Ella Briggs, now 11, will never forget the day she got sent to the “naughty chair” in kindergarten for putting pants on her gingerbread person.
Her teacher had told the girls to put a skirt on their construction paper cutout, while boys could go with pants. But Ella, who had spent some time dressing and thinking of herself as a boy, wasn’t having it.
“I’m like, ‘heck to the no, I want to put a bow tie and pants on my gingerbread man,’” Ella recalled recently.
When she did just that, her teacher threw out her gingerbread person and sent her to the “naughty chair,” which is where her mom found her when she came in to volunteer that day.
The road hasn’t always been easy for Ella Briggs, the state’s first openly gay “Kid Governor.”
The exuberant, poised fifth grader was sworn in on Jan. 18, at a ceremony at the Old State House. There were plenty of dignitaries on hand that day to praise her, including the newly-elected, grown-up Governor Ned Lamont and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, along with dozens of Ella’s peers.
Not only was Ella openly gay, she ran on a platform supporting LGBTQ rights, which would have been unimaginable for an elementary-aged child not that long ago.
And while there was much talk of Ella’s election being a symbol of the nation’s growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community, it’s also clear from Ella’s own experience that there’s a long distance to go, perhaps especially for young children.
Although Ella was elected by 6,400 fifth graders from 87 schools across the state and feels accepted at her current school, the Ana Grace Academy of the Arts Elementary Magnet School in Avon, there have been more than a few low points in her journey as an openly gay child. She was targeted for harassment at her old school, and the parents of a few of her current classmates refused to allow their children to attend her inauguration.
But Ella prefers to focus on the bright side.
“I’m just so happy that most kids in my class came,” Ella said shortly after the ceremony. “There were some kids who pulled out but you can’t do anything about that. Haters going to hate. It’s just so amazing being in a room full of people who accept me. It feels really good.”
At her former elementary school in East Hampton, where her family still lives, she said some of the kids called her a “dyke” and other hurtful names when they found out that she identified herself as a lesbian. She remembers days in third and fourth grade when kids moved their desks away from her and didn’t want to be friends with her.
“I think they were just scared of me,” Ella said. “They were afraid to touch me.”
She even had children tell her that their parents said she would go to hell.
For Ella, the resistance of some people to granting respect to the LGBTQ community was part of what motivated her campaign, along with her desire to help other kids who might not be as comfortable with their identities.
“A lot of kids don’t feel comfortable with who they are and that makes me really sad,” she said in a recent interview, “because I just want everyone to be happy and be themselves. I like being myself. I wouldn’t change one thing about me and I wouldn’t change one about anyone else in the whole world.”
‘It’s harder and it shouldn’t be’
While Ella is comfortable telling the world that she is a lesbian and announced plans at the inauguration to become “the first lesbian president,” her openness made life difficult for her when she attended East Hampton public schools.
“I just told some kids and then kaplouie,” Ella said, recalling how her third grade classmates pushed their desks away from her.
Another time, when she mentioned to a substitute teacher that she was a lesbian, Ella said the teacher immediately shut her down saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, we are not talking about that right now. That is not school appropriate. Someone else?”
“It really hurt my feelings,” Ella said. “I cried in the bathroom and I don’t want kids to feel like that because like I already didn’t feel like I fit in at that school.”
Her big sister Riley, 13, said she and their parents, Chris Briggs and Kendra Dickinson, have “to be extra supportive” of Ella “because other people aren’t always.”
“I’m not saying I wish it to be any other way. I don’t want her to change any other way,” Riley said. “She’s perfect the way she is, but it is harder, you know. It’s harder and it shouldn’t be harder.”
Ella’s mother said the day she found Ella in the “naughty chair,” she initially wasn’t too concerned.
“I’m a public school teacher,” said Dickinson, so she wasn’t “totally blindsided” to learn her kindergartner had made a mistake.
But when she found out why Ella was being punished, “it was heartbreaking,” Dickinson said, and disturbing enough that, coupled with some previous experiences, she and her husband withdrew Ella from the school. They homeschooled both children for a while and then decided to try the local school system again. The second experience was not much better, they said, so they transferred Ella to the Avon magnet school. (Riley goes to the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts Magnet Middle School where both her parents teach.)
East Hampton superintendent Paul Smith expressed concern this week when told of Ella’s experiences in the local schools.
“I’m sorry if these are her experiences. I can’t give you information on how they were handled internally. What I can say is that as superintendent now, if something like that came to my attention, we would treat it with severe discipline for the faculty,” Smith said. “And, I would like to think that with our emphasis on kindness and caring in schools that would not happen.”
Smith said the system is concerned about school climate and hopes to soon provide training on LGBTQ issues to elementary school teachers.
“I would welcome a sit-down with our Kid Governor to listen to her and get any advice she has,” Smith said, “on how to make our schools, and any school in Connecticut, a safer place for students…”
Ella would likely have lots of suggestions. As Kid Governor, she has pledged to help kids set up Gay Straight Alliances in their schools, raise awareness about the need for foster homes for LGBTQ youth who are kicked out of their homes, and train teachers to help them better understand how to work with LGBTQ students.
Her experience has been very different at Ana Grace, where she enrolled in September as a fifth grader. About two months into the school year, she decided to tell her classmates about herself.
