When Jay Irwin was growing up in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, the classroom was where he felt most comfortable. He kept his nose buried in books and his head to the ground. He was the type of kid who blended in.
“I loved school — I think that’s why I never want to leave it,” Irwin said. “Teachers, at the end of the day, saved everything in my life.”
Irwin, 35, still has his nose buried in books. But now he’s the one working toward creating that ideal learning environment for students.
On Jan. 9, the University of Nebraska at Omaha associate professor of sociology and anthropology was sworn in as a Ralston school board member. He’s believed to be the first openly transgender elected official in the state. The Washington, D.C.-based Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund isn’t aware of any openly transgender elected officials in Nebraska’s history.
Irwin pointed out that there may have been transgender elected officials in the past that simply weren’t out. “We just don’t know,” he said.
But Irwin is excited to be an advocate for all underrepresented students, particularly those in the LGBT community. His research focuses on the health and well-being of LGBT individuals, specifically transgender people in Nebraska.
Irwin is a self-described “policy junkie,” who enjoys keeping up with debate in the Nebraska Legislature and whose goals extend past any one group of students. On the top of that list is learning the intricacies of the Ralston district’s funding, especially after the end of the Learning Community common levy.
“I want to bring up topics and ask questions that make sure we’re thinking about every single student in the district,” Irwin said.
Irwin and his partner, Amanda Gaither, don’t have children. It was his experiences as an educator, his affinity for education policy and his research that piqued his interest in serving on the school board.
Board President Tresha Rodgers said Irwin’s work as a professor will bring a valuable skill set and perspective to the board.
“We’re excited to work with him and continue to try to raise student achievement in the community,” she said.
Irwin has a doctorate in medical sociology and a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He moved to Omaha in 2009 and to Ralston in April 2014.
Irwin’s name didn’t appear on the Nov. 8 ballot because he was one of two write-in candidates for the seat. The seat had previously been filled by Jeff Zdan, who was appointed in 2015. Zdan sought a different open seat on the six-member board but lost.
On Election Day, Irwin got 36 write-in votes. The other write-in candidate got four. That was all it took. Irwin had the gig.
Community and district reaction has been positive, Irwin said.
“We truly welcome and respect diversity in Ralston Public Schools,” said Jeremy Maskel, a district spokesman. “We appreciate all supporters of our students, families and staff,” he added.
The school board’s vice president, Linda Richards, has been on the board for 21 years. Having members with an array of voices and experiences is a good thing, she said.
“There’s no doubt we are proud of our diversity on the board and in every one of our schools,” Richards said.
At UNO, Irwin is the faculty association president and an adviser for the LGBTQ/Sexuality Studies minor. His classes cover an assortment of topics — statistics, research methods and the sociology of sexualities. He also is involved with a number of groups active in the LGBT community, including the Midwest Sexual Health Research Collaborative and the Nebraska Collaborative for Transgender Research.
His research suggests that safe, comfortable environments play a major role in the success of transgender students in the state, Irwin said.
“Building those bridges of understanding and allowing students the space to be themselves and bring their full selves to school” is key, he said.
Informal and formal groups on campus play a big part in building those bridges, Irwin said.
Irwin wasn’t out as a kid growing up in his Birmingham suburb in the 1990s. There was only one girl who was out in his graduating high school class, and “she did not have a good experience,” he said.
“When I was a kid, if I would’ve had someone who was like me in terms of experiences in a leadership position, that would’ve been huge,” he said.
Irwin didn’t decide to transition to male until he was 22 years old. And even then, he didn’t tell anyone for three years.
As a member of the school board, he wants to ensure that students don’t feel the way he did — like they have to work extra hard to blend in at school.
Irwin said he’s open to examining and potentially changing how Ralston handles gender identity in its curriculum and its transgender policies. But first he wants to learn more about the district — how it operates, what teachers and students need and specifics of the district’s funding — before identifying goals.
In Ralston, both the high school and middle school have clubs that “welcome and celebrate diversity,” Maskel said, and the district partners with Inclusive Communities, an organization that works to promote acceptance of diversity, for activities.
Gender identity isn’t a specific unit of instruction in classes, but staff members are prepared to answer questions, he said. The district has no official policies relating to restroom use, gender pronouns or records for transgender students, he said.
“We strive to meet the needs of any student, whatever their circumstances or concerns may be,” he said. “We look at each student as an individual and make accommodations accordingly.”
In the metro area, the Bellevue school district is the only one with guidelines regarding accommodations for transgender students. However, the Omaha district has been discussing drafting its own policy.
Nathan Johnson, a 2016 graduate of Ralston High, got to know Irwin through volunteer work with Inclusive Communities. Johnson was a member of the diversity club when he was at Ralston. Johnson, who is now a freshman at UNO, said the district is lucky to have Irwin on its board. Irwin is a “pretty cool guy” who cares a lot about young people, he said.
“I would’ve loved to have had him on the school board when I was at Ralston,” Johnson said.