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Transgender student in Southeast Alaska sets her own path

  • Author: Karen Garcia, Chilkat Valley News
  • Updated: June 1, 2016
  • Published June 1, 2016

HAINES — Nattaphon "Ice" Wangyot dressed like a girl long before she moved to Haines.

But when her mother, Tukta Panyawong, brought her from Thailand in August 2014, Ice wasn't sure how a rural Alaska town of roughly 2,500 would react to her identification as transgender. Born male, she reverted to dressing like a boy.

"I should make myself like everybody (else)," Ice remembers thinking at the time. After one or two months, she couldn't take it anymore. "I would like to show up, and I don't care what people are going to say, because I want to be myself."

Ice is 18 now and graduated from Haines High School this month. She's tall and slim, with caramel-colored skin, high cheekbones and sleek, shoulder-length black hair.

Nattaphon “Ice” Wangyot runs for the Haines High School team in Sitka. (James Poulson / Sitka Sentinel)

Ice spoke little English when she moved to Haines but has been picking it up.

When she was a first-grader in Bangkok, Ice started to express an interest in makeup, dancing and dresses. Ice knew she wanted to be a girl, but as she grew older, she suppressed her femininity to appease her traditional grandmother.

Tukta found out her daughter was transgender in a very modern way: through Facebook. When Ice was 10, she posted a photo of herself in girls shorts, striking a very feminine pose with a friend. "I forgot I was friends with my mom on Facebook," she said.

It took Tukta a while to wrap her head around what she saw in the photo. Ice's grandmother had also gotten wind of the image and phoned Tukta.

"My mother called me and said, 'What are you going to do with that?'" Tukta said. "She wants Ice to be a boy. In her mind, he (is) a boy. You cannot be a girl. And this is hard for me, for Ice, for everybody."

But Tukta realized it wasn't her choice to tell Ice what she could or could not be. "You are a mom. You give birth to a boy, and you expect to have a boy. But for me, I think the world (has to be) open. I couldn't do anything. I can raise her only (in) body, not her heart, her mind."

"What you have to do is be a good person, do good grades, make me proud," Tukta told her daughter.

Tukta grew up in Thailand and gave birth to Ice when she was 19. She ran away from home due to a difficult relationship with her mother, and divorced Ice's father a year later. As a single mother, she worked long hours in restaurants to provide for her family and consequently missed parts of Ice's childhood.

Tukta moved from Thailand to Haines when she was 28. Ice stayed behind and lived with her grandmother while her mother worked to earn enough money to show the government she could support bringing her daughter over.

An ocean apart, Ice would call her mother crying, which Tukta said "made her heart drop."

Tukta earned the money she needed and brought Ice to Haines late in the summer of 2014. Though Ice had started consistently dressing as a girl when she was 12, she switched back to boys clothes at school for a couple months before deciding to test the waters with a black skirt, red sweater and boots.

"All the people kept looking at me," Ice said. "(I thought) 'Am I doing something wrong?' I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm just dressing (like) a girl."

Students didn't ask her about the change in appearance and continued to be friendly and respectful, Ice said. The same went for the teachers.

"I feel like they support me and help me with everything," she said.

Para-educator Suzanne Newton, who has traveled with Ice over the past two years for school activities, said she would describe Ice as gentle, confident and open-minded.

"I am kind of in awe of her," Newton said. "We've had a lot of long conversations and I look at her and think, 'What an amazing young woman.'"

Newton, who coached cheerleading last year, said Ice would often spend time with her squad when they traveled throughout Southeast. (Ice played a baritone horn in the pep band.)

"She liked to come over and sit and talk to the cheerleaders, so she kind of hung with us and watched movies. She was just really a lot of fun," Newton said.

Ice is also very straightforward, Newton noted. "When people question her, she answers. She doesn't hide. Whether negative or positive things come at her, she accepts both and just goes, 'OK.'"

Last fall, Ice decided to join the high school volleyball team. In Thailand, she played on the girls team. She nervously approached school secretary Lori Giddings to ask if that would be possible in Haines too.

"I asked Lori, 'Can I play volleyball with them?' And then I got afraid about she's going to say no. But (she said), 'Yeah, Ice, you can play volleyball, but you should talk to the coach.'"

About a year ago, the Alaska School Activities Association began discussing how transgender students would be accommodated in interscholastic athletics.

"They kind of refused to take a firm stand, and what they have determined is basically that each individual school district will have to make a decision about transgender (students)," said school superintendent Rich Carlson.

The only caveat the ASAA had was that a student could not change gender identification during their high school career.

In October, Ice and Tukta sat down with principal Rene Martin and developed guidelines and policy regarding use of bathrooms, showers and other travel logistics.

"As we were developing the policy, we met with all the staff and basically (said), 'You may or may not agree with this, but we're going to do this professionally, with dignity and with care.' And I think the staff has really done that," Carlson said.

According to the school's formal policy, district programs and activities must be free from discrimination with respect to gender identity. "For the purposes of gender identification for interscholastic activities, the district will consider the gender identity based on the student's consistent declaration of gender identity, their actions, attitude, dress and mannerisms," the policy reads.

"Everybody doesn't understand, and that's OK," said principal Martin. "But you still have to show respect, and we work together and we talk about things and we try to make it respectful for everybody."

Ice said she uses a single-occupancy bathroom at the school and arranges for shower time when the other stalls aren't in use, while a coach makes sure nobody will interrupt.

Sophomore Gabi Miller played volleyball with Ice this year.

"We would hang out and talk, and I heard about her story and stuff like that. It's pretty inspiring to hear because not a lot of people go through what she has gone through, what she is going through," Miller said.

When asked if it makes a difference to her knowing Ice is transgender, Miller replied, "Not at all."

"Even if she wasn't (transgender), it's not a big deal to me. I care about her no matter what," Miller said. "I've seen a couple people that aren't as accepting, but for the most part people do accept her and they do care about her."

After volleyball season, Ice joined the basketball team and is now participating in track, where she is drawing attention because of her success. She competes in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, and recently ranked seventh and fourth statewide, respectively.

Superintendent Carlson said he has received some complaints about Ice competing on the girls track team. Carlson expects the issue will draw additional scrutiny because of the heightened level of competition at regional and state competitions in Juneau and Anchorage.

"There's no question that this is going to come out in the next week or two simply because (Ice) is doing really well in track. And we're going to support that," Carlson said.

Ice said she personally hasn't heard from anyone objecting to her participation on the girls teams, including track.

"I have a lot of friends from Sitka too, so they have fun with me and they support me. I have friends everywhere because we met in volleyball and basketball," she said.

Ice said she thinks she is getting more attention for being transgender on the track team because it's an individual sport, unlike volleyball and basketball. "They think transgender, like me, is a boy, and (when) the boy plays with the girl, who's going to win?"

But Ice said she doesn't have an advantage over the other girls who are competing. She takes female hormones and additional drugs to suppress her body's testosterone.

"The people who are going to think, 'It's not fair to play with the boys' — well, you don't know that. It's not easy," she said. "It's not like I wake up and 'OK, I'm a girl right now.'"

Track coach Keri Ewing said Ice has been "great to work with." She qualified for the state track and field meet scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Anchorage.

Ice said she wants to support other Alaska transgender students and encourage them to participate in activities.

Tukta said she hopes her daughter – by publicly speaking about her experience – will embolden transgender students and set an example of acceptance for other Alaska schools to follow.

"You don't have to be afraid," Tukta said. "If you are transgender, you should be yourself. There's nothing wrong. You're still human. You're a good person."

This story was originally published in the Chilkat Valley News and is reprinted here with permission. 

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