NORTH BERWICK, Maine (NEWS CENTER) - A transgender boy from Lebanon is settling into his new life in public school - after he says he was asked to leave his Christian high school because of his gender identity.
“It felt brutal to me,” said Stiles Zuschlag. “I can't believe I grew up under you. I looked up to you and now you're pushing me away like a problem. Like I'm a disease.”
That's how he felt when he says he was asked to leave Tri City Christian Academy in Somersworth, NH. NEWS CENTER reached out to TCCA for a comment or clarification on the matter on both Monday and Tuesday mornings, but as of Tuesday afternoon had still not received any response.
Even though he felt uncomfortable from his experiences with administrators throughout his transition, he didn’t want to leave. “I've been there since kindergarten,” he said. “That's my home. That's my family. I didn't want to be detached from all that. I didn't want to leave my family behind. I love them so much. I knew the education so well. “
Zuschlag had come out as transgender in 2015, and was transitioning from Alija the girl to Stiles the boy.
Before his junior year, he says he was called into a meeting, and was asked by administrators to stay quiet about his transition.
He cooperated - using the girls' bathroom, staying quiet online, and even playing on girls' sports teams. He says he felt like he was telling school administrators, “I want to be here, even if you don't love me. I want to be here and going to try my best.”
Stiles began taking testosterone - and the transition became more obvious.
In a meeting just before senior year, the aspiring valedictorian says he was given an ultimatum. “I could repent and confess my sins and denounce that I was male, stop testosterone and see Christian counseling,” he said. “Or the other one is I could do homeschooling under the umbrella of the school, but I could not be valedictorian.”
At the time, Zuschlag says he had the highest GPA of his class, and had every intention of graduating as the class valedictorian.
None of the options presented to him felt right for Stiles, who had already been through a long journey of self discovery. “[As a kid,] I had a feeling that I was out of the ordinary,” he said. “That I didn't know who I was…I didn't know how to do and be a female. That was really really hard for me.”
It all changed when a friend told Stiles to look up the word "transgender,” which according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary is defined in part as, “being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.”
Zuschlag says this was his reaction when he finally understood the word: “Oh my God, I understand that now. I've been feeling that for years but no one told me…I'm a boy. That's me. That was a huge hitting moment, that I could start changing myself.”
After over a decade at the same school, Stiles knew it was time to find a new place where he felt accepted and loved. So he came to Noble High School for his senior year.
“We want all students to feel like they belong here at Noble High School,” said Director of Counseling Nancy Simard. “That's a small thing we can do to help them feel like they're a part of the community.” Superintendent Steve Connolly added, “We have over 1,100 students at this school alone. And every student belongs.”
The administrators at Noble say that Stiles is not their first transgender student. When he started at the school, he was first asked what pronouns he prefers, what bathrooms he prefers, and what sports teams he’d like to play on. Simard and Connolly said getting Stiles was Noble’s gain.
To them, Stiles says, “Thank you for taking me in. Thank you for being so kind hearted and empathetic and understanding my situation even if it wasn't your situation. They took on my burdens as if they were their own, and they made me a comfortable person here. They made sure I was safe and happy and I really really appreciate that.”
He was passionate about theology in his time at TCCA. So how is his relationship with God after the last year? “Stronger,” he said. “It's like he wanted me to be here instead.”
Stiles is settling in just fine at Noble.
He's already been nominated for Homecoming King.
TCCA does not directly receive any federal or state funding through the New Hampshire Department of Education.
We asked Attorney Karen Hewes of EdLaw New England if the school's religious or private status makes it exempt from discrimination laws - and she said that essentially, it's a big gray area in the law.