Editor’s note: The following letter dated March 3 was sent to Dawn Bukaj, a member of the Delaware Valley School District Board of Education, in response to some of Bukaj’s recent social media posts. Copies were sent to other school school board members, including Jack Fisher, Jessica Decker, Brian Carso, Cory Homer, Pam Lutfy; Jack O’Leary, Felicia Sheehan, and Rosemary Walsh, and to Superintendent John Bell. Please see related story, “School board asks legal counsel to review member’s transphobic social media activity,” at pikecountycourier.com.
Dear Mrs. Bukaj:
Hello. By way of introduction, my name is Steven Teague. I am a tax-paying resident of Milford Township as well as the Executive Director of TriVersity. TriVersity is an LGBTQ+ Center dedicated to providing a safe space for all those living in or visiting Pike County, Sussex County, N.J., and Orange County, N.Y. (i.e. the Tristate). Additionally, we seek to promote acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals through education and to be an advocate for social change that embraces diversity and eliminates oppression based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Late Monday afternoon, unsettling remarks posted to your personal social media account came to TriVersity’s attention. I will confess that I am not normally one to raise public concern over remarks expressed through personal social media accounts. However, any statements made by a school board official, whose duty it is to provide the highest quality education to a diverse student body, should be subject to scrutiny. Protecting young minds is our highest priority. Given TriVersity’s role as the Tristate’s LGBTQ+ Center, we find it particularly important to address the following remarks.
You shared a post from a Dwayne McDavitt. McDavitt’s post shared a picture of Senator Rand Paul along with the following assertion:
“Richard ‘Rachel’ Levine refused to answer a straight, specific question. Because he/she is confused about what he biologically is. Can’t change chromosomes XX-XY Basic Biology. Would you let this man make decisions for your child?”
In the comments section of your shared post, you then replied to a comment regarding Dr. Rachel Levine, which stated that “He hasn’t had any surgeries or ‘removals.’ In God’s eyes and my eyes HE is a man.”
Your response? “Science,” along with a smiling emoticon with unusually large pupils.
The language Mr. McDavitt uses to describe Dr. Levine is — as we would say in my home state of South Carolina — just plain ugly. McDavitt refers to Dr. Levine as “Richard,” a name given to her at birth but clearly not the name she currently uses. To be fair, McDavitt dains to add “Rachel” in quotations. He refers to Dr. Levine as “he/she” and concludes by referring to Dr. Levine as “this man.”
Whether you (unreasonably) question Dr. Levine’s validity as a trans-woman, these remarks are disturbing. Despite my assumption that the name given to you at birth was Dawn, should you ever change that name, I would refer to you by whatever name you wish, without qualification, for no other reason than simple common courtesy. If someone tells me they are a woman, regardless of how that makes me feel, I would refer to them using appropriate pronouns, and I certainly would not freely contradict another human being’s identity and effectively declare them a fraud.
We are not merely speaking academically about the importance of basic human decency and respect here. Lives may literally hang in the balance. A recent study by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that use of a chosen name confirms gender identity and reduces mental health risks in youth. I am sure you will agree that a good student is a living student, which makes your apparent condonation of McDavitt’s rhetoric all the more confounding.
In the study, researchers interviewed trans youths ages 15-21 and asked whether young people could use their chosen name at school, home, work and with friends. Compared with peers who could not use their chosen name in any context, young people who could use their name in all four areas experienced 71 percent fewer symptoms of severe depression, a 34 percent decrease in reported thoughts of suicide, and a 65 percent decrease in suicide attempts. Having even one context in which a chosen name could be used was associated with a 29 percent reduction in suicidal thoughts. With nearly 1 in 3 trans youths reporting thoughts of suicide, the reductions shown in this study are monumental. Names matter.
Also, regarding your “Science” + strange emoticon response to the statement “In God’s Eyes and in my eyes, (Dr. Levine) is a man,” I pray that you, as someone who oversees the education of our youth, do not find science quite so reductive.
Science is by definition the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. It is not a tool we use to diminish another person’s experience, rather to understand that experience. The knowledge gleaned from transgender persons like Dr. Levine has given scientists clues into the complexity of the human body and its relationship with the mind. Learning from those in the transgender community, we gain an ever-evolving understanding that one’s perception of gender identity does not result from the parts of us that differ based on our chromosomes but from the one part we all share: the brain.
For now, I will bring this letter to a close, though I hope a dialogue will remain open. It is not the intention of TriVersity to seek your removal from the Board. What we ask, in part, is that you take the time to reflect and learn more on the topics of sex, gender, and basic human decency. Do so as if the lives of your students depend on it.
More importantly, we ask that you retract the remarks you made, reaffirm your oath to support the District’s policy against hateful speech and actions against transgender persons, and commit to not doing so again in the future. We all make mistakes, but, once we acknowledge those mistakes and make amends, we can learn from them and grow. Further, we would like to set up a meeting with you and the school board to discuss the importance of administrative leadership in protecting LGBTQ+ youth, and, in particular, transgender and gender non-conforming youth in school settings.
I am unsure as to whether DV School Board Members must receive LGBTQ+ cultural competency training per your 2015 resolution with the Department of Education. Regardless, I encourage you to seek out additional information. TriVersity is here to help. We offer cultural competency training, which we would gladly offer to you or anyone else at DV who may require a refresher course.
Thank you for your time, and best wishes as you continue to grow for the benefit of all your students.
Steven C. Teague (he/him/his)
Signing on behalf of the TriVersity Board of Directors: Simone Kraus, Richard Bloomer, Wendy Kaplan, John Hellman, and Ashley Craig
cc: Jack Fisher; Jessica Decker; Brian Carso; Cory Homer; Pam Lutfy; Jack O’Leary; Felicia Sheehan; Rosemary Walsh; John Bell