Transgender Indian American girl in California files lawsuit against school

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From left to right: Priya Shah, Nikki, Nikki’s sister and Jaspret Brar. (Courtesy of the Brar family)

NEW YORK – An 8-year-old Indian American girl from California, Nicole Brar, and her family are filing a lawsuit against her former Orange County private school, Heritage Oak Private Education, for allegedly preventing her from expressing her gender identity.

Brar, who was born male, identifies herself as a female as she was showing signs of being a girl by gravitating toward the color pink, rainbow ponies, walked in her mother’s heels, asked for nail polish on her toes and wrapped herself in her grandmother’s scarf, draping it like a dress, from an early age.

According to the 76-page complaint, when Brar was four, she told her parents that she wanted to be a girl, however they told her that she could be any kind of boy she wanted to be, but just before she turned 7, Brar said, “I want to be called a girl,” and her parents took her to a gender focused therapist.

After that, her parents began letting her wear girls’ clothes and only then did she let her parents photograph her saying that she felt free and that boys’ clothes had “felt like a prison” to her.

It was only then that Brar’s parents decided to send her to Heritage Oak mostly because it advertised itself as a nondiscriminatory community that valued diversity and focused on children’s individual needs and before they even enrolled her, Brar’s parents told the school’s executive director, Phyllis Cygan, what was going on and asked that she be treated as a girl if that’s what she wanted.

But that was not the case.

According to the lawsuit Cygan allegedly did not let Brar wear a girl’s uniform, use the girls’ bathroom or go by female pronouns though allowed her to grow her hair long, which apparently was in violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a California law that outlaws a broad range of discrimination, including by sex or sexual orientation, and that it fraudulently advertised itself as nondiscriminatory and focused on the “whole child.”

By December, Brar’s transition had solidified but in January, the school insisted that she still wear a boy’s uniform adding that she would have access to a staff bathroom, but couldn’t use the one her female classmates were using.

At that point, Cygan also declined their other demands, calling the school a “conservative institution” in which Brar’s transition would “create an imbalance.”

“This is the first [transgender rights] case to use a state anti-discrimination law as one of the grounds for relief. In light of the Trump administration’s inaction on taking a stand against discrimination against trans individuals … this is a terribly important case,” Mark Rosenbaum, Brar’s lawyer, told Los Angeles Times.

Cygan, did not comment directly on the requests. However, Kerry Owens, a vice president at an advertising firm called MGH, forwarded a statement saying that Nobel schools have met the needs of transgender students in the past.

A statement by the school stated, “we believed it was extremely important to respond, not hastily, but with deliberate care, to decide when and how to inform and educate our entire elementary school community of students, staff and parents about the mid-year change of gender identity expression of a young child.”

“Due to the sensitivity of the issue and age of the child, we believed we needed expert guidance regarding timing (such as, preparing children for a change they would see in spring semester of second grade and fall semester of third grade), process and age-appropriate communication,” it continued.

The school had hired an outside consultant and had been communicating with the family to discuss the accommodations, though “unfortunately, these accommodations were rejected and the parents withdrew their child.”

Rosenbaum also rejected the notion that the problems came down to miscommunication or speed of action and told Los Angeles Times that the school was creating “roadblocks and ultimately refused to meet the undisputed needs of a young transgender student in their care.”

Brar was being bullied as well and had told her mother that she wanted to “suicide herself” because “life is really hard.”

“It honors our child’s commitment to being who she is despite adversity,” said Brar’s mother, Priya Shah, in an email before filing the lawsuit.

“It is our small contribution toward ensuring that other transgender and gender expansive children do not go through the same hardship and trauma,” she added.

Rosenbaum said that Brar is using the lawsuit not just to assert her rights but also to work through the feelings of being disrespected and singled out.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the complaint seeks damages for emotional distress and discrimination as well as over $10,000 in school tuition and fees and also asks the school to declare that it violated the state nondiscrimination law and that it advertised fraudulently.

It demands further that Heritage Oak write a policy of nondiscrimination toward transgender students, train staff according to that policy and incorporate lessons about transgender identity into its curriculum.

Brar left Heritage Oak in February while her mother left a teaching job so she could home-school her although Brar will start a new year at an Orange County public school in the fall.

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