Oklahoma’s Ryan Walters stopped a trans teen from updating his school records

OKLAHOMA CITY — Sitting on his living room couch, a 16-year-old high school student described all the reasons he’s fighting to change his gender identity on official documents.

He doesn’t want his classmates to know he’s trans. He worries about the disrespectful comments he hears from people who don’t realize he transitioned years ago, the ugly rhetoric on social media that prompts him to put down his phone, and the alarming data and stories about harassment and violence. 

But mostly, J. Doe — as the teen is referred to in a lawsuit his family filed last month against the Oklahoma State Board of Education — just wants to be seen as a boy, not a transgender boy.

“Because there is a big difference,” he said in an interview at his Oklahoma City home. “There shouldn’t be, but there is.”

Last fall, a few weeks after the state’s education department learned that J. Doe had obtained a court order to update his gender to male on all of his official records, the Board of Education created an emergency rule requiring school districts to get state approval before changing gender markers on students’ private files. Then the board decided unanimously — without notifying his family to give them a chance to weigh in — that J. Doe’s student records should continue to list him as female.

The new rule effectively gives the Oklahoma Department of Education notice every time a student has transitioned to a point where they want their records updated to reflect their gender identity. And it gives the board the opportunity to reject that request, as it did to J. Doe and another student in October. 

“It’s hard enough to get supportive parents; once you achieve that, you are lucky enough,” said J. Doe, whose parents have backed his transition since he was a young child. “It shouldn’t be a challenge with the government, too.”

Ryan Walters, Oklahoma's school superintendent,
Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s superintendent, voted to restrict schools from changing gender identifications on private student records.Christopher Creese for NBC News

Oklahoma has become one of the least accepting states for transgender children under a Republican-led state government that includes Ryan Walters, the combative state superintendent who has attacked what he and far-right activists label “transgender ideology.” 

“We’re going to stand against this,” Walters said in October after the state board voted to prevent J. Doe’s records from being updated. “We’re not going to do the transgender game of back and forth, back and forth.”

The Oklahoma Department of Education offered a different explanation, saying it created the policy because officials learned school districts had received requests like J. Doe’s, and the state wanted to protect “the accuracy of historic records for future use.” The board is set to vote on whether to make the emergency rule permanent later this month.

J. Doe and his mother are now suing Walters and the rest of the board, arguing that the new rule is discriminatory and violated the family’s due process rights as well as a parents’ rights law. They are asking a state court to invalidate the rule and for $75,000 in damages.

Joshua Payton, an attorney for J. Doe’s family, said he believes the new rule is an abuse of the state government’s power, intended to “attack the most vulnerable students.”

“Parents absolutely know what’s best for kids and anyone who doesn’t understand has no business being involved in education whatsoever.”

Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters

The Oklahoma Department of Education declined to make Walters or anyone else available for an interview, and did not directly respond to written questions. The department previously called the lawsuit “frivolous” and sent a statement to NBC News in which Walters said he is fighting against “woke indoctrination” in the classrooms. “It is time to end gender wars and get back to the basics in education,” the statement concluded. 

The five other state Board of Education members did not respond to requests for comment. 

Nationally, Republican-controlled states have imposed dozens of laws rolling back the rights of transgender people in recent years, frequently tailoring the statutes to target minors. 

In Oklahoma, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing, asking courts to invalidate laws that limit what teachers can say about gender in schools, restrict which restrooms LGBTQ students can use and ban gender-affirming health care for adolescents. Student athletes in the state are supposed to submit affidavits signed by their parents that attest to their sex assigned at birth.

During his first year in office, Walters has added to those laws with policies forbidding the use of textbooks that include so-called gender ideology, and criticizing school districts that offer support services for LGBTQ students. He wants to make it easier to fire school staff members who engage in what he called “sexually provocative behaviors” outside of work, after he objected to a principal moonlighting as a drag queen. He has said his positions are meant to protect parental rights.

“Parents absolutely know what’s best for kids, and anyone who doesn’t understand has no business being involved in education whatsoever,” Walters recently said on Real America’s Voice, a far-right streaming network whose hosts are known for pushing conspiracy theories. Walters added that parents should be involved in all decision-making in schools.

But J. Doe’s parents said Walters’ policies have interfered with their rights, rather than protecting them. 

“You’re telling me what I can and can’t do with my child,” Jane Doe, as J. Doe’s mother is referred to in the lawsuit, said in an interview. “And you know what, you didn’t raise this child; I raised this child.”

Oklahoma’s top culture warrior

LGBTQ advocates in the state said the new laws and regulations have spurred some families they know to flee for Colorado and New Mexico, which have more accepting policies for transgender children.

