In the spring of 2012, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued guidance to schools in Massachusetts on how to implement policies and procedures that ensure robust protections for transgender students at school. In the small community of Sturbridge, MA, the school board publicly discussed the guidance, with one member in particular loudly opposing the protections.
Jackie Ryan, at the time, was serving as the student representative for the vocational division on the regional school committee – and she was disturbed by what the school board member was saying. As the president of her local high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and as a transgender woman herself (meaning that she was born male but identifies and lives her life as a woman), she deeply understood the challenges transgender students face, and she knew how much the guidance from the DESE would help.
Jackie spoke out at the meeting – explaining how vital the guidance was and pushing back on the school board member who thought the new regulations were bad for the state.
The meeting was a foundational moment: For the first time, really, she saw the value and impact of local politics – and since then, she’s never looked back.
* * *
Jackie has been serving now on the Tantasqua School Committee for nearly two years. She is the youngest elected official in her district – and when she was elected in 2014, she was the first-ever openly transgender elected official in the entire state of Massachusetts.
Jackie ran for the position when she graduated from high school. At 18 years old, she knew it would be a challenge, but that if she stayed focused on the issues, she could prevail.
“I was open about being transgender, I presented female, I talked about it – but it wasn’t the centerpiece of my campaign,” Jackie explained. “But people saw that I was human, and that I cared about the same things they did.”
Sturbridge, where Jackie lives, is a small conservative community. And yet, on election night when the votes were counted, she came out with 63 more votes (out of a total 819 votes) than her opponent – a Republican incumbent who had served for five years.
Now, Jackie is leveraging her political role to advance protections for LGBT people in Massachusetts and beyond. In Massachusetts, statewide laws prohibit discrimination in employment and housing for all LGBT people – but transgender people are still not included in the state’s public accommodations law, designed to protect minority communities from discrimination in public spaces like restaurants, parks, businesses, and transportation.
She’s gotten involved with Freedom Massachusetts – the statewide campaign to secure full non-discrimination protections for transgender Bay Staters – and has been a vocal proponent of these critical laws across the country.
“It doesn’t make sense that a conservative community can elect me, but that in that same community, I can legally go to a business and be denied service. That doesn’t seem right to me.” – Jackie Ryan
“I felt a desire to be a better leader for the transgender community,” Jackie said. “I ran for office, and I won, but I wanted to do more. And in Massachusetts, protections for the community are sort of half there and half not. It’s disheartening to see that patchwork of laws.”
Jackie continued: “The reality of being transgender in Massachusetts is frustrating: I have to consistently think about how I approach things, if I pass enough, how I do things. I have to consciously change my mindset depending on where I am, based on whether I have full legal protections there. If I’m in a government building, for example, I can be a little more relaxed. But when it comes down to going to a restaurant, I know that I can be refused service just because I’m transgender.”
“It doesn’t make sense that a conservative community can elect me, but that in that same community, I can legally go to a business and be denied service,” she furthered. “That doesn’t seem right to me.”
* * *
Jackie has had direct experience with discrimination because of her gender identity. When she was in high school, she was sometimes pulled aside and told that she could not dress or present as a woman. But Jackie knew that the law was on her side – and that the non-discrimination protections that had recently been extended to transgender Bay Staters (protections that were a step forward but still lacked public accommodations protections) supported her.
“I threatened legal action, put down the regulations from the DESE, and the comments stopped,” Jackie said. “Without those regulations, I would have continued to be harassed. These regulations really matter. Once you have those protections, there is no more powerful thing to have behind you. Those protections ensure that you have something standing behind you.”
Jackie knows that things are moving forward in Massachusetts – and across the country. She knows that an unprecedented number of businesses have been outspoken in their support of full transgender-inclusive non-discrimination in her state. She knows that momentum is at an all-time high to pass this bill and join 17 other states that have already embraced full protections.
But even more than these big-picture swells of momentum, Jackie sees the way her state has moved forward in the little moments she has experienced as a transgender woman. One of her fellow school board members, for example – a religious, conservative woman who had always seemed tense around Jackie – recently remarked to her at a meeting that she looked nice with her long hair down, rather than pulled back like usual. “I thought, ‘Wow, she couldn’t even speak to me before, but now she’s complimenting me,” Jackie explained. Her community, she sees in these small moments, is slowly but surely growing to understand who transgender people are.
“Ultimately, we just want to be able to feel safe while being who we are. This is what we want. And this is what these laws do. – Jackie Ryan
“We are people too,” Jackie said about transgender Bay Staters, and why nothing less than full non-discrimination protections is vital. “We want to be able to have our own dreams and live our own lives without the fear of being discriminated against – something as simple as going to a movie and knowing you won’t be denied entrance just because of who you are. Ultimately, we just want to be able to feel safe while being who we are. This is what we want. And this is what these laws do.”