Howard family pushes for transgender acceptance

When a photo of a guy dressed in women's clothing suddenly flashed on the screen near the end of an intense slide show on teenage drunken driving, Will Gullucci felt humiliated.

Gullucci, a Marriotts Ridge High School senior who had "come out" as a transgender person just two years ago and is leading her life as a girl, listened as her fellow seniors laughed loudly. After all the serious shots of drunken teens and car accidents, the larger-than-life photo seemed gratuitous to Gullucci.

"I said, 'Someone better get that photo off the screen, like now,'" Gullucci recalled. She thought the image was inserted for comic relief.

She approached the county police officer who'd given the presentation to tell him what she thought of it, Gullucci said, but soon realized she "may as well have been talking to a brick wall."

Gullucci's mother, Catherine Hyde, said she was disturbed by the description of the presentation, so she contacted the Police Department to complain.

Hyde said it was difficult to understand her child's early attraction to Barbie dolls and tutus and then to girls' clothing and makeup in recent years. She acknowledges that the family struggled with the child's identity for more than a decade. Hyde realizes that some people in the community are now having similar problems understanding transgender people, and she wants to help educate them.

Hyde's initial call to county police set in motion a series of conversations that eventually led to the department's decision to incorporate transgender issues into training for the entire police force.

And since she has become an active volunteer with the Columbia-Howard County chapter of the national support group for Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Hyde has also been working with the county school system to make sure staff members are prepared to protect transgender students from bullying.

"I had a transgender person living in my home for 15 years and didn't recognize it, and so I understood their ignorance," she said of her conversation with police. "And they have been amazingly responsive."

Gullucci, who is 17 and hasn't changed her first name, said she's comfortable in her own skin now that she's living as a transgender person.

Transgender is a term applied to males or females whose identity conflicts with their physical gender, Hyde said, but it is not connected to sexual orientation. Little statistical data exists on the number of transgender people, according to the website of the Human Rights Commission.

"I'm called all kinds of typical names, but I just focus on what I think of me and what my friends think of me," Gullucci said. "The rest is like water; it rolls off my back. I'm going to live my life and have fun."

Describing her fashion sense as a mixture of "'80s and current club scene," Gullucci said she now performs monthly as a drag queen named "Whitney Gucci Goo" at a Washington restaurant. She lip-synchs and dances to music by Ke$ha and Lady Gaga in over-the-top makeup and glittery costumes.

But long before these outward transformations were allowed to take place, she said, she had "fought my parents every step of the way." She still experiences depression and anxiety.

"Everything changed when my mother started being more open with me, and then I could be more open with her," Gullucci said.

Their household has been "quieter, happier and more productive" than it has in many years now that Gullucci is at peace, Hyde said. There were dark times before reaching this point together, she stressed.

"We put Will through torture because we didn't know any better — and neither did the psychologist who told us to keep pushing boy's toys," Hyde said.

Hyde decided shortly after Gullucci began living openly as a girl to become the local transgender network coordinator for PFLAG. Eight other parents of transgender children ranging in age from 3 to 26 are members of the organization, she said. But many transgender adults live their lives in secret, afraid of becoming targets of hate crimes or discrimination, she said.

At this Tuesday's meeting, PFLAG will create a video containing comments and stories from local residents about their special challenges in the community; the video will be delivered to county police for possible use in sensitivity training.

More than 440 full-time police officers will learn about transgender individuals during in-service sessions that will take place daily throughout most of March until everyone has taken part, said Sherry Llewellyn, a Howard police representative.

Hyde said, "I told the Police Department, 'I don't want to fight you or be a thorn in your side. I just want to make the world a safer place for people like my daughter.'"

Llewellyn said that adding transgender education — which is being handled in a two-hour PowerPoint presentation — is an example of the department's emphasis on diversity training, which already covers gay and lesbian issues.

"We're interested in any tool that helps further learning," she said. Officer Karen Reyes and Mary Campbell, compliance officer for the county's Office of Human Rights, are jointly leading the sessions. Llewellyn also noted that the objectionable photo has been removed from the drunken-driving presentation.

As part of the Howard school system's professional development day on Friday, Gullucci is working with her mother to give a workshop on "Protecting Transgender and Gender-Variant Children from Bullying."

The session will be offered twice, once for school counselors and other student services personnel, and then again for health and physical-education teachers.

Patti Caplan, a schools spokeswoman, said, "There's already a lot of bullying and insensitivity toward gays and lesbians in our schools, and we're trying to give educators the tools to deal with it."

The workshop, which will be attended by several hundred employees, is "all about making people more comfortable about living with our differences," Caplan said.

Hyde couldn't agree more.

"We need everybody on board, since these issues frighten people, and when they're scared they behave badly," Hyde said, adding that understanding is especially important right now since the transgender issue "seems to be popping."

Just last weekend, she said, she met separately with two sets of Howard County parents whose young children — one 6 years old, the other 3 — have expressed the feeling that they're in the wrong bodies.

Gullucci, who has made a lot of friends in high school, is looking forward to graduation, where she'll don a white cap and gown like the other girls. She also wore a drape, not a tuxedo, for her graduation portrait and plans to major in psychology at Towson University while continuing to perform in drag.

"Will's a girl," Hyde said. "All we ask is that she's treated like one."

A previous version of this story contained an incorrect statistic about the incidence of police-initiated violence against transgender people.

jholzberg76@msn.com

If you go

PFLAG videotaping of testimony will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Owen Brown Interfaith Center, 7246 Cradlerock Way, Columbia. The general meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. A showing of a 40-minute documentary film, "Bullied," which is narrated by Jane Lynch of "Glee" fame and depicts a gay teen's story, will be followed by a panel discussion on bullying with Howard County public school administrators, counselors and specialists. Information: 443-280-9047 or http://www.pflagmd.org.

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