June 19th started out as a gloomy, rainy day in the District. But sometime around mid-afternoon, a sudden burst of dazzling sunshine emerged, causing the wet sidewalks to sparkle under the feet of a crowd of colorful marchers. As they made their way through the streets near Northeast Library, led by the Transgender Pride flag, the group proudly pounded on pots and pans and sang “PROTECT TRANS KIDS!” The more than fifty adults and children ended their march in an alley festooned with colorful pennants, where children blew bubbles and received temporary tattoos in the shape of rainbows.
It was the first Pride celebration for 12-year-old Michael McKeon, organized by neighbors in his northeast Capitol Hill neighborhood after citywide celebrations were cancelled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The parade was a resounding show of encouragement for someone who has not always felt supported in his identity.
In September 2019, Michael suffered a bout of depression that ended with him in the hospital. It was there, said his father, Robert McKeon, that Michael came out and revealed to his family that he was transgender.
“This was news to me. I just never dealt with these issues before,” said Robert McKeon. “But after going to the hospital –and there are many kids in the hospital with these very same issues– I have to choose life.”
They had reason to make a clear choice. A 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 14 percent of youth aged 11 to 19 have attempted to kill themselves. Female to male adolescents reported the highest levels, with just over 50 percent attempting suicide at least once.
Robert and his wife, Erin, immediately took steps to help their child express himself. They made an appointment for a parent-teacher conference at Michael’s school, the Catholic Our Lady of Victory (OLV) in the Palisades neighborhood. On Nov. 11, the McKeons met with each of Michael’s teachers to tell them that Michael was transgender and that this was linked to his hospitalization. McKeon said that the teachers took the information in stride, keeping their thoughts to themselves.
However, McKeon said someone must have shared the information with the school administration, because shortly after completing their meetings with the teachers, the McKeons were asked to join the Principal and Vice-Principal in the school library for a conversation.
“We were chastised by the principal and the vice principal for having told the teachers this. We were told that we are not to speak with any of the teachers about Michael’s psychological condition, you know, at all,” McKeon said. “So, I’m not really sure what we were there for, at a parent-teachers conference, if we don’t talk about our kid.”
The McKeons requested a meeting with the OLV administration hoping to negotiate a way for Michael to express his gender identity. The family asked that Michael be allowed to wear a bow tie, part of the boys’ student uniform. Robert said OLV Principal Sheila Martinez turned the request down flat. The school would continue to refer to Michael as “Claire,” the McKeons were told.
About a week after the parent-teacher conference, Robert McKeon said, the family met with then Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington (ADW), William Ryan. (Ryan announced he was leaving ADW for South Carolina April 14).
“That [meeting] basically resulted in us saying a prayer,” Robert McKeon said. “It was a prayer that we understand [their position] and not ask to be understood.”
“It was not the meeting with the superintendent I expected,” he added. “Recognizing Michael as Michael allows him to feel accepted and to love himself and want to be himself. That kind of fell on deaf ears. It was very strange. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced.”
A One-Sided Dialogue
The current views on gender theory offered from the Vatican encourage schools to listen at the same time as they discount the validity of life experiences like Michael’s. In June 2019, the Congregation for Catholic Education, the organization that oversees Catholic schools, released “Male and Female He Created Them,” a set of instructions on gender theory in education.
The document, released the same month as Pride celebrations were held around the world, called for love and respect, but discounted the separation of sex and gender, dismissing fluid identities as a choice. “Oscillation between male and female becomes, at the end of the day, only a ‘provocative’ display against so-called ‘traditional frameworks’,” it reads.
McKeon said throughout the rest of the academic year the family tried to maintain a dialogue with the school. However, he said, OLV was clear that they were not going to allow Michael to express himself as male. At re-enrollment time, the school declined to re-enroll Michael for a sixth year, saying that his re-enrollment materials were late. Enrollment for Michael’s younger sister was also declined. McKeon thinks that this was because she was overheard in the school referring to Michael as her brother.
