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Standing Up for Tocarra

After the death of a transgender student, a teacher leads her students to focus on the remarkable spirit of the young woman they loved.

Photo Credit: Kzenon via Shutterstock


In the fall of 2005, a group of teachers opened the Alliance School of Milwaukee. Many of us on the planning team had witnessed the discrimination and homophobic harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth in traditional schools, and it was our intention to create a place where it would be “OK to be black, white, gay, straight, gothic, Buddhist, Christian, or just plain unique.” What we didn't know was how far outside those doors we would have to go in standing up for our students.

Tocarra was one of my students at the high school where I taught before starting Alliance, and she was one of the reasons I felt so passionate about the mission of the school. A transgender student who was just starting to transition when I first met her, Tocarra was lucky to have great family support, and she was very proud of who she was. But at the large high school, she was being harassed and threatened every time she wore women's clothes to school. She would often come to my room between classes to take a “safety break” before moving on to her next class. According to the administrators, they couldn't stop the students from harassing her. “If she would just stop dressing that way, she wouldn't have these problems,” they said. Tocarra was on the brink of dropping out of school, but when she learned about Alliance, she hung on and transferred to the new school as soon as the paperwork could be turned in. And she played a key role in our final planning. Her voice influenced everything we did.

When the school opened, students came from all over to attend, and most of them didn't know each other before they walked through our doors. Some of the students who enrolled came for the mission, and others came because there were seats available or because Alliance started with the letter A so it was the first school listed in the school selection book. Our first year was an interesting one. There were students from every different background and ability group. There were students from the city and students from the country; black students and white students; poor students and wealthy students; gay students, straight students, and everyone in between. We had to do a ton of work to build connections among the different groups of students.

Tocarra welcomed everyone and wasn't afraid to teach others what it means to be transgender, so she played a big role in bringing an understanding of transgender reality to the Alliance community. She was patient with those who didn't get it, teaching rather than chastising them when their words were hurtful, and she stood up for everyone who needed a defender, not just those students who were most like her.

One day she was checking out my outfit (a long, princess-style coat with fur trimmed hat and cuffs) and she said, “Ms. Owen, when I become a woman, I want to be sexy like you—sexy classy, not sexy slutty.”

Tocarra always knew just what to say to make someone feel beautiful, so it was no surprise that in a very short time she was well loved by the entire Alliance community. She became a mother figure for many of the students and a role model for some of the younger transgender students. She had a flair for fashion and a desire to be not just noticed, but adored, and adored she was.

Then, late one evening that first year, I received a call from one of the students. “Is it true?” she asked through her tears. “Is Tocarra dead?” She had received a text message, but I hadn't heard from anyone, so I told her I would call back as soon as I found out what was happening. I soon learned that it was true. Tocarra had suffered heart problems in the middle of the night and had passed away. She was 18 years old.

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