“Honestly, there is a lot of fear,” said state Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, an Oklahoma City Democrat who has a transgender child. “It’s heavy — you can cut it with a knife.”

Rosecrants said when he worked as a teacher, making accommodations for transgender students took little effort beyond brief conversations with parents to ask if their child wanted to be called something different or needed extra time for restroom breaks. 

Oklahoma’s regulation requiring state permission for schools to change students’ gender on records is unusual, said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, but it follows a pattern of restrictions nationally. 

“I think there’s this misconception on behalf of some politicians that if you take away the support system, then young people will simply stop being transgender,” Warbelow said. “When we know the reality is they continue to be transgender. They simply will live a more isolated and sometimes miserable young adulthood or adolescence.” 

Surveys and research show that LGBTQ youth whose community affirms their identity and uses their chosen pronouns are less likely to be suicidal.

J. Doe was upset about being identified as a girl long before he realized he was transgender.

As a 5-year-old, he argued with other children that he was a boy. His mother remembers him coming to her in tears, asking why God didn’t make him a boy. He cried when he received the girls toy from McDonald’s Happy Meals. When he discovered what pronouns were at around age 9, he began insisting on being called “he” and “him.” 

His parents — a churchgoing mother who leans liberal and a father who voted for Donald Trump — supported him at every step. His mother had a feeling he’d one day identify as gay or transgender.

“I sat back and had to wait for him to figure it out, because that’s not my job to tell him or put that in his head,” Jane Doe said. “He needed to figure that out on his own, and that’s what he did.”

He went on puberty blockers in seventh grade, and started taking testosterone two years later. Recently, facial hair came in, causing him to become preoccupied with how often he should shave, and whether it’s true that shaving causes the hair to grow back quicker and fuller.

Trans-rights activists protest at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City
Trans-rights activists protest at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, in Feb. 2023, as lawmakers advanced a ban on gender-affirming health care for minors. Sue Ogrocki / AP

J. Doe’s parents found Payton, their lawyer, when they searched online a year ago for help updating J. Doe’s gender on official records, trying to head off problems at school. He had already legally changed his name in middle school to ensure that a substitute teacher never misgendered him by accident.

Payton started the Oklahoma Equality Law Center in late 2020 to provide legal services to LGBTQ people.

A governor’s order in Oklahoma bars changing the gender on birth certificates, but Payton has worked around this by asking judges to approve orders to update gender markers on other records. He has seen how significant it is for people to have their official identification affirm who they are, as well as help them pass at school or work, access proper health care and feel safer.

“It’s transformative — I’ve seen it turn lives over instantaneously,” he said.

In the past three years, Payton has gotten these orders approved for 172 people, including 25 minors, in the state, he said. 

Last February, a judge approved Payton’s petition to update J. Doe’s gender to male on official records maintained by “all political subdivisions,” such as his school district, Moore Public Schools, just south of Oklahoma City. J. Doe’s driver’s permit now lists him as male, and his parents assumed everything would be taken care of at school once they gave administrators a copy of the court order.

But on the first day of school in August, J. Doe saw an “F” next to gender on his class schedule. He worried people would see it. His parents called the school administrators, who said they wanted to ask the Oklahoma Department of Education for advice, according to the family and the suit.

Moore Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment. 

The following month, the state Board of Education passed its emergency rule, and then the month after that, the board voted to deny the request to change J. Doe’s records. Payton and J. Doe’s family said they learned of the Oct. 26 vote as it was happening.

“It really shows where the state board’s priorities are, especially when Oklahoma is one of the worst states for education,” said J. Doe, referring to multiple analyses that rank the state at or near the bottom for education quality. “And they’re focusing on transgender kids. I just really don’t get it.”

“He’s never wanted to be ‘the transgender kid.’ He just wants to be him.”

Jane Doe, the mother of J. Doe, who is suing the Oklahoma State Board of Education

J. Doe became depressed after the state board’s vote, he said. He feared that people who have only known him as a boy would find out he’s transgender and ostracize him, or worse. He stayed home from school for nearly two weeks.

“If the world was safer towards trans people, it would probably be a different story of who I was comfortable with knowing that I was trans,” J. Doe said, “but really I just don’t know what could happen with people knowing that.”

He did not want his identity revealed, in this article or in the lawsuit, because he does not want to become a poster child for the transgender community. He said he wants to play video games and figure out what he wants to do after high school.

“He’s never wanted to be ‘the transgender kid,’” Jane Doe said. “He just wants to be him.”

The family decided to file the suit, with help from Payton and the nonprofit advocacy group Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, because they realized that J. Doe was not going to be the last one in this situation.

“Someone needs to stand up for kids coming up behind him,” his mother said. “It’s gotten to a point where you can’t be quiet anymore. You’ve got to do something.”