The OLV administration did not respond to a request for comment. Despite multiple attempts, the Hill Rag was unable to reach former superintendent Bill Ryan to comment for this article.
The Archdiocese of Washington Catholic Schools directed the Hill Rag to their “Policies for Catholic Schools,” which state:
“Catholic students shall be given preference over non-Catholic students for initial admission into Archdiocesan schools. In all other ways, Archdiocesan schools shall comply with Archdiocesan nondiscrimination policies and all applicable local, state and federal regulations. Archdiocesan schools shall not discriminate on the basis of race, sex (unless traditionally a single sex school), sexual orientation, national origin or age, in accordance to the law.“
The policies also say that schools “shall respect the uniqueness of each student and recognize their responsibility to consider what is best for the students and the school community as the foundation for all decisions regarding student life.”
“They Just Didn’t Want Anything to Do With Me”
At the parade, Michael dresses to show his pride, in tie-dye rainbow overall shorts, his hair carrying a slight magenta hue. He said that he does not feel his uniqueness was respected by the school. “Being rejected for something that’s caused me so much trouble, and something I’ve had to come to terms with for over –I don’t know, a lot of years –and just finally having the courage to say and then just getting kicked in the face. It wasn’t fun,” he said.
“What really hurt was that they knew that I was not feeling well emotionally, but they still decided to kick me out of the school,” Michael said. “They didn’t listen to arguments against them that were true. They just didn’t want anything to do with me.”
“They were telling me that who I am isn’t who I am, like I was in the wrong, I was faking it. And then they just kicked me to the curb, and that was stressful,” he said.
Michael said that even before last September, he was worried about going to middle school, saying he had not “been the best at social interactions.” Now, he said, those concerns were increased by the stress of searching for a new school and leaving behind all the friends he had made over the previous six years.
In an Accepting Place
Michael stopped attending OLV in person in March, when classes moved online due to the ongoing public health emergency. Since then, said his father, Michael’s emotional health has improved markedly. “He’s here at home, in the neighborhood and he’s in the Boy Scouts and things like that. And wherever he is here outside of that school he’s known as Michael, and he’s happy for it. Whether he’s walking his dog in the dog park, or whatever.”
Both Michael and his sister are registered to begin the new school year at Capitol Hill Day School (CHDS). “They’re going to recognize Michael as Michael, and of course, Molly as Molly,’ said Robert McKeon.
According to the CHDS website, diversity is one of the school’s guide posts, and is considered essential to the school community. “Differences in religion, economic circumstance, racial and cultural heritage, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression create the opportunity for people to learn from each other as they learn with each other,” reads the CHDS statement on their website. “The school is alert to any sense of exclusivity that threatens the appreciation of each of its members’ abilities and perspectives.”
Today, with a family that has supported him every step of the way, a school that will accept him for who he is, Michael can walk down the street with members of his community behind him.
Michael describes his neighbor, Karen Mullhauser, who originally suggested the pride party, as “a really cool person.”
“She was like, okay, we’re not having any pride marches [in DC], so why don’t we just make one here?”
Mullhauser said that she wanted to make sure that Michael had a chance to celebrate Pride in this difficult year. “I did it partly to support my neighbors, who are working on this issue,” she said, “and partly because it’s just a good way to visit with the neighborhood,” she said.
A friend of the neighborhood, Cassi, supplied the temporary tattoos. Neighbors came out, bringing their small children and their pets to walk behind Michael. The Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) representative for the area, Jay Adelstein, spread the word and marched in the parade, waving a large rainbow flag. “All of us in the parade are very proud that Michael is pursuing his identity, and of his family for their support,” he said.
Michael appreciates every one of them. “I was thinking of it more as just a pride for everybody, but it’s very nice that this is happening, that people are supporting me, and it makes me really happy,” Michael said.
“I feel really accepted in my neighborhood,” Michael said. “I couldn’t think of living in a more accepting place.”