Rainbow group forms to help families in Lawrence school district navigate LGBTQ issues

photo by: Mike Yoder

Pictured walking downtown recently, from left, are Asher Bonee, 7; her mother, Joanna Bonee; Amanda Atkins, school counselor at Sunset Hill Elementary; Ken Enyart, 9; and his father, Matt Enyart. They are part of the group Rainbow Kids & Families, which is arranging an event for LGBTQ families in the Lawrence school district.

As a kid in Lawrence, Isidore Weis didn’t know anyone like himself.

“I didn’t personally know anyone who was gay or transgender,” Weis, now in college, says.

He did, of course — statistically, we all do. What he means is he didn’t know anyone who was out. He didn’t know anyone well enough to talk to and share experiences with.

It wasn’t until he was almost in high school, thanks largely to social media, that he became familiar with the term “transgender” and figured out that that’s what he had been all along.

Weis ended up coming out as himself his freshman year at Free State High School. He says his family and inner circle were generally supportive, but his path could have been much smoother if he had had a network and mentors much earlier — if he had known other kids like himself and if his family had known other such families.

That’s why Weis, who graduated from Free State in 2017 and now attends Reed College in Portland, Ore., was happy to learn of a new group in Lawrence called Rainbow Kids & Families.

Rainbow Kids & Families mixer

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: New York Elementary, 936 New York St.

What: A meet and greet for “elementary LGBTQIA + kids and families,” featuring snacks and interactive games.

The group, founded by Matt Enyart and Joanna Bonee, with help from community educators Julie Heatwole and Amanda Atkins, aims to help students like Weis and his family feel welcome and supported in the Lawrence public school system.

Enyart says the group wants to create “safe spaces where kids can be themselves and families can share resources and information.”

Enyart and Bonee are both parents of transgender kids. Enyart’s son Ken is a third grader at Sunflower Elementary, and Bonee’s daughter Asher is a second grader at New York Elementary. Ken and Asher are student co-chairs of Rainbow Kids & Families.

Both kids realized even before starting grade school that they were transgender, even though they lacked the vocabulary to describe it.

In Asher’s case, “it was obvious from the get-go,” Bonee says. Enyart says the same of Ken.

Waiting until middle or high school to fully incorporate that reality into their lives would be “a lot of time lost,” Bonee says.

A trendy thing to say to LGBTQ kids in recent years has been “it gets better,” alluding to a future of acceptance. The premise behind Rainbow Kids & Families seems to be “let’s do better now.”

For Bonee and Enyart, being LGBTQ is not about sex or genitalia or whom you will date. It’s not even fundamentally about clothes or bathrooms.

“It’s about who you are,” Bonee says, and making kids feel valued for who they are is critical to their success and happiness.

Beyond the kids, though, the group is meant as a resource and gathering place for whole families.

“This is new to everybody,” Enyart says, referring to different experiences people may go through: a parent discovering a child is gay or transgender or a kindergartner explaining to her classmates that she has two moms, or anything else outside the “norm” — where a community of similar people might prove invaluable.

It’s helpful to have resources online, as Weis did when he was figuring out his gender identity as a teen, but there’s no substitute, he says, for knowing real life people in similar situations.

“It’s a great initiative,” he says of Rainbow Kids & Families, “because it’s always good for LGBTQ folks to be exposed to similar people early in life.”

Shane Heiman, Asher’s second grade teacher at New York Elementary, sees the formation of the Rainbow Kids & Families group as capitalizing on the strides the Lawrence school district has made with LGBTQ issues.

He says — and Bonee and Enyart agree — that the district has been progressive in recent years. For example, it offers Culturally Responsive Teaching instruction for educators, and some school counselors have helped parents with individualized gender identity plans for students, among other initiatives.

“Our superintendent (Anthony Lewis) has made it pretty clear that LGBTQ issues are important,” Heiman says.

But a lot of education starts at home and with individual experiences, Heiman notes.

Asher is the first transgender student he has taught, at least that he’s aware of, and the experience has made him approach his job differently.

For example, “Anything that has to do with gender, I just pretty much stopped,” he says. That includes practices like having the students break up into lines of boys and girls to go to the bathroom. Or having contests in class where there’s a girls team and a boys team.

The gender divisions, he says, serve no purpose, even when there’s not a transgender student in the class, and are positively damaging when there is one.

Another thing Heiman has learned from having Asher in class is that “my kids are more progressive than a lot of adults.”

If one of the second graders asks a question like “Why is Asher dressing up as a girl?” the other students will jump in: “Asher identifies as a girl,” they’ll say matter-of-factly and protectively.

This would not have been the case a few years ago, Heiman says, when schools — and people in general — were less sensitive to identity issues.

“I think (the Rainbow group) is going to go over well,” he says.

Bonee hopes so, although she worries that some parents seem “to have a lot of fear about this group being formed.”

“There is fear that if this sort of thing is ‘encouraged’ or ‘supported,’ then children everywhere could just wake up and decide they want to be the opposite gender,” she says. “My response to this is to have these adults ask themselves the same question: Are they likely to wake up one day and suddenly ‘want’ to be the opposite gender? My guess would be no. I do not live my life as a female because I ‘want’ to be female. I live my life as a female because I am a female. I would challenge people to see that it is the same way for these kids.”

The Rainbow Kids & Families’ first mixer is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at New York Elementary, 936 New York St. The event, billed as a meet and greet for “elementary LGBTQIA + kids and families,” will feature snacks and interactive games.

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