Yosemite High science teacher changing gender to 'authentic self'

The Fresno BeeMarch 20, 2014 

Gary Sconce (left) is now Karen Adell Scot (right).

SPECIAL TO THE BEE

After spring break, 24-year Yosemite High School science and multimedia teacher Gary Sconce will return to teach as her true self, she says: Karen Adell Scot.

The 56-year-old husband, father and award-winning teacher came out to family in April that since early childhood, she's felt like a female trapped in a male body. Since then, Sconce has been undergoing hormone replacement therapy and transitioning into Scot.

It's been a scary and emotionally painful transformation, but one she says was necessary. For more than half a century, Scot said, her condition -- gender dysphoria -- has made her feel like she was suffocating beneath a massive wave, struggling, but never prevailing, to reach the surface for a sweet breath of fresh air.

"It's like getting out of dark solitary confinement in prison where you never saw the light," said Scot of embracing her female identity. "You can't believe that you actually are free ... People say it's like a mental illness but it's not ... It's being your authentic self after being a fake you."

The gender change was first reported by the Sierra Star in Oakhurst. In a letter dated March 19, Yosemite Unified School District Superintendent James Sargent wrote to all parents of about 650 students attending Yosemite High to alert them that effective April 22, Sconce will be known as Ms. Karen Adell Scot.

Sargent quoted from California Education Code 220, which states that no person shall be subjected to discrimination, including regarding their gender, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. Sargent said Scot's transition may raise questions, and school counselors and administrators are available.

The gender change has caused many reactions. In a letter to the editor printed in the Sierra Star, a weekly paper owned by McClatchy Co., which also owns The Bee, community member Kathi Bales was strongly opposed: "I see this as an assault on the minds and morals of our children. It blurs the lines of what is right and wrong."

Scot said that kind of intolerance is what causes many transgendered people to commit suicide, or become victims of violence or murder. Scot said she won't be "pushing any social agenda" with students and will continue to "run a conservative and disciplined class."

"Being transgender is not a choice," Scot wrote in a letter to Yosemite High employees earlier this week. "Consider: I have lost my marriage of 35 years to a magnificent, brilliant woman, am going to lose my house, and am spending (money) on serious and painful physical changes -- including both medical and psychological services.

"I have been shunned by those who used to be my friends, have been shunned by family, have had people try to cast demons out of me, have left my church of nearly 30 years, and have been scorned and laughed at by those who had for decades said they were my friends. Who would choose that?"

Scot said a Dutch medical study found transgender female brains and female brains are identical in structure, and different from gay or straight male brains. She feels her body developed as a man, but her brain remained female.

"I knew I was a girl from my first self-aware thoughts," she said, "and I tried desperately each morning to wake up each morning as a female small child and it never worked."

She chose the name "Karen Adell" because that's what her mother would have named her if she was born with a female body. The last name was chosen to make it easier for people, she said, because most mistake "Sconce" for "Scot."

Hormone therapy has accelerated major changes in her body over the past 90 days. For one thing, she feels a calm that has replaced a kind of hyperactivity she called "hot sauce" in her brain.

For years, Scot said she participated in many traditionally masculine activities to prove to herself that she wasn't a female -- to no avail.

She was once a sheriff deputy, helped found Yosemite High's Cadet Corps (a student military drill unit), played football in college and is a martial artist.

As a 30-year teacher, she's won many awards, including California Distinguished Educator, Eastman Kodak Award for Excellence in Teaching, and has been teacher of the month many times. She's coached science fair state champions and an Odyssey of the Mind team that took fifth place in a worldwide competition, she said. Scot has also written nine feature films and produced two feature films that were shown in theaters.

Yosemite High School Principal Randy Seals held a staff meeting Monday to address Scot's gender transition. Seals stressed the importance of not harassing or shunning Scot. "We have to make sure all employees' rights are protected," Seals said.

Stephanie Samuels, a Yosemite High counselor and coordinator of the International Baccalaureate program, said "everyone has the right to be who they are and sometimes that can be difficult to understand, but we always want to show respect."

"I hope that our community can embrace these 21st century issues -- it's here," Samuels said. "This isn't new territory, but it is in our community, so I just hope the community will be able to navigate these issues."

Ilona Turner, legal director at Transgender Law Center in Oakland, said she's heard of many cases like Scot's: "This is definitely not a first."

With transgender people making up 0.3% of the total population, Turner said Scot is setting an example by representing the diversity that exists in California.

"When transgender people are able to be themselves at work, they're able to do their jobs more effectively," Turner said. "It can be a very serious burden to have to hide who you are at work every single day and that evidently takes a toll on your effectiveness."

Coming out in the open also allows transgender students to feel more welcome, she added. Regarding reactions from some parents, who said they may switch their children to other classes or schools due to Scot's gender change, Turner responded: "Prejudice is not a reason to discriminate."

Scot's gender change have been difficult for her, but she said she's looking at her painful transformation like the idea of giving birth.

"You're getting all squeezed and compressed and it hurts badly, but you know there's light at the end of the tunnel," Scot said. "There has to be."

Bee reporter Diana Aguilera contributed to this report. George can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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