Transgender pageant contestant resists hate

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Transgender pageant contestant resists hate

Photo Courtesy of Za'Niyah Williams

Photo Courtesy of Za'Niyah Williams

Photo Courtesy of Za'Niyah Williams

Photo Courtesy of Za'Niyah Williams

Jessa Reid Bolling, Assistant News Editor

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A week before Za’Niyah Williams would make her way across the stage in her first beauty pageant, she was told that all of the escorts refused to walk with her.

She was given the option to be escorted by the pageant coordinator or to walk by herself, a stark contrast to the other contestants who would all have escorts.

Determined to finish what she started, the high school senior walked across the stage alone, becoming the first transgender student to compete in the Tuscaloosa County High School Beauty Walk.

I was the first transgender person to do it,” Williams said. “That was really one of the main reasons that I wanted to do it. I wasn’t looking to win or anything. I just wanted to make a difference.”

The difference Williams wants to make is to create a more accepting and inclusive environment in schools for LGBTQ youth, specifically for transgender youth. According to a new study released by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, an estimated 150,000 youth between the ages of 13 to 17 identify as transgender in the United States.

Another study by The Williams Institute of ages 13 to 18 found that gender nonconforming students reported experiencing higher levels of bullying and were more likely to miss school than their gender-conforming classmates because they felt unsafe. Gender nonconforming students were also found to be the most likely to report being victimized with a weapon on school property.

Williams said she knew others may take issue with her competing but she would not be deterred by others’ opinions. She was still determined to enjoy the experience and make it her own. Other than a few minor issues before the pageant, Williams said the event went smoothly.

We had a breakfast meeting before the pageant, and when I walked into the room, I could tell there was a lot of tension,” Williams said. “Just some of them were staring at me weirdly, and it got real quiet. I really enjoyed it though. Overall, it all went well.”

Others heard of Williams’ experience and felt called to action. Shortly after the pageant on Jan. 19, Karen Spector, associate professor for secondary English language arts at The University of Alabama, had a student come to her in tears.

I had a student who was at the beauty walk where Za’Niyah was participating, and she came to my door crying because she saw what she thought was an inequity, given that everyone else had an escort except Za’Niyah,” Spector said.

Now Spector wants to help ensure that city and county teachers will have professional development to help them better understand the needs of LGBTQ students. She has personally seen the need for teachers to have better training in interacting with gender nonconforming students.

“I knew of another incident at another county school where a transgender student had moved from one county school to another and was outed by a teacher, and this teacher referred to the student by the pronoun ‘it,’” Spector said. “So we need to take steps to make sure that all city and county teachers have professional development so that they know how to work with these issues and just make sure that people have a chance to have an equal education with equal opportunities to participate.”

Spector reached out to the superintendent of the Tuscaloosa County School System, Walter Davie, about what can be done to address issues that LGBTQ students face in school.

“I am planning to meet with Dr. Karen Spector to discuss issues that may relate to LGBTQ+ students and/or faculty/staff,” Davie said in an email. “Dr. Spector reached out to me, and I welcome the opportunity to have a greater understanding of any issue that affects our students, faculty/staff and families.”

As a senior, Williams is quickly approaching graduation. Though she hasn’t decided on what university she will attend, she has her eyes set on big goals and hopes to become a lawyer, specifically “a very successful and wealthy lawyer.”

Shelly Melchior, Williams’ former English teacher and a doctoral student at the University in the College of Education, has been one of Williams’ biggest supporters and advocates at the high school as she has encountered various obstacles due to her gender during her time at the high school.

After the pageant, she rushed to congratulate Williams on her performance, but Williams’ family was already taking pictures with her and showering her with praise. In that moment, the memories of past obstacles didn’t matter.

“It was beautiful,” Melchior said. “Like I had to wait 10 minutes for them to get all of their kissing and hugging done before I could do my own hugging on her. Seeing her mom, dad and sisters all there, being all over her on that night was just such a beautiful picture.”