“Every day we have a morning meeting and we say our goals and I’m like, ‘My goal for the day is to come out to my class. So I’m gay,’ and then everyone started clapping.”
Patricia Phelan, principal of Ana Grace, said the school has had experience with transgender students and that students have been very accepting, adding, “We love everybody here for who they are and where they are coming from and that’s really all there is to it.”
Phelan said the school is “walking the line,” supporting Ellas’s platform “one hundred percent,” while “knowing that Ella is a little girl. She’s a fifth grader, not a full grown woman, speaking her truth from where she is right now.”
“Love is love,” was one of her main campaign messages
Some see Ella’s election as kid governor by her peers as a milestone, illustrating just how far the acceptance of LGBTQ identities has come, even among very young children.
And they see Ella’s experience as reflective of the growing number of children who are coming forward, some, as young as pre-schoolers, to indicate in some way to their parents and peers that they are gay or transgender. Experts say there are no good numbers on how many of the country’s youngest children are gay or transgender, but a 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report says that 14.6 percent of high school students are gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure.
When she heard about Ella’s election, May Tuscano, a licensed marriage and family therapist who does trainings in schools for staff and teachers on LGBTQ issues, said she thought: “This is it. This is the world we’ve been fighting for all these years. What an incredible marker of progress.”
Tuscano and other experts say they don’t believe the numbers of children who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender or queer is any larger than it was years ago, but just that identifying this way has been de-stigmatized. “Now kids can verbalize what’s there,” said Tuscano, and parents are more likely to listen.
In the past, she said, if a young girl asked, ‘”Can I marry a woman?’ All the adults in the room had a fit.”
The child would get the message, Tuscano said, and conclude, “I guess I shouldn’t do that.”
But as very young children have come forward with a variety of gender expressions, schools have found themselves faced with some thorny issues.
“It’s evolved. It was just a high school thing 20 years ago,” said Tim Sullivan, superintendent of the CREC magnet schools, including Ana Grace. “Then high school and middle schools. Now we are ready to acknowledge that it needs to be addressed in elementary schools. There are students who identify themselves as LGBTQ in elementary schools and we need to make sure they have safe spaces where they can go and talk about what it is like to be that.”
Ella has known since she was three or four that she wasn’t drawn to boys.
“I don’t want to marry a daddy, but I want a baby. How do I do that?” she would ask her mother. She later insisted on cutting her hair short like a boy’s and wanted to wear boy clothes when she was seven.
“Yeah, I identified as a male for a long time, I remember,” Ella said. “I was kind of feeling like, OK, so I like girls… I didn’t like think to myself ‘or maybe I’m just like gay or lesbian or whatever.’ I’m like ‘nope, I’m a boy.’ Can’t like girls if you’re a girl.”
But when she was about eight, Ella said she began to figure out that she liked being a female. “It’s a lot more fun,” she said.
On a family trip abroad, Ella she saw a billboard that proved revelatory. It showed two women — two moms — welcoming their baby home from the hospital. “I looked at it like for an hour,” Ella said. “And then I said to my mom, ‘Mommy, I think that I want to do that when I grow up.’
It’s the law in Connecticut
The Connecticut law that says schools cannot discriminate against LGBTQ students was strengthened in 2017 when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed an executive order ensuring students’ right to use the bathroom or locker room of their identity.
That move came after President Donald Trump’s order rescinding federal protections allowing transgender students to use a public bathroom associated with their gender identity.
At the time, Malloy said the state “remains committed to ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality education in a safe, supportive and welcoming environment.”
However, as clear as the law may be, Tuscano said, school officials are sometimes unsure how to respond when a parent shows up and says they are uncomfortable with a transgender girl using the same bathroom at their daughter.
“Most often, I provide a pretty easy framework,” Tuscano said. “I put it in the context of: You should treat any instances of homophobia, misgendering of students just like racism, classism. If a parent said no child of mine will share a bathroom with a disabled child or a black person, the school would say that’s your problem.”
Tuscano said that when she describes a school’s obligation in this way “the worry just melts away,” because the school’s role becomes clear.
Sullivan said that at CREC there is no question that under the law LGBTQ children “are a protected class” with the “same rights based on their sexual orientation and gender identify as kids have based on their race, ethnicity or religion.”
“What we have to figure out is to what degree are we going to promote equity and diversity … I think we are preparing at CREC to kind of push the envelope to be more proactive and go further than other districts. We are in the middle of the conversations, but my general sense is that CREC is ready and willing to be more bold in our protections and our advocacy for protections.”
Institutions are aware that they have an obligation to teach people about “micro-aggressions and institutional bias” when it comes to race and ethnicity, Sullivan said.
“Should we be evaluating with the same level of sensitivity issues of LGBTQ youth as we are race and ethnicity? I think the answer is yes,” Sullivan said.
For example, Sullivan said, CREC has recently adopted a new statement of inclusion that mentions gender identity and sexual orientation as well as race and ethnicity. And, books have been ordered for LGBTQ youth and their families so that students have a chance to read a book about a family with two mothers or two fathers — just as the school libraries contain books about black, brown and Asian youth.
“That doesn’t happen by accident,” he said. “That happens deliberately.”
Editor’s Note: This story and video were a collaboration between The Connecticut Mirror and Connecticut Public Radio.