’t feel really courageous,” Emmet says. “It just feels like necessity.” HE s shown Thursday at Center Point-Urbana High School in Center Point. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Halane Cummings says people have approached her son since he came out and told him they wished they had his courage when they were younger. “When the only other option, it feels to you, is death, it doesn’t feel really courageous,” Emmet says. “It just feels like necessity.” HE s shown Thursday at Center Point-Urbana High School in Center Point. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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URBANA — With a deep interest in civics, high school junior Emmet Cummings had his heart set on attending the American Legion’s Boys State this summer.

When Legion leaders said he wasn’t welcome, but then changed their minds, he at first wasn’t sure what to do.

But even with the cool reception, the teenager ultimately decided he would go to show that the Legion’s vacillation was also unnecessary.

"Once upon a time the idea of a woman in the military was looked at with disdain as well. Do you want to be ahead of the change or do you want to be behind the change?”

- Halane Cummings

“I have decided I am going to go, so I can hopefully show the board of directors that having a transgender individual there is not a big deal, that it shouldn’t be followed up with this much hesitation and fear of what the parents or my fellow Boy Staters would say,” Emmet said.

Whether the American Legion’s change of heart — they call it an “exception” — will lead to a broader policy review is uncertain, as is the question of whether Emmet and other transgender individuals can be denied under Iowa’s anti-discrimination law.

But what is certain is that the Cummings, faced with one of the most challenging issues of the era, have emerged resolute in support of their son, and of a better future for him.

Interest in government

Emmet, 17, always hs been fascinated by government and history. Ever since he heard about Boys State, he wanted to attend. Campers spend a week in June staying at the barracks at Camp Dodge in Johnston. They run campaigns for office and hold elections, as well as participate in music, sports and other activities. Participants are selected by their local American Legion posts.

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The program is open to students between their junior and senior years of high school, and as soon as he was eligible, Emmet applied.

But his mother worried about what kind of reaction he might get as a transgender applicant.

“Emmet had told us during his eighth grade year that he was transgender, and because of talks we’d had before, we knew that there was some question in his mind in terms of sexuality. ... Once he was able to put it more into words, he — and we — realized really what he was talking about,” said his mom, Halane Cummings.

The conversations brought back memories of as early as when Emmet was 3 years old and had a meltdown at a wedding. He didn’t want to wear a dress to be a flower girl. He wanted to wear a tux like he saw the boys wearing.

It was just one example of many, Emmet and his parents said, that pointed to the truth of his identity. For Emmet, that truth felt like a matter of life and death.

“Emmet was really like, ‘you know, I cannot survive being who I’m not any longer,’” Halane said. “And the three of us started talking.”

That summer, between junior high and high school, he began transitioning and entered ninth grade identified as male.

His parents worried about what kind of reaction he would face. They worried about bullying and discrimination.

Halane had graduated from Urbana High School, and the couple moved back to the area when they wanted to have kids because they wanted to raise their children in a small town.

But would that town support Emmet?

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To their relief, it did. At church and at school, they found acceptance. There were a few incidents with name calling by other students, but from their pastor, teachers and the school administration, they got support.

“I was ready for the fight of my life and nothing happened,” Halane said. “Everything was OK.”

Still, she and her husband, Phil, worry. The statistics surrounding transphobia in Iowa and the nation are alarming.

A report prepared in 2016 by the University of Iowa College of Law and the UI LGBTQ Health Clinic, “Where Do I Fit In? Snapshot of Transgender Discrimination in Iowa,” collected both anecdotes and statistics related to bullying, denial of employment opportunities, barriers to accessing health care and more. According to national and Iowa surveys, the report said, 65 percent of transgender respondents in Iowa felt unsafe at school, 84.1 percent of transgender college students in Iowa are harassed because of their gender expression and 47.6 percent of Iowa respondents said they had thought of suicide.

Halane said people have approached Emmet since he came out and told him they wished they had his courage when they were younger.

“When the only other option, it feels to you, is death, it doesn’t feel really courageous,” Emmet said. “It just feels like necessity.”

Applying to Boys State

Halane had attend Girls State in 1982 and is the coordinator between two local Legion posts and Center Point-Urbana High School, where she teaches Family and Consumer Sciences.

