Photo by Elizabeth Short

As Pride Month closed, Oak Park’s village government hosted a panel discussion on local transgender issues and experiences on June 28. Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison St., was the venue for a conversation moderated by Darien Marion-Burton, president of the Oak Park and River Forest Chamber of Commerce, who introduced himself as the “youngest, Blackest, and gayest” president the organization has ever had. 

Panelists sat at a table decorated with Pride and transgender flags as audience members filed into the small black box theater. The five panel members represented PFLAG, the Oak Park Public Library and Oak Park and River Forest High School.

Over two hours the panelists discussed their experiences as transgender individuals, parents of transgender children, and allies. “Being transgender is part of being a normal human being,” said one panelist. “It’s part of being who I am.”

OPRF social worker Ginger Bencola and the library’s Rainbow Services librarian Hal Patnott highlighted how children are often much more accepting of transgender individuals than adults. 

Photo by Elizabeth Short

“I often will get questions from young curious little friends who are like, ‘Are you a boy or a girl,’” said Patnott. “They’ll have questions about my voice and they’ll want to know who I am. It’s always out of curiosity, and they handle it much better than the adults. People in Oak Park really want you to know they’re progressive, and if you correct somebody on your pronouns, they get very nervous that they might think they’re a Republican.”

“I really wanted to second that idea that our young people are able to accept and embrace the diversity around us so much better than us adults,” said Bencola. “We can learn so much from them.”

However, support specifically from adults — or lack thereof — has a massive impact on transgender children, said Bencola. “If students are experiencing a lot of support and affirmation (from adults), I see students who have a sense of relief, and even a sense of empowerment. Our students who aren’t receiving that support are the students who have a more challenging experience,” said Bencola.

The panelists shared resources including the library’s Rainbow Services and PFLAG’s group for Parents of Transgender Individuals. They also offered advice on how residents can support the transgender community. One of the most important things, said Bencola and Patnott, is to eliminate gendered language in everyday conversation.

Many see places like Oak Park as a safe haven for the transgender community. Librarian Anne Jordan-Baker, who attended the discussion, said she heard stories about families with transgender children deciding to move to Oak Park from red states. 

“They’re almost refugees,” said Jordan-Baker. “They’re losing the life they built.” In an effort to support these families, Jordan-Baker is working with the local Community Action Team (composed of OPALGA+, Indivisible Chicago, and Unity Temple) to create a guide of resources for these families. 

Jordan-Baker reflected on her own experience parenting a transgender child. “My kid was very little when he came out, like three to four years old,” she said. “My response at the time was ‘you don’t have to be a boy to like boy’ things. It took me a long time to get to the point where (I understood) he’s not just saying this because he wants to do things differently. This is how he feels as a person.”

The panel was an opportunity to hear new perspectives and opinions, said Jordan-Baker. Patnott said he was glad to see “people being willing to learn and grow and be uncomfortable with what they don’t know.”

The discussion reminded Jordan-Baker how important it is to talk to people “who really don’t get it,” she said. “Educating people from where they are is so important.”

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