She sends the posts the names of interested students and makes sure kids who attend the summer program continue to be involved with Legion events and participate in school activities like flag raisings and Veterans Day celebrations.

Before Emmet put in his application, she called the state office in her role as coordinator to ask what their policy was on transgender students.

She said they told her that while their policy was that only boys “according to what was on their government-issued ID,” could attend, ultimately they would leave it up to the local posts.

“Our local Legion has been really great, looking at the applications from a wider viewpoint, and they selected Emmet along with the other young men that are attending,” Halane said.

Husband Phil jumped in. “They were looking at who the kids were,” he said.

But after the names of attendees were sent to the state headquarters, the story started to change. In November, state officials told the local post they would decide the matter at their midwinter meeting. In March, they called the Cummings family and asked them to tour Camp Dodge to see the housing arrangements.

“We actually thought, oh that’s positive, you know, they’re being proactive, they’re thinking about, OK, how would you guys react to where he’s going to stay,” Halane said.

Emmet said he had no problem with the dorm situation or the bathrooms.

“The showers have a brick barrier, and then there was a PVC pipe which looks like you could have hung a shower curtain if need be. So I had no issue with the housing or the bathroom situation,” he said. “I had expected that, and I was fine with that.”

Then, however, Halane said, Boys State told the local Legion it wouldn’t accept Emmet because of concerns about how the parents of the other boys attending would react.

“We tried to remind them that, currently, transgender troops are still allowed into the U.S. military. So realistically their future members may be transgender individuals, and that once upon a time the idea of a woman in the military was looked at with disdain as well,” Halane said. “Do you want to be ahead of the change or do you want to be behind the change?”

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After she posted about the incident on Facebook March 20, stories started to run in the media. A few days later, word came from the local Legion that Boys State officials had changed their minds — Emmet could attend.

He immediately asked if they had changed their policy on allowing transgender applicants, and was told no — this was an exception.

“That kind of weighed on me,” Emmet said. “I thought, do I want to not go just as a protest on how they have not decided to take action, or can I go, which I have wanted to do, or should I go?”

The Gazette reached out to Boys State representatives. Board secretary John Derner declined to comment on how decisions were made on Emmet’s attendance or what prompted officials to change their minds.

“On March 26, the board of directors voted to make an exception to our existing practice and will accept transgender applicants for 2018,” he said. “The existing practice was to accept male applicants only based on how they were identified on a birth certificate or government-issued ID.”

He said the topic of accepting transgender students had never come up before. He declined to comment on why the exception was only for 2018 or if the board would amend its policy in the future.

Legal landscape ALSO REMAINS unclear

Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy for One Iowa, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iowans, said the legality of a group like the American Legion denying transgender individuals in unclear.

The Iowa Legislature amended Iowa’s Civil Rights Act in 2007 to include gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes for discrimination in areas including public accommodation, which means any good or service open to the public. Whether that would cover a private organization like the American Legion hasn’t been tested in Iowa, Crow said.

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However, he said the national trends for similar organizations like the Boy and Girl Scouts has been to accept transgender members.

“Our feeling here is, whether or not they are legally required to accept transgender people, we would hope that folks would do the right thing and accept transgender people,” he said. “Do we allow transgender people to participate in public programming, or do we relegate them as second class citizens?”

Changing times

Halane said she understands that changing minds and attitudes takes time, and that some people simply have never had to confront their own ideas.

She was in that place herself at one point.

“I had to get educated as well, on the difference between sexuality and gender, you know, two entirely different things,” she said. “I even teach child development and when my own son came out ... I hate to use the term I woke up, but I suddenly I was like, ‘Oh my God, how have I been teaching all of this for so long and suddenly this concept is right here in front of me and I didn’t even think about it?’”

Still, she said people need to realize times are changing.

“They should want to be ahead of the curve, not dragged along the curve,” Emmet said. “I’m hoping by going to Boys State that I’ll be able to show the board of directors, hey, allowing transgender people into Boys State isn’t that big of a deal.”

Phil said he doesn’t want people to reduce this to politics.

“Politically, there are left and right leanings in the family, but when it comes to your kids, it doesn’t make any difference, you want what’s right, and that’s all,” he said. “I’m not looking to be an activist, but I love my son, and I will fight for whatever rights he deserves. It’s just that simple.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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